Friday Film Review: Near Dark (1987)
Genre: Vampire (US)
Dear Kathryn Bigelow,
Not long ago, friends and I had a discussion about romantic vampire films including two current DVD releases, Twilight and Let the Right One In. I passed around my list of the most enjoyable romantic vampire films: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Let the Right One In (2008), Vampyr (1932), Love at First Bite (1979) and your film, Near Dark.
The mention of this film-and whether it could be classified as a romantic vampire film-sparked a debate among us, and it’s still raging. I’m throwing this one out here to see which side the romance readers would take.
As the story goes: our nice-guy hero Caleb Colton, a mid-western farm boy on a night out, spots and romances an attractive, coy and maddeningly mysterious blonde. He says, “I sure haven’t met any girls like you.” Mae replies, “No, you sure haven’t.”
After a drive under the starlit night sky, Caleb moves in for a sensual kiss from Mae, and receives a rather vampy bite instead. The dawn is approaching, Mae runs off leaving Caleb disoriented and confused. That’s when strange things begin.
He quickly learns Mae is meant to kill him with that vampy bite, but couldn’t go through with it. Thanks to her, instead of being truly dead, he’s part of the undead.
Mae’s gang isn’t happy, either. Jesse Hooker, a former Confederate-era war soldier and the quiet leader of his family that consists his beloved woman Diamondback, who was once a Wild West whore, and their “children”: Severen, a former Southern gentleman with a psychotic streak and Homer, a child with an even more psychotic streak. And there’s Mae, a seemingly sweet and innocuous blonde waif.
They are a family of vampires that spend decades roaming across the country in stolen vehicles, living off victims at night and sleeping in sealed motel rooms by day. Being a family is essential to their survival and they aren’t prepared to let a stranger like Caleb in. Before the gang could move in to kill Caleb, Mae protects him by saying she’ll be responsible for him. Sensing her loneliness, Jesse decides to let her have Caleb as her companion.
Meanwhile, Caleb’s widowed father, convinced that Caleb has been abducted, sets out to find him, with his young daughter Sarah in tow.
Caleb eventually loses his battle against the intensifying blood hunger and his emotional tie to his old way of life, which helps him to adapt to his new life and new family. But then one night, his real family accidentally meets his new family. Which side will he take? And what about Mae whom he’s truly fallen in love with?
When I named Near Dark as one of most enjoyable romantic vampire films, a friend said, “Near Dark? Near Dark? It’s a hybrid of horror, action, and western. It’s not romantic. None whatsoever.”
I’m sure you agree with me here, Ms. Bigelow; the main theme of Near Dark is love. Not just between our hero Caleb and his girl Mae, but also between father and son, between two villains, between a centuries-old boy vampire and a young human girl, and between the sun-baked lands of the American West and the dark romance of the European vampire lore.
Near Dark didn’t get much attention when it was theatrically released because it was the year the much hyped teen vampire film, The Lost Boys, released. The difference between Near Dark and The Lost Boys is their representations of vampirism.
Vampirism in The Lost Boys is viewed as something glamorous and a dangerous thrill ride. David the vampire gang leader (Kiefer Sutherland) from The Lost Boys is the kind our parents would warn us to stay away from, but we still won’t resist going after him and his pretty-boy vampy friends. When Michael became one of them, we could imagine him becoming like David, but only the good kind.
Near Dark, on the other hand, represents vampirism as a dirty disease that can turn you into a serial killer. None of us could spend five minutes with Severen (Bill Paxton) without wondering if we’d live or die. When Caleb became one of them, we could imagine him becoming like Severen, but could he still retain his good-guy traits? Unlikely.
And yet, in spite of the dark nature of vampirism and grittiness in Near Dark, the romance between Caleb and Mae was much more romantic and poignant than the one between Michael and Star in The Lost Boys. As I explained to friends, we sensed Caleb and Mae’s growing desperation, protectiveness and deepening feelings for each other. We didn’t get that sense from Michael and Star in The Lost Boys.
Not only that, we had some glimpses of the feelings between Jesse and Diamondback. At a glance they seemed to be a cold, ruthless couple without regard for life, but as the film progressed, we were able to see their deep feelings for their "family" and towards each other.
And there is Caleb’s father whose love and fierce protectiveness of his family that almost outweighed those of Jesse, the father of Caleb’s dark side. We don’t see this with The Lost Boys, even with that final scene of David and his "father".
There were other subtle relationship developments elsewhere, too. Homer, a psychotic boy vampire, had unexpectedly and clumsily experienced love for the first time when he met Caleb’s younger sister, Sarah. Although he obviously had plans to take her life, it eventually became clear he’d changed his mind and wanted her to be his companion. When she broke away, his reaction was rather heartbreaking. Friends thought I imagined it, which I can understand as you didn’t focus much on clarifying this unexpected turn. I felt you did try by showing the depth of Homer’s attachment to Sarah when she broke away, but it still wasn’t enough because every time I mentioned the Homer and Sarah sub-plot, I was laughed out of the room. One even said I read too many romantic novels. Feh.
Near Dark does have a rather gory long scene that takes place in an isolated bar and a couple of eye-opening scenes of how they survive, which understandably categorises the film as Horror. It’s not for anyone who can’t stand the sight of blood and violence. However, although it’s categorised as Horror Film, it’s not fast-paced nor scary. The pace and the build-up are almost leisurely. Almost character-driven, even. Actually, it’s quite hard to categorise the film, genre-wise. It’s part-Western, part-Romance, part-Action, part-Horror and part-tribute.
Near Dark might be genre defying, but I see it as a gritty romantic film that happens to have a contemporary western setting with vampirism chucked in. I’m sure a lot of romance readers would disagree with me on this. I’m willing to hear them out. Until then, Near Dark beats The Lost Boys.
I must say, how the issue of Caleb’s vampirism was resolved is a shocking cop-out. That’s one thing I didn’t like about Near Dark. Frankly, it sucks. So sucky that it could easily make a decent living as a vacuum cleaner. Hence grade B for Near Dark.
Be good, be bad & be safe,
Near Dark trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5K-wosw0i4