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Fright Fest 2018: Near Dark (1987)

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Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days, Zero Dark Thirty

Starring: Adrian Pasdar (Heroes, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Solarbabies), Jenny Wright (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Young Guns 2, Lawnmower Man), Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Pumpkinhead, Hard Target), Bill Paxton (Aliens, Frailty, Predator 2), Jennette Goldstein (Aliens, Terminator 2, Leathal Weapon 2), and Tim Thomerson (Dollman, Trancers Film Series)

Written By: Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel, The Loveless) and Eric Red (The Hitcher, Bad Moon, Body Parts)

Release Year: 1987

Growing up, my dad and I didn’t agree on many films. It might surprise one to know, but a preacher and his horror loving son aren’t going to have a lot in common when it comes to cinematic tastes, or much of anything really. Also, if you spell “Horror” a little different, that sentence takes on a whole new meaning, someone hit the rimshot sound effect for me. Despite the gulf between us, we did manage to connect on a handful of movies, The Last Starfighter¸ Enemy Mine, Predator, and the one you happen to be reading about right now, Near Dark. Maybe it was because the vampires didn’t act like the typical, supernatural vampires, maybe it’s because the western style distracted him from the fact he was watching a horror movie, or maybe he just liked it and I should stop analyzing why to better appreciate that we had one more movie to add to our very short list. 

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m glad you asked nonexistent person in my head who for some reason has a very disappointed look on their face. I’m telling you this because I might be a little biased when it comes to Near Dark. I can recognize the film’s faults, few though they may be, but it will always hold a special place in my heart for giving an awkward teenager with a strained parental relationship, so basically a normal teenager, a movie to watch with his pious father. Now why don’t we leave my reminisces in the past and get on with the review.

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If you haven’t seen Near Dark, shame on you for not watching something I liked, it’s a vampire movie with the heart of an old western. No, there aren’t cattle rustlers and train robbers being chased by the law, but there are gunslingers, horse rides, bar fights, and one hell of a shootout. Near Dark follows Caleb Colton (played by a pre-Heroes Glen Talbot) as he descends into a world of blood, violence, and fancy silver spurs. On a night out with friends, Caleb meets the stunning Mae who repays his somewhat creepy advances by turning him into a creature of the night. Mae is only part of a pack though, and Caleb soon gets to meet the rest of the family. Jesse (the always awesome Lance Henriksen) leads the group as a father type figure with lover Diamondback (Aliens Jenette Goldstein) stepping into the role of mother because what kid didn’t want a mom named after a lame Marvel villain, or maybe the snake…yeah, she’s probably named after the snake. Psychopath Severen (Bill Paxton at what might be his craziest) and forever a child Homer (Joshua John Miller) round out the hungry family of sadistic bloodsuckers. While Caleb desperately wants to stay with Mae, he finds himself unable to participate in the family’s violent bloodlust, choosing instead to take handouts from his love interest. This doesn’t sit well with the vampires who see Caleb’s disgust of their violence as a dangerous liability. He’ll have to make a choice, kill for a woman he’s barely known but is madly in love with or face the family’s wrath and become their latest victim.

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I might have mentioned how much this movie means to me, but as much as I love it, there are a few things that bug me each time I give it a watch. If you feel a little moisture on you, don’t worry, it’s just my tears at having to criticize this gem. Most of my issues come down to spots where sensibility was sacrificed at the alter of cinematic flair, like how a bunch of vampires trying to stay hidden do everything but try to stay hidden. Maybe it’s just me, but if I was trying to remain unseen from the world at large, I don’t think I’d set fires on a regular basis, steal cars from dealerships all over the country, and leave trails of dead bodies everywhere I go. Sure, they take steps to make the deaths look non-vampire related, but in the laziest way possible which is kind of weird for a group that should have centuries of experience between them. I know CSI is about as accurate a 9/11 truther’s YouTube channel, but there are people like forensic experts and medical examiners, and one of those people might happen to notice the man with the crushed skull being out of place, fires not generally being known for using their vicelike grips to smash people. That wouldn’t even be the first clue that something was wrong, not with seven bodies lying burned to cinders. It wouldn’t be long before someone started to wonder about the serial arsonist who was burning down buildings to cover up his or her murders.

The authorities aren’t likely to attribute it to vampires, but they aren’t likely to attribute it to accidents and mother nature either. There are two more thing that always bother me about Near Dark, one concerns the ending, so I’ll wait until the end of this review to get into that one. Don’t want to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t seen the movie. The other is another example of realism being sacrificed for an admittedly cool scene, but since it somewhat ruins a facet of the film I very much enjoyed, the cool scene wasn’t worth it for me. I’ll touch on that here in a second.

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I mentioned that my dad might have enjoyed Near Dark due to the vampires, villains he considered to be the “personification of evil’s seductive appeal” because my dad at times talked like a 16th century demon hunter, not really seeming like your typical, supernaturally created, vampires. They do have some of your more typical vampiric attributes like a weakness to sunlight and the need to feed on blood, but there are several key differences that not only make them unique among their kindred but make them feel more real, or at least more grounded in the real world. These realistic aspects put the Near Dark vamps toward the top of my favorite cinematic vampires, number four to be specific, after the trio from What We Do in the Shadows, Christopher Lee’s Dracula, and the corporate vamps of Daybreakers. There a few ways they went about making the vamps here more real, and to me, more threatening:

  • Religious icons do nothing. Shove a cross in Jesse or Severen’s face, and they’re likely to slit your throat for the annoyance. To make sure the audience understands this fact, some of the group’s pistols are even decorated with history’s most symbolic aspect of torture, the cross. Removing the usual religious weaknesses was the first, and most important, step in grounding our vamps in the real world.
  • They lack fangs. If these vampires are going to drink of you, they’re either going to cut you open like a Capri Sun missing its straw, of they’re going to rip part of your throat out with their very human looking teeth. This gave them a gruesome aspect that’s lacking from the almost surgical manner most vampires are shown utilizing in their feeding. It also made them more terrifying. What’s more worrisome, that a creature of myth is going to give you a weird sexual experience akin to that first time in the back of a Buick, or that some psychopath might rip out your throat, leaving you to die in absolute terror as they slurp from your draining lifeforce?
  • These vampires are strong, and they can heal from near any damage done to them, but they aren’t so powerful they could go toe to toe with a comic book superhero…with one exception. A physical matchup between one of Jesse’s bloodsucking family members and a normal human being would be like a fight between the older brother from Napoleon Dynamite and Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. You’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose badly, but you’re not going to be ripped in half like you were evidence in a corruption trial. Mae even mentions that if they lose enough blood, they’ll die, implying that enough damage will kill them much like anything else on this planet. That’s why it’s so frustrating when Bill Paxton’s Severen gets into a fist fight with an eighteen-wheeler and holds his own. It takes a somewhat grounded level of strength and turns it up to Hulk like levels. I understand why they did it, it’s a cool scene that showcases some great FX work, but it wasn’t worth the sacrifice for me.

Minus Severen’s lean toward comic book supervillainy, these attempts at realism in a vampire movie are what make the creatures such a great addition to the long history of cinematic vampirism. They are less supernatural creatures you can’t imagine running into, and more drug addicts doing anything for their fix. I can very much imagine running into them in downtown St. Louis, and that is scarier than turning into a bat or being “of the devil.” Of course, having some well-designed vampires means nothing if you don’t have great actors to portray them. Thankfully, that isn’t a problem here.

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Near Dark features an amazing cast of talented actors, or at the very least, somewhat good actors turning in amazing performances. If your reading a website dedicated to the more horrific side of entertainment, I can make an educated guess and say you likely know at least part of the cast from other work. Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and Tim Thomerson have been in dozens of well-known films, and with the exception of Thomerson who will always be at his peak as Jack Deth, this might be my favorite movie of theirs and definitely shows off some of their better work.

Henriksen leads the pack, pun very much intended, with his performance of aged vampire Jesse. In keeping with the film’s idea of semi-realistic vampires, Jesses isn’t hundreds of years old, but having been turned during the American Civil War, he has been around longer than any normal human. Henriksen manages to portray this well with a vampire who comes across as older than he seems by exuding a calm power and an arrogance gained from decades of existence as a vampire. His temperament is generally calm, but when angered, he can go from peaceful to full of rage in a matter of seconds, and Henriksen does a great job with both sides of his emotional temperament. While Henriksen did wonderful as an old man in a middle-aged man’s body, one actor had to do something similar, only more difficult. That would be actor Joshua John Miller portraying the forever young Homer.

Homer’s true age is left vague, but his body is that of a child around ten or eleven years of age. Near Dark wasn’t the first vampire movie to have the “adult in the body of a child” trope, and it surely wasn’t the last, but in my opinion, it was the best. While Homer is implied to have been a vampire for decades, he still has the mind of a child, a child with decades of experience, but a child nonetheless. He’s quicker to react than the others, is constantly doing things to make him seem like more of an adult (putting emphasis on his swearing, trying to look cool while smoking, etc.), and does his best to act just as tough as the rest of the pack even though the smallest next to him is still twice his size. He even cries at the very idea of daylight. Though to be fair, so do I. I thought this made his character one of the more interesting additions to the pack, and Miller did a wonderful job portraying an experienced child doing his best to fit in with the adults. Normally, this character type is fully an adult, just one stuck inside the body of a child, which always struck me as odd since while they may gain more experience and wisdom as time goes on, the brain is still going to be that of an undeveloped child. It’s a shame Miller never went on to do anything else because judging from his performance, I really believe he could have gone on to have a good career.

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While Miller and Henriksen were the standouts, they were far from alone in giving great performances. Bill Paxton’s Severen can get on your nerves, what Paxton character doesn’t, but he’s fun in a total garbage person sort of way. Imagine all the Sunny in Philidelphia cast given killer instincts and combined into one person, and you’ve got Severen. Jennette Goldstein does a wonderful job as the conflicted Diamondback. She’s a cold, calculated killer, but her attacks of conscience sometimes cause her to act against the pack, and Goldstein really shows how difficult it is for her character to go against a family she feels affection, if not love, towards. Adrian Pasdar, who is stuck in my head as “That Guy Who Could Fly from Heroes” (I’m sure he has a name, but hell if I know what it is), was great as Caleb, a man caught between wanting to spend an eternity with the woman he loves and his revulsion at having to kill humans for his dinner.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where Caleb does something, I don’t want to spoil it, that endears him to the family, and you can see his acceptance to finally being one of them without anyone having to say anything. There is a joy mixed with horror that spreads across his face during this moment, and it’s not hard to believe that had circumstances not changed, he would have gladly become one of them. The only thing I never understood was why he was so head over heels for a woman whom he only just met, one whose response to his advances, creepy though they may have been, was to bite and infect him with a disease. I’ve gone after some crazy women in my lifetime, but I’m pretty sure one of them biting me randomly, I need to make sure the “randomly” part is in there, would be the end of my attraction.

Speaking of his love interest, Jenny Wright was the only one of the group I was less than impressed with, but I don’t know if I would attribute my distaste to her acting or just the way her character was written. I could never tell if she was supposed to be extremely naive or just not all that bright. The movie kind of glosses over her being just as murderous as the rest of her clan by giving her an almost childlike nature. She shows some remorse about turning Caleb, but none whatsoever about killing random people, and for someone that was presented as being more “innocent” than the rest, she doesn’t come across as innocent to me. Tim Thomerson rounds out the cast as Caleb’s dad, but he isn’t in it all that much. When he does show up, he’s basically Tim Thomerson without the constant swearing, not that I’m complaining. When your Tim Thomerson, that’s all you need to be.

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This review is growing a little longer than I had intended. That’s what happens when you start talking about one of your favorite movies, so I’ll touch on two more points, three if you count the spoiler, and then I promise to shut up. The first is the FX work which is mostly phenomenal, especially in the makeup department. I’m a big fan of gore, but unless the movie is meant to be less than serious, it can very easily become overkill, with buckets of blood adding a ridiculous element to something that didn’t need it. Near Dark is definitely full of blood, but without going overboard, further endearing the movie’s more realistic feel. There aren’t going to be a lot of people ripped apart, but the kills are more uncomfortable that way because they keep you grounded instead of veering off into impractical or ridiculous territory. If I was so impressed though, why the “mostly”? Because there is one effect that they didn’t get down very well, digital not being all that great three decades back, and it’s when they’re set on fire. The makeup during these scenes is fantastic as the vamps crackle and crisp while the flames eat away at them, but the flames themselves are digitally added, and they look very much digitally added. Still, as its not a huge part of the film, it’s something I can let go.

The second thing is the movie’s western flair. Director Kathryn Bigelow originally wanted to do a Western, but one that was to take place in what was then the modern era of 1987. No studio wanted anything to do with it, so she added vampires to the story, and that’s what got her idea greenlit. I almost didn’t watch this movie as a kid due in large part to the Western aspect. My grandfather was a huge fan of western films, John Wayne in particular, and they always seemed kind of ridiculous to me, like his characters were supposed to be caricatures of western stereotypes. Not that I’d ever denigrate someone else’s cinematic choices, it’s just not for me. While Near Dark does very much feel like a western, it’s not so western as to remind me of the movies I had to sit through with my grandfather. There are western aspects, Jesse’s vampiric family could fit the bill of outlaws, Tim Thomerson very much feels like a sheriff hunting for said outlaws, and the settings, while modernish, invoke the atmosphere of small towns in the western frontier, but it never veers so far in that direction as to take away from the movie’s horror filled roots. Then there are the scenes ripped right out of those old westerns and modified for a horror film setting, the last shootout of the outlaws (which is an amazing scene that manages to send chills down your spine), a barfight in what looked to be an updated saloon (a very uncomfortable scene to watch due to Paxton’s insanity and the terror of the patrons as they’re picked off one by one), and even a lonely horse ride through a deserted town by our hero. What struck me as wonderful was that despite these western aspects, this is very much a horror film. It’s uncomfortable, brutal, and dark. Think Unforgiven, just with vampires.

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Okay, this part is going to be the spoiler, so if you don’t want to read this, just stop now. I know it’s an older film, but you might have never seen it, and I don’t want to ruin it for you if that’s the case. If you haven’t seen the film but would like to, please stop reading here.

You still around? Okay, I’m going to assume that means you’ve either already seen Near Dark or I’ve done a terrible job and you now have no desire to see it. So, at the end, Jesse and his family, minus Mae, have been taken out, and both Caleb and Mae have been healed by a veterinarian that filtered all their blood. I could probably go on about that as well, but if A Quiet Place taught me anything, it’s that some questions are better left unasked (you know exactly what I mean). No, what I’m talking about isn’t a horse doctor’s abilities to cure vampirism, but more humanity’s new knowledge of the undead. Since Jesse’s family aren’t the subtlest of people, there’s a lot of evidence towards the existence of vampires. At best, Mae and Caleb are going to be running from what’s likely to at the very least become an urban legend. If they aren’t so lucky, they’re ending up cut into little pieces to be studied at some government lab. It doesn’t sound like it’ll be a fun time. Not to mention that even though Mae might have been cured, she’s still killed an untold number of people. You can argue she did it to survive, but I can’t see someone who has feed on the death of humanity adjusting to a normal life after this.

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Anyways, that’s it for what I’ve got to say. I know what you’re thinking, “Freaking Finally” though probably with something else replacing the “freaking” part. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and have a Happy Halloween. Also, if you ever hook up with someone who bites you and runs away, probably best to not chase after that person.

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Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too.

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2 responses

  1. Joan MacLeod

    Great review and you are right about the great cast and acting.

    October 11, 2018 at 7:47 pm

  2. I agree save for two points;

    Though I really enjoyed Henriksen and Miller, I thought Paxton absolutely stole the movie. He was easily my favorite character. Which leads to point two: Unless it’s by design ( such as the creep in True Lies), none of Bill Paxton’s characters have ever gotten on my nerves. In fact, he was one of the most consistently entertaining actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.

    October 11, 2018 at 7:58 pm

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