The evening of the 82nd Academy Awards turned out to be an historic occasion. The annual presentation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would finally bestow, on March 7, 2009, the coveted Best Director award to a woman, Kathryn Bigelow (The Weight of the Water). She was only the fourth woman in the Academy’s long history to ever even be nominated. She won her much deserved Oscar gold for her emotionally gripping film The Hurt Locker, which would also earn the award for Best Picture. Rewind twenty-two years to 1987, the year she directed, at least in this blogger’s opinion, one of the most underrated vampire movies of all time, Near Dark.
Whether you like it or not, Vampires are everywhere these days: cable and television shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries; movies and books centered on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight universe; and the historical re-imagining of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter. It seems like every week something new that features the pale faced undead is released for public consumption. But that was certainly not the case when Near Dark was released on October 2, 1987 to strong critical praise, but a sub par box office take. It went on to gross almost three and half million dollars, which caused the film to not even break even with its five million dollar budget. Sadly for Bigelow, another vampire movie was released the same year, and became hugely successful, as well as enduringly popular… The Lost Boys, directed by Joel Schumacher, (St. Elmo’s Fire) was Near Dark’s competition at the box office; it wasn’t a fair cinematic fight by any stretch of the imagination.
By the time the late 1980s were upon us the days of the American cinema patron consuming a steady diet of westerns, starring the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, amongst others, had long since gone the way of the proverbial dodo bird. What Kathryn Bigelow achieved at the time with Near Dark, was to create an absorbing and provocative movie that transcended the traditional western genre of film by infusing the plot with modern day vampires. By taking this route, Bigelow broke with cinematic traditions in terms of not presenting the vampire lore as it had been most often portrayed on film, which was to model vampire characters after the iconic portrayal given by Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula (1931). In Bigelow’s film vampires are not cowering from the cross, morphing into bats, avoiding being doused with holy water, or partaking in their nocturnal activities with the background of a European countryside, namely that of the legendary Transylvania.
The film itself works on many levels. The haunting score of the movie was done by the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream, whose music lends itself in a very complimentary manner to both the atmosphere and the characters. Thanks to Adam Greenburg’s cinematography, the movie comes off with just the right amount of grittiness without going overboard. The film boasts a solid cast: Adrian Pasdar (Heroes), Jenny Wright (I, Madman), Lance Henriksen (Aliens), and Bill Paxton (Big Love). The script was co-written by director Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red (The Hitcher), who helped Bigelow to write a film that moved away from the tired old vampire story, taking it in a ground breaking direction. Film trivia buffs take note that the word vampire is never mentioned in the movie nor are fangs shown; and as an unrelated aside, for my fellow cinema geeks, you might find it interesting to know that director Kathryn Bigelow gave now veteran actor Willem Dafoe (Mississippi Burning) his first starring role as the character of Vance in the 1982 film The Loveless, which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery.
The plot of the film is easy enough to follow. Adrian Pasdar’s character of Caleb falls for an attractive drifter named Mae, portrayed by Jenny Wright. She turns out to be more than she initially seems, and after biting him, takes off. Don’t worry film lovers, this cinema geek can assure you that boy doesn’t just see girl, like girl, kiss girl, get bitten by girl, and lose girl…that would be a pretty short and dull film. No, this movie is the antithesis of ho-hum, but in order to get, what in this blogger’s opinion, is the oblique message the director and co-script writers were trying to convey, one has to pay attention to more than just the scene in the bar, (for those of you who’ve seen the movie you know what I am referring to), which looks like something taken directly from a hallucinogenic nightmare.
Breaking with cinematic tradition by having the vampires’ story take place in Oklahoma, and also using man-made weapons, such as guns and knives, was a bold move on the part of Bigelow; but that still doesn’t speak to the message or rather the question the film asks: “What price is too great to pay for eternal life?” While being able to live forever might sound good to some of you at first, because we all know what the alternative is, the film shows that like virtually everything in life, there is a quid pro quo that comes attached to the gift or curse, depending on the way one views it, with being able to exist forever. Daylight is off limits to you, so if you’re a beach lover or like to engage in any number of outdoor activities, you can forget those enjoyments. But leaving aside the restrictions being a vampire puts on personal freedoms, the film shows that the human that is transformed into a vampire must become a self-aware killer, living with the knowledge of what they must do on a nightly basis in order to sustain their immortality. I’ve sometimes wondered if Bigelow and Red wrote this script with the notion of attempting to ask the viewer in a subtle way the following question: “If you’re a person who wishes to obtain immortality, do you feel that you’re superior to your fellow man, woman, and child, enough so that killing them in order for your existence to be maintained is justifiable?”
While you decide to contemplate the aforementioned question or skip it entirely, please allow me to take a few metaphoric steps backward, so I can explain Near Dark in a bit greater detail, without giving away everything. Lance Henriksen’s character, Jesse Hooker, is the charismatic leader of a group of vampire drifters that act as a family unit. After Mae bites Caleb, the young man begins to rapidly embrace his newly found vampirism with both horrid revulsion and an inexorable thirst. Before too long, Caleb’s skin begins to feel the effects of the sun, and he is witnessing first hand the limitations that are imposed upon him as a vampire. Next thing he knows, he’s being thrown into a van, where among other things, Henriksen’s character of Jesse informs Caleb that he has only one week to prove his worthiness to the group or….
I feel to write more about the actual scenes that are depicted during the movie would serve merely to be a spoiler alert for those of you who have net yet seen this cult hit. Suffice it to say, or in this instance write, if you’re seeking a film experience that is both frenetic and surreal, that features unusual characters who offer a new interpretation of the vampire genre, then do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Near Dark at Best Buy, rent it at Blockbuster, or through your on-line provider, especially if you’re a fan of the film and are still watching your VHS tape version (which I understand you might want to keep for cover art or collecting purposes). Near Dark is one movie that is not to be missed if you’re a fan of the genre; and without question, if you’re looking for non-standard fare.