What do you get when a young director puts together: a cast of crazed character actors, fresh from working together on a highly successful feature film, an intensely artistic cinematographer, and a producer who's looking for quality low budget material? A five million dollar work of artistic genius as brilliant today as the day it was released. What happens when a big budget film with similar subject matter and big name teen heartthrobs is released the same weekend? Genius falls barely noticed by the wayside.
Thus, the story of Near Dark. Written and conceived by Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow as a Western/vampire film, with the romance of both genres and the failings of neither, Near Dark is a fascinating example of how a truly good crossover film should look and feel.
The story is deceptively simple. Farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) meets mysterious new girl in town Mae (the ethereal Jennie Wright). After a few hours of flirting, the frisky Caleb becomes just a bit too forward, and ends up being bitten by Mae. Mae, who seems terrified by the approaching daylight, then leaps from Caleb's car and runs off into the night toward the trailer park where her family is staying. Caleb stumbles towards home, feeling sick and in agonizing pain. As the sun begins to rise, his skin begins to smoke.
As his father and sister watch in horror Caleb stumbles through the plowed fields towards his home. As he approaches, an RV with the windows covered in tinfoil speeds into the field, and Caleb is snatched into the vehicle and driven away.
Mae's family has come for Caleb, and what a family it is. Gaunt, scarred patriarch Jesse, wild-eyed (and vicious) pretty boy Severen, tough sexpot Diamondback, and child-man Homer travel with Mae from town to town across the West. The clan wants to kill Caleb, but Mae wants to keep him. He has been turned, and is now one of them. Like this group of odd travelers, Caleb will have superhuman strength, a need to kill and drink blood to survive, and will be invulnerable -- except to sunlight, which kills their kind.
Caleb must learn to kill to survive, both to feed his changed body and to win acceptance from his new family. Meanwhile, Caleb's father, Loy (Tim Thomerson), and sister Sarah (Marcie Colton) are searching for him to free him from his kidnappers. Caleb must choose between his new clan and his old family. Caleb must kill or be killed.
It seems a simple enough choice. Jesse and his "kin" are vampires, cold blooded killers who survive by hunting humans. Evil, no? The power of Near Dark lies in the ingenious way that Bigelow and Red manage to portray this inhuman family in all of their brutality and still inspire the audience toward compassion for the killers.
The clan is clearly a family, with loyalty first to Jesse and then to each other. Diamondback looks after Severen, Mae, and Homer in her weird twisted way; she's a woman who never learned how to properly show affection, and yet she yearns to be their mother. Jenette Goldstein's Diamondback is tough, sexy, and yet eminently pitiable. Her uncouth coarseness is a veneer only thinly covering old hurts and wounds. And she conveys this without speaking maudlin lines. It's in her looks, in her gestures.
Likewise, Jesse is cadaverous, chilling, and yet fiercely fatherlike to his little family. Lance Henriksen went to enormous lengths to perfect Jesse -- be sure to watch the documentary on the second disc to see how he created his character in concert with Kathryn Bigelow, and how he wrote an entire life story for the character that we never see onscreen. But it's there -- clearly there; this man has a tortured history.
Bill Paxton is absolutely amazing as Severen -- evil but with heart. He's funny, sexy, and terrifying all at once. He's the tall dark handsome stranger that you definitely don't want to fall for. Oh, and Severen is crazy in a rabid dog sort of way. In many ways he's my favorite character in this film.
Near Dark is described as "the first non-Gothic" vampire movie. These creatures could care less about garlic, holy water, or crosses. In fact, the word "vampire" never occurs in the film. They only refer to themselves as "turned". This film could have changed much in the vampire genre -- it's gritty, it's dirty, it's harsh and it feels real. The cinematography is awe-inspiring; it's stark, with light and shadow hinting at, suggesting, and illuminating not just scenes but concepts. The dialog is sparse and simple, forcing the actors to convey more about their characters through body language and expression, and this cast comes through admirably. Near Dark is a work of art that should have been celebrated.
Unfortunately, Near Dark opened the same weekend as that campy teen idolfest, The Lost Boys. Two vampire films, two entirely different concepts, and sadly only one audience. The advertising campaign for the low budget independent film concentrated on the horror aspect. The big budget flick had Keifer Sutherland and Jason Patric. And so, Near Dark remains a little known film. Now that it's available on DVD, it has a second chance to win its deserved audience. Near Dark is a lost treasure. Go discover it.