Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western has aged a lot better than many of its mid-80s horror contemporaries. Maybe it’s because Southern American fashions haven’t changed in decades – the demin/leather/mullet look the characters sport here is still de rigeur in modern Texas. But more likely it’s Bigelow and scriptwriter Eric Red’s decision to tackle their material with a straight face, rather than the jokey approach taken by the likes of The Lost Boys (that said, The Lost Boys whooped Near Dark at the box office).
Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is the son of farmer in rural Texas, who spends his nights drinking and fighting in local bars. When a pretty, enigmatic girl called Mae (Jenny Wright) catches his eye, Caleb tries his best to get jiggy with her, but all he gets for his trouble is a pair of fangs in his neck. Before long, Caleb is changing painfully into a vampire and is taken in by Mae’s extended undead family, led by Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his wife Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein).
Near Dark’s great strength is its cast – Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton were fresh off Aliens, and have a believable chemistry between them – this is after all a family that have lived and slain together for centuries. While Bill Paxton’s unhinged Severen delights in his supernatural abilities and the ease with which he can kill, Jesse and Diamondback are more concerned by their survival, and seek to avoid unnecessary risk in their nocturnal activities. Mae and Homer (Joshua Miller) are the two outsiders of the group – Mae is the newest member and it is because of her that Caleb is taken in rather than killed on the spot, while Homer is even older than Jesse, and yet trapped in the body of a child.
Another James Cameron alumni – The Terminator’s director of photography Adam Greenberg – lends the film a beautiful, haunting look reminiscent of Terence Malick’s 70s classics. As well as engineering the frights and atmosphere confidently, Bigelow demonstrates a growing skill as an action director that would lead her to films like Point Break, Strange Days and K19. Sequences such as the family’s escape from a motel besieged by police, or Severin taking on Caleb and an 18-wheeler are intensely exciting set-pieces.
For my money however, Near Dark isn’t quite the stone-cold classic that some feel it is – as modern vampire yarns go, it still ranks below Martin or The Addiction. Tangerine Dream’s score is intermittently moody, but also features an over-abundance of laughable squealing rawk guitar, while the conceit that allows recently infected vampires to become human once more is silly and contrived. Still, it’s a pacy and entertaining slice of Texan gothic, marked by dark wit and some tremendous performances.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, and tackled the 1967 riots of Detroit. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.