Monday, March 15, 2010

Near Dark

The recent, richly deserved success of Kathryn Bigelow’s magnum opus, The Hurt Locker, has reinvigorated my interest in the director, or perhaps I should say “engendered” instead as I never paid any attention to the names attached to films back when I first saw some of her movies. Given my anal approach to (re-)investigating artists, I naturally returned to the beginning, to Bigelow’s vampire-centric major debut, Near Dark. Abetting this decision was the recent re-evaluation of the film in relation to that cultural behemoth, Twilight (the recent DVD release even displays its undead protagonist in a sparkling profile to recall Edward, albeit with a glint in the eyes that undermines any serious comparison). Does, however, Near Dark hold up on its own merits, or has its renewed reputation the result of its status as an “anti-Twilight” among those who feel the need for such a balancing force?

As it turns out, a little from Column A, a little from Column B. Near Dark reveals much of Bigelow’s incredible talent, her ability to mix fast-paced action -- and there are a number of handheld shots, some of them set in character’s point of view, an early precursor to the style she employed in her latest feature -- with a clear aesthetic and an definite sense of spatial relations. On top of that is the glorious weirdness of the narrative, a gonzo mash-up of vampire fiction, Westerns, hillbilly stereotypes and the road movie. It’s not the sort of material a director would choose for a breakthrough feature, particularly one meant to rake in dough and not play at festivals, and in some ways it marks Bigelow’s sense of adventurousness and resolve as much as her decision to film a war movie in extreme heat in a potentially hostile location.

Near Dark opens with the strains of Tangerine Dream -- oh, TD, you secretly ran the world during the Reagan years, didn’t you? -- as Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a good ol’ country boy drives through a one-horse town in a dilapidated pickup. He swaps pleasant insults with buddies before spotting a pretty young woman strolling down the street. Caleb saunters up to Mae (Jenny Wright), an odd duck who picks up on certain words Caleb uses innocently, such as “bite” and “dying.” To drive the point home, she discusses the stars with Caleb and mentions how she will still be alive to see the light a star just emitted when it finally reaches Earth in a billion years. Mae calls their budding date short as the dawn breaks, but not before leaving Caleb with a parting gift, or two.

Caleb shakes off his bleeding love nip and walks home, and we cannot tell as he loses strength and limps forward whether the smoke around him is dust kicked up by his shuffle or his body sizzling. Only when Bigleow zooms in on the lad’s blackening face does the extent of his curse become clear. Within sight of his homestead and his father and sister, Caleb finds himself yanked into a mysterious van with covered windows.

The resultant tear across the dusty West makes for such an oddball story that Near Dark’s narrative largely stands the test of time, as parody has not diluted it; who could take the piss out of a film that introduces us to such a weird group of vampires in that van, among them Mae and camps played by Lance Henriksen, who adds gravitas to the strangest B-movie premises, and Bill Paxton, still firmly and wonderfully entrenched in his ‘80s era overacting?

These vampires can only be described in an adjective that seems so naturally fitting but has not applied to popular vampires in some time: bloodthirsty. They don’t kill out of some grand evil design, nor do they soften their images with quieter moments of reflection -- a vampire trapped in the body of a prepubescent boy (Joshua John Miller) mentions his situation, only to be instantly shot down for always going on about it. These vamps are just hungry, and they go out every night to find a meal.

This approach to characterization restricts the narrative to a fairly simple tale, but Bigelow makes the most of the spare story through brilliant shot and choreographed sequences. Her daytime shots have a dusty haze over them, as if the earth beneath our feet was created from the ash of crisped vampires past. At night, the air is cooler and cleaner, yet also more unsettling and ethereal. Nighttime is feeding time for these unholy creations, yet also the only moment in which they can go outside – I find Tangerine Dream’s ‘80s soundtracks to be hit or miss, but the one they supply here, for his hillbilly-vampire road Western, works precisely because of this aesthetic choice).

Bigelow’s action scenes are no less striking. The killing spree/feeding frenzy at the bar perfectly paces tension, from Bill Paxton’s first teasing of the patrons and bartender to the gentle but unmistakable escalation of hostile moods before the “family” starts picking off victims with cold precision. The awaited explosion of action never comes, even when the bartender shoots Caleb, thus preserving that mood of anxiety through the end of the sequence. Even better is the shootout between the vampires and a police squad who tracks them down, a scene that turns the old shootout visual style on its head. We’re used to seeing bullets pierce through walls, leaving behind holes that let in smoky light, but this film presents the holes -- and the light they allow -- as the true danger, not the bullets themselves.

Where the film falls flat is its final act, which contains a cure for vampirism that is a reach even as a solution to a fictional disease, as well as a final confrontation that doesn’t particularly have a reason to exist, other than to provide explosive closure to events. The rookie actors do not always deliver their lines with the utmost believability: Pasdar in particular fails to sell the few emotional moments of the film. The computer-animated flames** that burst from the vampires’ bodies, though far from terrible for the time, look dated today (the physical makeup effects remain exemplary).

Nevertheless, Near Dark is a hell of a fun film, bolstered by appropriately weighty work from Henriksen as the devilish leader of the clan, a performance that buoys the younger, inexperienced actors. Bigelow’s take on the vampire legend is down, dirty and vicious, and it contains a brutal brusqueness under its occasionally hypnotic visuals so lacking in modern vampiric lore. I also amused myself greatly by looking for connections to Joss Whedon’s seminal series Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the covered-up RV recalls a similar mode of transport used in the fifth season, while I suspect that Nathan Fillion’s Southern preacher-from-hell Caleb takes him name at least in part from the protagonist of this film.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for Bigelow to constantly deal with the issue of her gender, from both the gently condescending supporters who find it so amazing that a woman could make the sort of films she directs and the deniers who would fault her for daring not to craft films solely about women, as if featuring male protagonists somehow constitutes a sexual sellout. She does not make action films that are good “for a chick”; she makes action films that far exceed the capabilities of nearly all action filmmakers. Near Dark, with its surprisingly assured genre crossover, richly developed aesthetic and mostly excellent pacing, proves that this was true even when she started directing back in the genre’s heyday.

**Commenter javi was right to point out the unlikeliness that the flames would be computer animated and suggests that they were composite shots instead. Thanks for bringing this to my attention


  1. Very astute piece here Jake, I share a lot of your feelings on this movie as well. While it's nowhere near one of my favorite vampire flicks, there is a lot here to like, most of which you brought up. Namely, Bigelow's confident direction and keen visual touch, as well as the unusually brutal characterization and slaughterhouse mentality of these specific vamps, with Paxton's gruesomely off-the-wall performance especially standing out in my memory as a fun highlight.

    I also really laughed at this statement:

    "Near Dark opens with the strains of Tangerine Dream -- oh, TD, you secretly ran the world during the Reagan years, didn’t you? -- ..."

    I revisited Michael Mann's The Keep just this past weekend, which contains a particularly clutch soundtrack from the Dream, and found myself saying over and over in my head "Tangerine Dream...fuckin' a" all throughout the movie.

  2. Like everyone else on Earth, I've been inspired to revisit Kathryn Bigelow's earlier work based on "The Hurt Locker." This one keeps coming up in various blogs as a must-see in her canon, so I'm going to have to have myself a looksee.

  3. Agree with your review, but had to comment this:

    "The computer-animated flames..."

    I don't have the technical knowledge to explain how they did it but I can assure you the flames were NOT CGI.... This is 1987, CGI is barely on the map, and certainly not able to render fire simulations. It must be some kind of optical composite, and in my opinion it looks pretty great actually.

  4. It could very well be composites, javi, but CGI was in use in the mid-to-late 80s. I think you're right though, actually, because even though they don't look so great in places, the flames look far too good for late-80s computer animation.