Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (1987)

2. Near Dark

Before “Near Dark,” Kathryn Bigelow was mostly an unknown, a director with one feature under her belt that received very little attention upon release. After “Near Dark,” Kathryn Bigelow had established herself as a filmmaker with a distinctive style and vision. It is the second scrappy, eighties genre classic to come from the pen of screenwriter Eric Red, after "The Hitcher." “Near Dark” would meet with poor box office but garnered critical acclaim, becoming a fan favorite almost immediately. Thirty years later, “Near Dark” remains a seminal cult classic, an influential take on the vampire genre. It is one of Bigelow's most beloved movies.

Caleb Colton lives an average life in a small Southern town, with his little sister and veterinarian father. Until he meets Mae. A pretty girl his own age, the two spend a night together about town, concluding with Mae kissing him. A kiss that turns into a bite. From that point on, Caleb is a vampire. He quickly meets up with Mae's vampiric family, a group of amoral psychopaths who travel from town to town, finding humans to feed on. While Mae and the others encourage Caleb to drink blood, he resists. He has to choose between two worlds: A world of darkness and blood, with the girl he loves. Or the world of daylight, alongside his quickly endangered family.

“Near Dark” was born out of Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red's mutual desire to make a western. No studio would fund a film in that moribund genre. So Bigelow and Red decided to tell a western story linked to a then trendy genre: The vampire movie. The result is more than its parts. The western elements is apparent in the deep south setting and story of outlaws running from the law. Yet the southern fried atmosphere adds a new grit, an appealing sweatiness, to the story of night-dwelling blood suckers. At the same time, Bigelow nods towards the genre's roots in gothic romance while adding a layer of 1980s New Wave attitude. Each ingredients compliments the other, creating a horror picture not quite like any other.

Bigelow also makes huge strides forward as a visual filmmaker with “Near Dark.” This is a gorgeous film. The night scenes in “Near Dark” are painted in streaks of smoky black and pulsating purple. Fog blows in huge torrents over hill crests. The family of vampires are silhouetted by highlights. Caleb and Mae stand small behind a pair of huge grasshopper pumps. That the contrast between light and dark plays such a big role in “Near Dark” is fitting. The day scene are all dirt and grit, burning flesh and bullet wounds. This visual contrast aligns with the contrast in the story, the differences between the two worlds Caleb is pulled between.

At the center of “Near Dark” is a love story. It's almost a classical romance, recalling “Romeo and Juliet” and a hundred stories of teenage passion carrying people away. Boy meets girl, in a very literal way. Within a few hours, Caleb and Mae are in love. After only knowing each other a few days, they are wiling to risk their lives, to abandon their families, for each other. You accept how quickly their feelings advance because they're teenagers. “Near Dark” perfectly captures the hot rushing blood of passionate, youthful love. Who knows if Caleb and Mae are destined to be together forever but the viewer is certainly rooting for them.

Another reason the romance works so well is because of the performances. Adrian Pasdar plays Caleb as a sweet natured boy, a hero devoted to his friends and loved ones. Honestly, Caleb would probably be kind of a boring character in any other setting. His refusal to drink blood, even when surrounded by vampires, could've come off as annoyingly stubborn. Luckily, Pasdar has enough homey charm to prevent the part from being annoying. Jenny Wright, as Mae, is equally perfectly cast. Wright is utterly enchanting. From the moment she appears on-screen, Wright draws the viewer's attention. She strikes a vulnerable pose yet knows more than her male co-star. By the end, those roles have reversed slightly, showing that Mae can still change, still learn.

If Caleb's love for Mae isn't the central focus of “Near Dark,” then it's the push and pull he feels between his two “families.” After becoming a vampire, he attempts to return to his dad and little sister. The bloodsuckers he's fallen in with assure him that this isn't possible, that there's no turning back to the world of light he was born in. Even though the vampires are murderous monsters, Caleb eventually feels some sort of kinship with them. He rescues the gang from a daytime shoot-out in a hotel room. Bigelow smartly makes this conflict the crux of the climax. Homer, who was turned into a vampire as a child and is stuck in a young body, desires Caleb's little sister. The hero literally has to choose between these worlds. He has to weigh the value of his two families.

It's actually a harder choice than it sounds, at least for the audience, because those vampires are played by awesome performers. In a move that would introduce her to future husband James Cameron, Bigelow unknowingly utilized important members of “Aliens'” ensemble. But Lance Henriksen and Jeanette Goldstein are playing very different characters. Henriksen's Jesse – like Jesse James – carries a nasty scar up one side of his face. In one of the most quotable scenes, when asked about his age, Jesse claims he “fought for the South,” before adding, “We lost.” Henriksen gets other cool shit to do, like coughing up a bullet. Mostly, his performance is characterized by a steely, malevolent intention. He'd come off as wise and almost mischievous, if he wasn't so evil. Goldstein's Diamondback is a quieter character. Her name is appropriate, as she slithers like a snake, seeking praying with glinting eyes.

Henriksen and Goldstein are both great but another performer walks away with the movie. Bill Paxton plays Severin, who seems to fill the role of big brother in Mae's messed-up family. Paxton is absolutely electrifying in the part. Severin hustles like a good ol' boy, dressing like a cowboy to pick up potential victims in one scene. While Jesse and Diamondback have no problem preying on humans, Severin seems to actively enjoy it. He laughs constantly, telling jokes. He toys with his victims, making them as uncomfortable as possible before striking. Through it all, Paxton maintains a rascally charm that is irresistible. He makes being a bloodsucking psychopath look like so much fun. Rewatching the film makes Paxton's recent passing hurt even more.

“The Loveless” was a film where the implicit threat of violence simmered under the entire story. Bigelow utilizes a similar balance of tension in “Near Dark.” We see very little vampire related violence up until a particular sequence. When Jesse's gang roll into a country bar, the preamble to the violence stretches on as long as possible. Severin messes with the rednecks inside, trying to pick a fight. But the audience knows the vampires will win. When the blood flows, it's anything but cathartic. Bigelow focuses on the gore – such as Severin slicing the bartender's throat open with his spurs – in such a way that the audience's seasick feelings are drawn out. “Near Dark” approaches all of its violence in a similar way. The motel shoot-out, a jackknifing eighteen wheeler, the inevitable effects of sunlight on the undead: It's set to maximum impact, to hit the viewer in the gut and linger there.

“Near Dark” is not a flawless film. Caleb's father and sister mostly exist as props moved around by the plot. An early scene involving a truck driver exists to blatantly set up a sequence later in the film. I can accept this stuff. The only plot point in the film that bugs me is the ease with which vampirism is cured. After leaving Jesse's brood to return to his human family, Caleb's dad performs a simple blood transfusion on him. This is enough to restore his humanity. There's seemingly no time limit on this. Mae, who has been a vampire for several months before meeting Caleb, is also cured in this manner. It's just a little too easy for me and sticks in my teeth a little bit.

I've mentioned earlier how, despite having its roots in much older genres, “Near Dark” is unmistakably a product of the eighties. This is thanks to the score. Tangerine Dream provided the music for other eighties classics like “Risky Business,” “Thief,” and “Legend.” This soundtrack is immediately identifiable as the band's work. The synth rumbles and pulses, helping build the tension inside the film. The release valve to that build-up comes in the form of roaring guitars and screaming instrumentation. It could've made the film sound dated. Yet the music matches the steaming emotions of the main characters and the humid Southern setting.

In many ways, “Near Dark” was ahead of its time. Its mixture of a southwest setting and bloodsuckers would influence many future tales, including Charlaine Harris' vampire series. Its romantic take on the vampire story would pave the way, somewhat regrettably, for the likes of “Twilight.” That last connection is especially relevant. "Near Dark'"s first Blu-Ray release would emulate Stephanie Meyer's baffingly popular book and film series. Around the same time, a remake of “Near Dark” would roll into production but never go before cameras, despite what Wikipedia hoaxes said. Despite the debatable quality of its various off-springs, “Near Dark” remains an awesome film experience, one of those nearly perfect eighties horror films that fans just love. [Grade: A]

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