Aug 3, 2014
Long before she became arguably the most overrated female filmmaker in cinema history, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directed a couple of cult flicks that did not get their due upon their releases and made the future of her career seem dubious at best. While her considerably overlooked debut work The Loveless (1981)—a nihilistic reworking of the Marlon Brando vehicle The Wild One (1953) co-directed by David Lynch producer Monty Montgomery (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Hotel Room) and starring a then unknown Willem Dafoe—is still pretty much unknown except among certain types of cinephiles, Bigelow’s genre-bending ‘vampire western’ Near Dark (1987) has developed a sizable cult following over the decades. Admittedly, when I first saw Near Dark as a kid, I was fairly disappointed, as I expected a modernist too-cool-for-school vampire flick that was even ‘cooler’ than the similarly leather-clad and genre-twisting bloodsucker blockbuster The Lost Boys (1987), but ultimately discovered a redneck cowboy vampire flick that was big on atmosphere, low on comic relief, and as stoic as a rampantly heterosexual hillbilly on black market steroids. Of course, when I first saw the film, I did not realize it was originally intended as a western by director Bigelow, who only decided to make it a cross-genre undead cowboy flick after she and her co-writer Eric Red (who previously penned The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer and who would later co-pen the 1996 TV movie Undertow with Bigelow) realized it was impossible to find funding for old west style celluloid dung during the Reaganite 1980s. Indeed, vamp flicks where quite vogue at the time as demonstrated by the commercial success and/or popularity of bloodsucker flicks as varied as The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), and Once Bitten (1985). Unfortunately, Near Dark was released only three months after the highly successful vampire classic The Lost Boys (which grossed over $32 million)—a work that had a lot of advertising muscle behind it as a Warner Brothers produced picture—and was thus seen as a poor rip-off and failed miserably at the box office, though serious film critics ranging from Jonathan Rosenbaum to David J. Skal were more perceptive regarding the work and realized its somewhat singular aesthetic value. Apparently the third vampire-western film ever made following the mostly worthless works Curse of the Undead (1959) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), Near Dark is more than just a genre-hybrid flick as a work that also owes credit to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) due to its outlaws-on-the-road theme and even Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) due to its postcard perfect cinematography of scorching American deserts and ethereal open plains. Borrowing a good portions of the cast of Aliens (1986) directed by James Cameron (who knew and later married Bigelow and even has a cameo role in the film ‘flipping the bird’ to Paxton’s character), including Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein, the film certainly has memorable performances and standout characters, but owes most of its potency to its poetic cinematography by Adam Greenberg (a Polish Jew that previously shot Once Bitten and The Terminator), strangely soothing yet foreboding atmosphere, eloquent pacing, and visceral eroticism. Indeed, if it were not for the film’s Hollywood style one-liners, (anti)genre conventions, and big explosions scenes, the film would almost qualify as a rare semi-mainstream arthouse ‘horror’ film. The more rebellious yet more mature and stoic little brother of The Lost Boys, Near Dark is also a rare example of where the largely European vampire subgenre has been seamlessly and appropriately Americanized to accommodate the ostensibly fearless and feral-like frontier spirit of the Yanks, who ultimately drained the North American continent dry. Indeed, for better or worse, if it were not for Bigelow’s undead redneck rebel flick there would be no True Blood.
Young dirty blond twink cowboy Caleb Colton (played by Adrian Pasdar, who is of ½ Iranian/ ½ German ancestry) is a young horny buck looking for a cowgirl and while hanging out with his immature cowboy comrades, he spots a blonde ‘heroin chic’ white trash beauty named Mae (Jenny Wright) that looks like she could be his twin sister. Caleb and Mae hit it off instantly as if they were born for one another, though the latter sometimes acts strange as if she is not telling her new beau something important. When it gets close to sunrise, Mae becomes increasingly strange and abruptly tells Caleb she has to leave, but before she can, the cowboy demands a kiss, but he ultimately gets more than a mere juicy peck as the naughty nymph-like beauty bites him on the neck and runs away. Of course, Caleb begins chasing Mae just as the sun rises and becomes startled by the fact that his flesh is burning. Unbeknownst to Caleb, Mae has given him a sweet kiss of death that has transformed him into a member of the bloodlusting undead. Before Caleb knows it, he is scooped up off the road and pulled inside a blackened ‘Winnebago from Hell’ (as Bigelow has described it) by Mae’s outlaw 'family' of cool-as-a-corpse confederate bloodsuckers, including charismatic yet seemingly half-crazed leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), butch pseudo-blonde bitch Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), neurotic and equally nasty child-vampire Homer (played by Joshua John Miller, who previously played the deranged kid in Tim Hunter's underrated 1986 masterpiece River's Edge), and psychopathic Lizard King wannabe Severen (played Bill Paxton, who would once describe regarding his role, “I guess I was kind of living my Jim Morrison fantasy”), who wants to kill the hopelessly naïve cowboy. Unfortunately for sick Severen, Mae has turned Caleb into a bloodsucker so instead of draining him of his vital fluids, the van of vamps decide to give the novice vampire a trial period to prove whether or not he has what it takes to be one of them. As Mae tells Caleb regarding their potentially perennial future together as vampire lovers, he and she can do, “anything we want…until the end of time…but you have to learn to kill” because, after all, “the night has its price.” Unfortunately, Caleb is a pussy poser cowboy who does not have what it takes to kill. Meanwhile, Caleb’s farmer father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and little sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) begin traveling the open road looking for their loved one and naturally they seem like no match for a pernicious pack of bloodsucking predators of the country fried sort.
Since Caleb is hopelessly shy when it comes to slaughtering and draining blood from humans, his lover Mae does the murdering and even feeds him like a baby, with a nice negro truck driver being the first victim of their peculiar feeding arrangement. To the vampire family’s credit, they mostly kill and feed on subhuman scum, including carjackers, cheap cowboy-riding sluts, dickheaded rednecks, and other rabble that will hardly be missed by the general populous. When the vampires take Caleb to a bar as a last test to see if he will kill, the undead pseudo-family ultimately slaughters virtually every patron in building, including the bartender. Of course, coward Caleb pussies out in regard to killing a young man that is about his age, so the vamps decide he is too weak and plan to exterminate him. Ironically, Caleb falls into favor with the family the next morning after saving the day when the same young man he let go the previous night calls the cops, who raid a seedy motel where the vamps are staying. Indeed, after putting his life on the line during a Bonnie and Clyde style police raid, Caleb buys himself some time, but it does not last long, as his father and sister end up staying at the same hotel that night by happenstance. When Homer—a rather old child-vampire who is quite self-conscious of his pathetic prepubescent body and is pissed that the newcomer has stolen Mae from him (apparently, Homer was the one responsible for 'turning' Mae)—spots Caleb’s Sarah, he decides he wants to make her his baby vampire bride. Of course, Caleb is not happy with this and begs bloodsucker boss Jesse to leave his family alone. Ultimately, Caleb manages to escape with his family when the sun comes up. In a scenario that defies all vampire film logic, Caleb is transformed back into a human after being given a blood transfusion. Seeking revenge and knowing that the Colton family can reveal their undead identities, the vampires decide to wage war. While using Mae to distract Caleb, the vampires steal Sarah, who Homer still wants to make his mate. Riding on horseback because the vampires have slit his car tires, Caleb goes looking for his sister and first encounters sarcastic psychopathic sicko Severen, who he gets in a long battle with using a tractor-trailer that ultimately leaves the bad ass bloodsucker in pieces after the twink cowboy jackknifes the big rig, which almost instantly magically explodes into seemingly millions of pieces. Of course, Jesse, Homer, Diamondback, and Mae go after Caleb, but the two girls help the young man escape. Somewhat absurdly (or maybe not so if one considers how rough some rednecks live their lives), the vampires begin chasing Caleb at daybreak in an automobile with blackened windows that they have covered with spray paint. Quite selflessly, Mae helps save Sarah by breaking through the back window with the little girl in her arms. Of course, Homer, who still wants his virginal child bride, follows them, but he is burned up by the sun. In a last ditch effort to takeout Caleb, Jesse and Diamondback attempt to run over the cowboy and his little sister, but they and their car explode due to exposure from the light. In the end, Caleb manages to reverse Mae’s transformation by giving her the same sort of barnyard blood transfusion he had, thus enabling them to live a short banal life together as boring everyday human beings.
As far as I known, Near Dark is the sole worthwhile hick bloodsucker flick, as well as the greatest vampire-western ever made, though fanboys seem to like conspicuously contrived works like Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989) starring Bruce Campbell David Carradine and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Of course, Near Dark is the only one of these three films that has any true class and plays everything straight and does not wallow in being tediously tongue-in-cheek, as a work that thankfully lacks the putrid postmodern irony of the two other mentioned works. The rather bizarre film Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987) directed by British far-left filmmaker Alan Clarke (Baal, Made in Britain) may seem like a vampire-western upon a superficial glance as the title hints, but it is actually a goofy semi-absurdist comedy-musical about the ‘cue sport’ snooker. Featuring a highly complementary musical score by Teutonic electronic music maestros Tangerine Dream, as well as a cover of the song “Fever” by punk proto-psychobilly group The Cramps (who also contributed music to other 1980s horror classics like The Return of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Near Dark is undoubtedly an all-around aesthetically agreeable work that ultimately proves that there is still some room to rework the vampire subgenre without resorting to the predictable cynicism and irony that plagues so many similarly themed flicks nowadays. In fact, Bigelow’s film does not even feature the use of the word ‘vampire’ a single time as if the human characters in the flick are completely unaware of the fact such supernatural beings exist, thus adding to the mystique of an already mystifying film where the bloodsucker is the ultimate outlaw and where holy objects, roses, garlic, holy water, and mirrors never come into the equation, thus enabling the viewer to fantasize about the possibilities of the largely unexplained mythology.
A remake of Near Dark co-written by Bigelow and Canadian actor Matt Craven (no relation to Wes) and starring Bill Paxton and Heather Langenkamp of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) fame began shooting in 2007, but the studio apparently did not like the dailies and the production was apparently aborted (even though apparently over a 1/3 of the film had already been shot), though as of November 2011, another remake was in development. Of course, the last thing the world needs in another super shitty horror remake that rapes and defiles everything that was great about the original film. Largely erotic in the sort of way a budding trailer park beauty is before she has had one too many beer bottles and dirty dicks in her mouth, Near Dark manages to give the whole cowboy outlaw way of life some much needed legitimacy that has not been seen in cinema since the nihilistic revisionist westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, the film also demonstrates that Bigelow has more of a poetic vision than her mostly banal and obscenely overrated political thrillers indicate. Interestingly, in the featurette Living in Darkness (2002), cold and cool Nordic American man man’s Lance Henriksen stated regarding the experience of working with Bigelow on the film, “She made me think a matriarchal situation in filmmaking is really wonderful.” Indeed, despite featuring nocturnal homicidal hicks and redneck ‘rebel flag’ renegade bloodsucking (Henriksen's character claims to have fought for the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War and even has the stars-and-bars flag from his ship stitched inside his trench coat), Near Dark certainly has the sort of nicely nuanced eroticism and subtle yet perversely potent sensuality that only a feminine touch could have been capable of, thus acting as a rare example where lacking testicular fortitude can be beneficial to a filmmaker.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:10 AM
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