Friday, December 25, 2015

Near Dark

I can't remember another movie in which the sun played such an omnipresent role. The sun provides light and warmth, and horror movies are typically set at night to play up the darkness and shadows. But if you're a vampire, the sun is an enemy.

Near Dark (1987), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who co-wrote the movie with Eric Red, arrived the same year as The Lost Boys and was at the time overshadowed by Joel Schumacher's film. The Lost Boys is a fun, stylish movie with a great sense of humor, but Near Dark is the superior effort, a bleak, poetic horror film about what it would really be like to survive by drinking blood on the outskirts of civilization: the terror, the loneliness, and the freedom.

At a fundamental level, Near Dark is a modern western. The vampires are a roving pack of outlaws in the desert. Led by Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), who when asked how old he is replies, "I fought for the South. We lost," the family also includes Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein), Severen (Bill Paxton, it's an Aliens reunion), Mae (Jenny Wright), and Homer (Joshua Miller), who has remained a boy for decades (think Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire). Into this group enters Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a young Oklahoma rancher bitten by Mae who finds he'll have to kill if he wants to survive.

The strength of Near Dark is the richness of its characters, which is bolstered by strong writing and powerful performances. These vampires have their quirks and personalities. Henriksen has rarely been better, projecting quiet menace and unquestioned authority, and Paxton is great as the wild cowboy of the bunch ("Howdy. I'm gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don't mind."). The moral center of the movie is Caleb and Mae's romance, and his dilemma whether he wants to live like this. He'll have to become a murderer and remain with this pack of monsters forever.

Bigelow strips away much of the fantasy elements of vampires. There are no crosses, holy water, or even stakes through the heart, just an immortal band of nomads who can be killed by the sun. During a scene when the vampires slaughter everyone in a bar, Caleb takes a shotgun blast to the gut, and while it hurts like hell, he's amazed he's doesn't die from it. Meanwhile, Severen, Diamondback, and the others have no problems using knives and guns to make killing easier.

The film is loaded with fun details about how these vampires live. They steal cars and black out the windows so they can drive in the daylight. After Diamondback cuts the throat of a waitress, Jesse puts a beer stein under the table to collect her blood. The movie also treats blood drinking like drug addiction. When he goes too long without a fix, Caleb grows sick, pale, and nauseous, and Mae nicks her own wrist to offer him an open vein. As hard and as lonely as this lifestyle is, it does have an allure, a freedom to be outside of society's rules.

The movie stumbles in its last act. There is a subplot involving Caleb's father's (Tim Thomerson) and kid sister's search for Caleb, and when the two families meet, it's disappointingly rushed and over before you know it, although the bit with the bullets is great. That leads to a contrived cure for vampirism involving a blood transfusion and a climax dependent on the vampires forgetting about the sun.

Bigelow shoots with a cool, harsh style, so it remains mesmerizing even as the plot falls apart. When the gang is cornered by police, bullets tear holes in the walls, allowing sunlight to shoot inside and hurt the vampires; the light is practically tangible in this scene. After Caleb is bitten, he stumbles across an open prairie as the sun begins to rise, and slowly, his body begins smoking in its glare. This is the kind of movie that will make you wince once you step outside after watching it.

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