With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This is the final installment and is being published for the first time.
The Film: Near Dark
The Year: 1987
The Plot: Amongst the farms of rural Oklahoma not a cowboy not yet a cowman Caleb Colton (Adran Pasdar) approaches out of town girl Mae (Jenny Wright). After a night of flirting and violating her boundaries, he finally gets a kiss…and a hickey unlike any he’s experienced. Now the sun burns, nothing but blood tastes good, and his “new family” is demanding he kill someone or they will kill him. Meanwhile Caleb’s dad and sister, Loy (Tim Thomerson) and Sarah (Marcie Leeds), respectively refuse to let go of his trail. In the end, Caleb must choose between his new family with their life of dark immortality and his biological family and all the promise and sadness a human lifespan offers.
The Issues: What does it mean to be a man?- Once again, Bigelow’s film tangles with this question, showing us a strata of experiences that speak to that.
Severen (Bill Paxton), Homer (Joshua John Miller), and, of course, Caleb—are explorations of the idea of manhood on to themselves. Homer, despite being, implicitly, one of the oldest members of the family, he looks like a child. He is, essentially, the male version of Kirsten Dunst’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE forever child character. So, despite being a man in maturity, desire, and years walking the earth, he will never truly achieve manhood.
Severen, by contrast, is every bit physically a man but has the emotional maturity of a child. He is the media interpretation of the bachelor, forever dedicated to just having fun and doing what he wants even as the years tick by.
Finally, Caleb moves from a kind of dumb, kind of predatory, kind of selfish late teens/early 20’s manchild into a full man, choosing others over himself, rejecting immoral acts even to save his skin, and, eventually rejecting eternal life to ensure his sister avoid the same “gift/curse.”
What does it mean to be a father? - Supplementing the above question, NEAR DARK explores the idea of fatherhood as well. Jesse Hooker (Lance Henricksen, of ALIENS fame, natch) as the patriarch of Mae’s patchwork family of bloodsuckers is both brutal and a best friend type. He delights in his family’s excesses but is obviously unhesitating in using violence to assert his authority.
Loy, on the other hand, is a bit of a quiet dad who is first encountered commenting, mostly to himself, that it is about time his son has come home, moments before witnessing Caleb being abducted into a smoking Winnebago. However, as he looks for his son—not trusting the police to do it for him—his dedication to Caleb is revealed and, via his interaction with his younger child Sarah, his heart as well. He may not say “I love you” a lot—it’s unclear if he fits that stereotype—but his actions clearly show it.
What does it mean to be a woman in a male dominated sphere?- Again, this is one that, in retrospect, is present in nearly all of Bigelow’s films beginning with the biker gang moll Debbie through Detroit’s Julie Ann and Karen with Megan Turner (BLUE STEEL), Tyler Endicott (POINT BREAK), Mace and Faith (STRANGE DAYS), and Maya (ZERO DARK THIRTY) all absolutely fitting the bill and I am open to arguments for characters in WEIGHT OF WATER and HURT LOCKER as well.
In DARK we see how it affects Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the “mom” of the family, and Mae. While both have agency, they are also often defined by their romantic partners and male “relatives.”
Of particular interest is how Caleb treats Mae before his turning. While we see later she is the true alpha hunter, he comes across as very much the predator. Perhaps it is only because of today’s raised consciousness regarding consent and boundaries, but it is hard to watch Caleb’s “flirting” with Mae and not feel her discomfort and his refusal to respect her boundaries. His last move, the one that leads to his turning, is to literally drop his keys down his shirt and refuse to drive her the rest of the way home unless she gives him “a little touch.” She may ultimately have supernatural power, but in that moment she is very much an average young woman, on a quiet empty road, at the mercy of a man who refuses to take no as an answer.
Family- As hinted at above, this movie is not just a battle of fathers to claim Caleb as their son, it is also a clash of biological and “chosen” families. Intriguingly, unlike most movies that explore this notion, the biological family wins out. However, the film does make it clear that it is a choice Caleb has made—by rejecting the vampires to save Sarah and by allowing his dad to “save” him from his fate—and therefore the biological family becomes the adopted family as well. His eventual introduction of Mae into the family unit also furthers this idea.
Loneliness- This is the motivator for so much of what happens in this movie. At any point, it becomes clear later, Mae easlily could’ve twisted Caleb’s head off his body and slurped down his warm red drink until she was sated. Instead she spends the evening struggling with a desire to connect with him and a desire to be rid of him. And when Caleb forces the issue by demanding she touch him, she opts to turn him rather than kill him because she loses control (she tells Jesse it was something she did by accident) and cannot help but tie him to her because of how much she wants companionship. All her “family” has offered her for four years is an already together mom and dad—Jesse and Diamondback—an appropriate age but absolutely sociopathic Severen, and an in-appearance child Homer. What is endless life without intimacy?
Of course, Mae would not be a vampire at all, we find later, had Homer not been struggle with similar feelings. Alas, Mae cannot love him as he would like because he will forever look pre-adolescent. Fully wounded and even lonelier following Mae turning Caleb, Homer will act even more impetuously, leading to him inviting Sarah back to the vampire family hotel room for “some TV” and providing the catalyst that leads to Caleb’s rejection of them.
The Opinion: It has been a few years since I watched NEAR DARK and I think that time was my first. So when I read, just prior to this, someone’s opinion that this is the best vampire movie of all time, I sort of shrugged, unconvinced.
Well, I think they were onto something.
I hesitate to go full out “the best,” but to, paraphrase the Hang Up and Listen’s pet peeve phrase, it has to be in the conversation.
For one, the depiction of the vampires is just so interesting and layered to me. It is clear that most of them love to be vampires. But, through Mae’s conflicted presentation and Homer’s fits of sadness, we also can see that perhaps all have convinced themselves they love something that they, in fact, do not. They must love it, in other words, lest they are forced to consider their monstrousness and the nature of their existence, scurrying from outpost to outpost, dodging the sun, murdering, and doing little else. Despite their eternal life, nothing about their life seems particularly interesting or sexy.
I also am quite a fan of how the film depicts the eroticism of the blood sucking. Traditionally in books, TV, and movies, it makes it appear to be an erotic act for, at least, the sucker but often the suckee (?) as well. NEAR DARK establishes that it can be erotic for both, but can also cross the line and become uncomfortable, unenjoyable, or downright painful. This continues the theme of the Caleb/Mae courtship that I mentioned above where Caleb appears predatory. Like all sexual acts, blood sucking can be enjoyable but it can also be unwanted or go farther than one party wants.
Once more, Bigelow gets a lot of this done through performances. Everyone is quite good but I really want to hold up Bill Paxtonas this may be the best role of his entire career. As I wrote in my obituary of him for Marvel, he excelled at showing us fairly average guys how find themselves in situations that put them way over their heads. Here, however, he does the opposite. He is a being of incredible supernatural power and he chooses to live his life not just an everyman but more as an every animal type. He does whatever he wants but whatever he wants seems to begin and end with killing and laughing about it. He has no other drives, apparently no erotic desire, no interest in art or music. He is hypnotic is absolute simplicity and delight in that state of being.
Visually, NEAR DARK is delicious. The film does incredible things with light, making it look gorgeous at one moment (a sunrise is absolute golden perfection) and terrifying the next (the flat “daylight” that menaces the family as they are surrounded by police. The dark, as promised by Mae, also looks increasingly rich as the movie progresses and Caleb increasingly loses himself to the allure of the night.
Bigelow’s gift for image composition is already present in this film. The crisscrossing shafts of natural light increasingly trapping the family as bullets punch holes in the web of blankets, tin foil, blinds, and curtains they have used to shield themselves is almost beautiful. Caleb’s blanket of protection catching fire as he runs to get a van to save himself and the rest of the vampires moves with mesmerizing speed, seeming almost as though it is slowed down while everything else is moving at normal speed around it. Even the bar scene that is the absolute height of the film’s violence is so well laid out, giving the viewer a great sense of the geography of the bar, helping the tension rise and rise as the victims begin to pile up.
The film also has a delightfully cruel, mean-spirited sense of humor. Severen mostly carries the show, but, for me, Henricksen’s Jesse is the secret MVP as no moment is as funny as his brief summary of his experiences in the Civil War.
For horror movie fans, I’m not sure NEAR DARK will prove satisfying, however, I would warn. It does boast a fair amount of bloodshed but there are no jump scares, no attempt to make you jump out of your skin. Instead the fear of DARK comes from scenes front and center. The vampires are disconcerting, unnerving, and unstoppable. But for fans of modern horror, it might not deliver the intensity of fear they have grown used to. The good news is the movie is so damn good I doubt even the biggest horror hound will mind.
The Conclusion: It turns out Bigelow has three masterpieces.