Many of the most successful and admired Hollywood directors cut their teeth making horror films. The legendary Steven Spielberg’s early career includes the classic fright films Duel and Jaws. The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola got his humble start working on the Roger Corman productions The Terror and Dementia 13. Peter Jackson could never have brought The Lord of the Rings trilogy to life if he hadn’t made his directorial debut with Bad Taste and Dead Alive. The recent critical darling Kathryn Bigelow is no exception; in 1987, years before The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, she made the revisionist vampire classic Near Dark.
Near Dark stars Adrian Pasdar (“Heroes”) as Caleb Colton, a small-town boy who meets a girl named Mae (St. Elmo’s Fire’s Jenny Wright) outside of a liquor store late one evening. After hanging out all night, Mae bites Caleb on the neck and runs off. Not thinking much of it, Caleb walks home. It doesn’t take long before the rising sun starts to make his skin burn. He is almost home when he collapses in a field across from his father, Loy (Tim Thomerson from Trancers), and sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds from Beaches). Before they can get to him, a motor home with blacked-out windows drives up and snatches Caleb off of the ground. Inside the motor home, Caleb is reunited with Mae and meets her surrogate family: the troublemaking Severen (Bill Paxton from Apollo 13), the maternal Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein from Terminator 2: Judgment Day), the childlike Homer (Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s Joshua Miller), as well as the group’s de-facto leader, Jesse Hooker (horror stalwart Lance Henriksen from Pumpkinhead). The group explains to Caleb that he is now changed, needs human blood to feed, and will die if he doesn’t come up with a kill. Meanwhile, Loy and Sarah are unwilling to give up on Caleb and start a search-and-rescue mission to get him back. Caleb is torn between the loyalty of his biological family and the love of Mae and his new tribe.
In the mid-eighties, vampire films had become fashionable and hip; films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys had reinvented the mythology, and the vampire had become less about what Bela Lugosi had created in Dracula and more about partying, marauding and raising hell. Near Dark took the revisionist vampire trend a step further, managing to effectively tell a story about vampires without sensationalizing the trend; the V-word is never mentioned in Near Dark – not even once. Near Dark combines classic and new vampire lore to create its own breed of bloodsucker.
Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red (The Hitcher) wrote the screenplay for Near Dark as a crossover horror/western film. Even though the film is one of Bigelow’s first, her talent as a director is fully evident and her vision is spot-on. The vampire clan in Near Dark comes off more like a band of western outlaws than monsters, using guns and knives in addition to their hands and teeth. In the film’s signature scene, the group busts into a crowded bar searching for a victim on whom Caleb can feed. Severen takes complete control of the room while the rest sit back in a booth, taunting the bar’s customers. The scene is both frightening in its realism and fascinating in its surrealism; a mysterious band of thugs with superhuman strength exerts its will over the inhabitants of a room, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. These guys are not just black-hat western bad guys – it’s clear that they are something entirely different.
A major selling point to Near Dark is the chemistry of the cast. Bigelow was pals with James Cameron (she would marry him a couple of years later), who had just released his sci-fi classic Aliens. Bigelow purloined three of the stars of Aliens – Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein – to play her vampire clan. The familiarity between the three is air-tight, making them a great antagonist team. Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright bring a touch of sympathy to their roles as the star-crossed lovers, expressing a romantic tension that puts fellow vampire couple Bella and Edward to shame. The give and take between the two sides coupled with the ambiguity of good versus evil in the film is tough to accurately portray, but the experienced ensemble cast in Near Dark pulls it off without making the film seem cheesy.
Near Dark also features a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, the go-to film composition group known for their work on hip films like Legend, Firestarter and The Keep. Tangerine Dream contributes a score that combines typical new-age film music with a more rhythmic, modern sound. The music is just like the film: an effective combination of a horror score and a western soundtrack. Tangerine Dream’s music becomes a vital ingredient to the film, and Near Dark is a stronger film because of it.
Every filmmaker has to start somewhere, and horror is a great jumping off point due to the rabid fan base and relative low-budgets needed for production. Like many before and since her, Kathryn Bigelow flexed her muscles early on in the horror genre, and Near Dark is a great example of her work.