Reviewed by: Eric R Lowther
Posted by: Root Rot
Near Dark (1987)
Written by: Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Hey kids, it’s Eric R Lowther aka biguglyhairyscary popping up on your screen again with a real classic this time, 1987’s “Near Dark”, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Eric Red and Bigelow. 1987 also gave us another little vampire movie you may have heard of; “The Lost Boys”. Between them, these two films established many of the “violent-yet-cool-vampire” genre archetypes, stereotypes, and plot elements that continue to influence today’s genre efforts. But where “The Lost Boys” showed us how just oh-so-fucking-cool it would be to be a vampire, “Near Dark” gave us a much more gritty, harsh and violent depiction of a vampire cell. Basically, the kiddies and the 80’s hip had their vampire movie in “The Lost Boys”, the traditionalists had 1985’s “Fright Night” to fall back on, and the rest of us violence-loving, gore-hounding social misfits had “Near Dark”.
Caleb (played by television veteran Adrian Pasdar) is a young and rowdy cowboy-type out for a night on the… er, well, “town” may be too far-reaching a description for an Oklahoma night, so let’s just say he runs into hot little blonde number Mae (Jenny Wright of “Lawnmower Man” and “St Elmo’s Fire” fame). Caleb senses there’s something different about this girl, though that doesn’t stop him from taking her out for a drive in the country where she waxes poetic about the night and scares the shit out of his horse. Now, guys, we’ve all had at least one night in our misspent youth where we had the one hook-up or attempted hook-up that we knew was going to go horribly, horribly wrong right from the get-go, and even though we figured out very early that we were dealing with a psycho-slut from hell we just kept going. Well, this is Caleb’s turn for that little life lesson. Their date drags on until almost dawn causing Mae to freak out and run off, but not before she bites him during a passionate embrace. Of course, Mae’s a vampire. Caleb doesn’t seem to suspect this, even though her musings about eternal life was only missing a line about wolves and the night music they make. He still doesn’t get it when she bites his neck, and he still doesn’t get it when his truck won’t start and he’s forced to walk home across a bunch of farmland while the rising sun fries him. He almost makes it home and is even spotted by his veterinarian-father (the instantly-recognizable Tim Thomerson) and his young sister, Sarah, as he stumbles across a field towards them with smoke rolling off his burning body. But just before he can reach the family farm a Winnebago roars in out of nowhere (I bet you didn’t think a Winnebago could roar in from anywhere, huh?), scoops him up and drives off into the sunrise.
Mae is there, of course, but we also get to meet the rest of our bloodsucking clan. There’s Homer, a decades-old vampire forever trapped in the body of a pre-adolescent, the group’s de facto leader, Jesse (Lance Henrikson in my most favorite Lance Henrikson role ever), his mate Diamondback (best known as tough-chick Pvt. Vasquez from “Aliens” but this time sporting an 80’s chick funky two-tone teased ‘do) and Severen (played by Bill Paxton). Now, normally I would give the honor of being the last listed to Henrikson just out of respect alone, but Paxton’s Severen completely steals every scene he’s in. All our vampires save perhaps for Mae are homicidal sociopaths that revel in their kills and blood, but where Henrikson’s Jesse is a much more layed-back and cobra-like killer, Paxton plays Severen as a wild-eyed, hell-raising, barely-controlled thrill-killer. After Mae reveals to the rest that she turned Caleb, they reluctantly take him into their clan. We do get one half-assed escape attempt out of Caleb, but he’s brought back into the fold so the clan can teach him the ways of the undead.
Hey kids! Fun fact; the smoke effect showing how Caleb’s body was getting fried in the sun was done with several lit cigars and rubber tubing hidden under his jacket. Damn but I miss the old-world craftsmanship and ingenuity of real physical effects artists…
Over the next few nights, Caleb tries to embrace his new world though he still can’t bring himself to kill for his supper, which forces Mae to limp him along from her own veins. We also get a montage or two of how the rest of the vampires procure their own meals, and these are well-done and speak more about the characters than any of their dialogue can. Meanwhile, his father and little sister embark on a multi-state search for Caleb and have no clue their son/brother has become a vampire. This leads us up to the two scenes that made this movie famous. The first of these is the attack on redneck dive bar that is completely, totally and 1000% owned by Paxton’s Severin. I’ve seen Paxton in a lot of movies over the years, and this is by far my favorite of all his performances. You really have to see for yourself just how he lets this character just take over. Henriksson also has a few shining moments in the bar, but he keeps it low-key. Severin is just a psychotic, balls-to-the-wall killer, but Jesse is just plain and simple evil. At the bar, Caleb is given his first real taste of the physical power he now holds as a vampire but also screws up and lets one of the patrons escape because he still can’t bring himself to kill.
Now with a witness to their murders, the clan flees into the night to hole up in a dingy hotel room to rest through the day and decide what they’re going to do with Caleb. This brings us to our second iconic scene; the shootout in daylight at the hotel after the police track them down. The interplay between Jesse and Severin alone is worth the watch and Caleb gets a chance to prove himself to the clan by being the catalyst for their escape while bullets punch deadly, sun-streaming holes in the walls. The scene could have become just another gunfire-siege segment popular in action movies, but the dialogue keeps us entertained and the piece is shot and edited nice and tight to keep the action going while not letting it drag on too long. But, just when it seems Caleb has made up for his sin in letting the witness escape and has full accepted his place in the clan, his human past catches up with him…
Hey kids! Fun fact; though we have 5 ½ vampires running around in this movie, the word “vampire” is actually never used in the dialogue. Go ahead and check for yourself, the rest of us are moving on.
So now we’ll move on to the nuts and bolts of the thing. This was only the second feature-length project for director Bigelow (the first being motorcycle movie “The Loveless” starring a very young Willem Dafoe) and the first with a “real” studio, the DeLaurentis Group (which went bankrupt right about the time “Near Dark” came out, robbing it of a lot of studio backing and virtually guaranteeing the film a poor box office run). I mention these things because even though this was her sophomore outing as a director she and her DP still understood how to shoot in the dark better than many of her more-experienced contemporaries. I’m sure having a cast with the likes of Henrikson, Thomerson, Paxton and Goldstein could only have helped make her job easier as well. I mean, look at that cast. With a cast like that in the 80’s, you would almost have to be an idiot, or, have producers that were idiots, or a production company that was going bankrupt to… fuck… that… up… oh, ok. Anyway, the acting is anywhere from above-average all the way up to Paxton/Hendrikson here, with even the young actress playing little sister Sarah putting in a good performance. The effects are well-done and not over-used, with just enough blood and skin burning/melting to get the point across without going overboard. In all, this is perhaps one of the better looking, sounding, and acted movies of its genre and era you’ll find.
So, on to the real question; is it any good? My only real problem with it is, frankly, the end and a few components of this vampire mythos relating to it. I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who, and I can’t understand why you would exist, hasn’t seen this one yet, so I’ll just say to watch it for yourself and see if you get the same anti-climactic and forced-ending fell that I did. Now, aside from that caveat just about any horror fan out there will find something to like about this movie. Even non-horror people that follow one of the many longstanding cast members would probably be able to get through it based on the strength of their favored actor’s performance alone. If you’re a vampire fan and you haven’t seen this one yet I would tell you that you really can’t be much of a vampire genre fan if you haven’t seen this, one of the progenitors of the modern, violent vampire tale by now. Fans of 80’s horror will eat this one up, but oddly enough save for Goldstein’s hair and a few pop culture references (such as the movie theatre marquee in town showing the movie “Aliens” which starred several of the cast members from this movie) the movie doesn’t have the “dated” quality like so many other 80’s horror films and holds up well. I think this is more due to the strength of the performances and the script than anything else. If you haven’t seen this one yet, you really need to get off your lazy ass and get to it. You can find it on Amazon and your regular online outlets for anywhere from $6 – $25 (including the Blu-ray release and a special edition with a better quality transfer and new special features), where you can also stream it for a few bucks. The movie is available to rent through Netflix but is not available for streaming there.
Well, I’m done for now. Make sure you’re checking out all the super-neato items stuffed all through this blog as well as on The Witch’s Hat family of podcasts. You can also stop by our forum over at Killer Reviews where you can chat about the shows and blog, sign a virtual get-well card for Root Rot (he left the duct tape over his nipples too long after a run and had to have it surgically removed), and let me know what movies you’d like to hear me slap around and make my bitch. So with a tip of my imaginary hat to Keely, Kyle, Misfit Boy and everybody’s favorite Carebear, Root Rot, this has been biguglyhairyscary saying see ya, kids…
(PS – Hey Kids! Fun fact; I used 47 hyphens in this review. That may be a record.)
Related Witch’s Hat links
Question or comments
The Witch’s Hat Voice Mail 313 444 2611