Near Dark is a monster movie that doesn’t really want to be a monster movie. We covered it on the podcast as our Bill Paxton tribute episode after his death last year.
You won’t see any pointy teeth and you’ll never hear the word “vampire” uttered. Yet cowboy Caleb, played by Adrian Pasdar, has unmistakably fallen victim to a ragtag gang of Creatures of the Night of a kind you’ll find familiar and must contend with the possibility of a life forever altered.
It could perhaps be described as a simple coming of age, love/redemption tale of a young man who pushes just a little too hard and ends up getting more than he bargained for. It might be considered a there-and-back-again adventure of wild fantasy and sexual awakening. It could also be seen as a sort of reverse-Deliverance story of a simple country farm boy in over his head as he falls headlong into the gutters of urban life.
But maybe this is giving Near Dark too much credit. The tale is simple and straightforward, teetering between action and long contemplative sequences – an early James Cameron Terminator kind of vampire tale, with surprisingly thin characterization and people who alternately have too little and too much patience with each other.
The understated love story seemed a bit rushed and difficult to swallow, leaning a bit too heavily on the love-at-first-sight trope. I never quite saw the reason for chemistry between Caleb and Mae beyond her guilt for bringing him into the fold and his helplessness swimming in a sea of testosterone (of which he himself seemed a bit lacking).
Without a doubt, Near Dark is a product of its time – from the cinematography to the smoke and fog, the special effects to the ever-present soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. With Bill Paxton, Lance Henrickson, and Jenette Goldstein in major roles, you have the best half of the cast of Aliens right here – a fact which is hinted at by the theater marquee in the background of one of the street scenes. And at least two major scenes in this film will remind you why you miss Bill Paxton so much.
Still, it must have been an edgy film in its day. The gang is brutal, relentless, dirty and gleeful in its killing. They’ve been at it so long and it’s so necessary to their survival that they might as well have fun doing it. Very Mad Max, with none of the gothic/romantic trappings of your “typical” vampire movie, it certainly paved the way for Blade some 11 years later.
Yet I enjoyed Near Dark – not for a horror film so much as an action thriller – and can see why it remains a cult classic. There are moments of real shock, if not real tension. You genuinely care about the fate of this boy, if only to see him reunited with his devastated father and younger sister. And it’s great to revisit the time of hardcore, macho vampires without a hint of pretty-boy angst.
NOW THAT YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM…
********** SPOILERS **********
Speaking of being a product of its time, I thought the ending was just a little too pat. I didn’t really want to believe Mae or Caleb could so easily come back around to the human side. Really, a transfusion was all that it took? It just didn’t make much sense, and I’m not sure why he wouldn’t have offered that up to Mae and the rest of the gang himself at the first hint of trouble.
The most chilling part of the film for me? Homer taking so kindly to Caleb’s little sister. Shiver…