Originally a box office flop, Kathryn Bigelow’s stylish horror-Western became an iconic cult classic.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Some movies are just victims of bad timing. Blade Runner and The Thing were, if you can believe it, released on the same day in June of 1982, just two weeks after E.T. Their bleak and often gruesome takes on science fiction and the mysterious “other” were no match for Spielberg’s cuddly, candy loving alien, and both withered in its shadow, not earning their solid reputation and cult status until hitting cable. Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature, 1987’s Near Dark, had the misfortune of being released barely two months after The Lost Boys, and, without the core teenage audience that the earlier film brought in, it was a box office flop. Time has proven it to be one of the best, most unique takes on vampire films, however, a clever combination of horror, biker flick, and Western, with a showstopping performance by Bill Paxton.
Though both The Lost Boys and Near Dark feature a teenage romance between a vampire and a human, that’s really where their similarities begin and end. In fact, they’re so different in tone and style that to compare them in terms of “better” or “worse” is a little unfair. Whereas in The Lost Boys being a vampire is fun, even aspirational, in Near Dark it’s dreary and lonely. In The Lost Boys, the citizens of Santa Carla have quietly accepted that it’s the vampires’ world, and they merely live in it. In Near Dark, the vampires have no kind of home at all, as they’re forced to drive aimlessly around the desolate Southwest in a battered Winnebago. Even though Mae (Jenny Wright) is a teenager, and Homer (Joshua Miller) is a child (albeit a miserable, horny old man in a child’s body), there’s nothing timeless or eternally young about any of them. They’re weathered, beaten down, on an endless race against the sun.
When Mae draws sweet-natured farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) into the fold, it’s not to fulfill a lust for blood, but because she needs a companion, someone her own age (or at least, the age she was when was turned). There’s no room for him, though, both literally (imagine how the inside of that RV must smell, with all those people living inside it), and figuratively. He interferes with their rough family dynamic: Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) as the parents, clownish and volatile older brother Severen (Bill Paxton), middle child Mae, and Homer, who serves as both the baby brother and grumpy grandpa. It’s not just that Mae broke the rules, it’s that now there’s simply too many mouths to feed.
Worse, Caleb is an extra mouth to feed and won’t pull his own weight in return. Though it’s unthinkable for Caleb to kill another person, for Jesse and the rest of the family it’s no different than picking out some ground beef at the supermarket. It’s just meat, it doesn’t mean anything. Only Mae still clings to enough of her humanity to be sympathetic and patient with him, feeding Caleb from herself (which, of course, adds another bizarre “family” element to everything). It’s that lingering humanity that forces Mae to risk her life to save Caleb’s sister Sarah, whom Homer has demanded as his own companion. Mae knows the truth: being a vampire sucks.
Time has proven it to be one of the best, most unique takes on vampire films, however, a clever combination of horror, biker flick, and Western, with a showstopping performance by Bill Paxton.
They can’t even fly! They don’t have mind control powers, they can’t shapeshift, they don’t even have fangs. Their primary weapon isn’t brute animal strength, but ordinary guns. Finding victims means setting up elaborate traps, such as Homer pretending to be in an accident, and Severen passing himself off as a hitchhiker. The only time they exhibit any kind of real power is when they harass and eventually kill a group of bar patrons. It’s also the only time they look like they’re having any fun, particularly Severen, a cackling, murderous schoolboy who wisecracks “Finger lickin’ good!” after dispatching one of his victims. The occasional mass murder seems to be the only thing that gets them through the drudgery of their lives.
If you must compare Near Dark to anything, compare it to Interview With the Vampire. Though they too differ wildly in style, they share similar themes: the loneliness of immortality, and a forced family dynamic. These folks aren’t traveling together because they like each other, but because there’s no one else like them in the world. There’s safety in numbers, and their number is very small. Until her abrupt change of heart near the end of the movie, Mae meekly continues to stick with the group, because where else would she go? She has one foot in the darkness, and one foot in the light, and the darkness is winning.
Both movies also feature a child vampire, one that is both grotesque and tragic. Before switching career paths into screenwriting, Joshua Miller (whose half-brother is Jason Patric, star of, wouldn’t you know it, The Lost Boys) brought a deeply creepy energy to his roles as Keanu Reeves’ future serial killer brother in The River’s Edge, and Robyn Lively’s future sex offender brother in Teen Witch, and here he really cranks it up, playing a character you could easily picture tearing the wings off of flies. We don’t know much about Homer, other than he turned Mae (which is why he simmers with resentment at her relationship with Caleb), but given the hollow look in his eyes he’s been around a long time. There’s something deeply cruel about turning a child into a vampire, essentially keeping them trapped in a body that will never keep up with their mind or heart. Homer seems the most aware of the futility of his existence, and his despairing cries when Sarah is taken away from him are unexpectedly heartbreaking.
Are you sure you want to be a vampire? Are you sure you’re sure? Because there doesn’t seem to be much benefit to it, other than maybe some cool clothes (and, frankly, everyone’s clothes here look filthy). If you can’t go it alone (and who would want to?), you’re forced to create your own gang, and hope that you don’t eventually grow to despise each other. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find something approximating a “home,” but more likely you’ll just keep traveling from one place to the next, never stopping, always moving, as a big world shrinks to the size of a pinpoint.