Cowboys and Idioms


Near Dark - 1987
Written by Kathryn Bigelow & Eric Red
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Despite the title, Near Dark's most dramatic moments come not at sunset, but at sunrise.  The creatures of the night might come out near dark, but they run for their lives near dawn.  The ordinary vampire movie would frame nightfall as a time to fear, but Near Dark isn't the ordinary vampire movie -- not that it ever utters "the 'v' word."

Caleb Colton is an earnest young farm boy used to relying on his sweet-faced good looks rather than thoughtful conversation to get over with girls.  When he meets the odd but beautiful Mae, he takes her strange behavior for foreplay and barely notices that his "aw shucks" sexual pressuring techniques barely distract her from stargazing.  It's only when the nearing dawn instills a panic within Mae that she concedes to his demand for a kiss in order to get to shelter.  The kiss turns into hungrier passions, and before long, Mae's instincts have caused her to sink her teeth into Caleb's neck.

The tale that follows really reminded me more of, say, The Devil's Rejects or Natural Born Killers than your typical vampire movie.  Rather than being structured around a hunter/prey rivalry between vampires and humans (or vice versa), Near Dark is more like a serial killer/cult abduction.  Before the sun has finished rising, Caleb is already meeting Mae's "family" and facing the prospect of proving himself "worthy" to a skeazy band of hillbilly blood-suckers.  A blazing road story of dark seduction and seemingly futile resistance follows.

Sure, there are plenty of vampire stories about a newly turned former-humans joining the world of the living dead, but seldom with vampires this trashy and pathological.  Caleb appears to be trapped in one kind of death or another, and it's going to take some creative problem solving to get him out of it.  Near Dark does spring a solution on us, but it's one that could have been a little better developed by the narrative.  At least it's different, and sets the finale up for a potential outcome that wouldn't necessarily occur to the viewer given traditional genre norms.

Near Dark is incredibly moody and stylish (small surprise with Kathryn Bigelow at the helm), creating a contained story that doesn't get caught up in its own mythology.  They're only as vampiric as they need to be to tell the tale of the farm boy led away from home and seduced by the acceptance of a new kind of "family."  Virtually the same story could be told with knives instead of teeth, or even just with the deep cuts of addiction.  This way, at least, is a lot more action packed.

Near Dark got overshadowed by Lost Boys (and under-marketed by its failing studio) in 1987, so it may have slipped past a lot of moviegoers' radars, but it's definitely worth swinging back around to pick it up.  It's not quite as stylish as Lost Boys but it more than makes up for that with a stronger story, generally better acting and a more unflinching look at its night creatures.  There are still good vampire movies to discover.

No comments:

Post a Comment