The View From Here

"I hate it when they ain't bin shaved..." or happy birthday Near Dark!

Michael Bonner

I mentioned in yesterday's blog about how much of a fan I am of Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow's vampire noir that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. To be honest, it's been flapping round by brain all day like a rabid bat, so I thought why not write about it...

In 1987, the vampire film most people I knew were into was The Lost Boys. My female friends fancied Keifer Sutherland and a lot of my male friends thought he was kinda cool. I liked the fact Echo & The Bunnymen had covered The Doors' "People Are Strange" on the closing credits.

Around that time, I remember being round at a friend's. We were of an age when, if someone's parents were away, everyone congregated round their house, usually to have a party, get up to all sorts of mischief. We used to watch a lot of videos, too, our teenage cineastic tastes mostly, and predictably, informed by sex (Risky Business was a favourite here -- everyone I knew fancied Rebecca DeMornay) and horror. I remember walking into my friend Mark's front room at the precise moment when, on the TV, a station wagon, engulfed in flames, ground to a halt on some desolate highway and, inside, two charred and blackened figures smiled unrepentantly at each other through the smoke and flames, held hands, and muttered in agreement "Good times... Good times..." before the film cut to an external shot of the car exploding.

This was my introduction to Near Dark, a film I've watched and rewatched dozens of times since. I guess what first drew me to Near Dark was that it seemed miles away from the MTV popcorn of Lost Boys. The film took place predominantly at night, long shrouds in the shadows, everything enveloped in sulphurous, nocturnal yellows and washed-out blues, characters' faces the colour of ashes.

The vampires -- Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen, emaciated and hellbound), Severin (Bill Paxton), Salmonback (Jenette Goldstein), Homer (Joshua Miller) and Mae (Jenny Wright) -- are by and large a surly bunch, particularly Jesse, who had little by way of character traits beyond a short temper and mean disposition. They were in stark contrast to the rather effete crew in The Lost Boys, who looked like they spent more time fixing their hair (an appalling selection of mullets and shaggy perms, as I recall) than drinking the blood of innocents. Jesse's lot just looked mean as nails.

They weren't charming, cultured sensualists like Anne Rice's characters, and bore no relation to The Lost Boys' feral gang of too-cool-to-die punkers. They were drifters, travelling in a Winnebago with blacked out windows, scraping by on a fairly one-note existence, scavenging and killing.

I was struck, too, by the way the film was driven by atmosphere, shot in a way that was incredibly stylish, but didn't susbcribe to the kind of notions of cinematic style operating circa 1987. The prevailing tone was choleric, Tangerine Dream's score motorik, impassive, no hit singles to be found here. There were some fantastic scenes, though, that felt like Bigelow was making art. In one, the vampires are holed up in a motel room, the law surrounding the place. A ferocious firefight begins, bullet holes piercing the room's walls letting shafts of light penetrate the gloom, gun smoke rising and twisting in the air. It looked quite beautiful through the bullets and chaos.

It was also very violent, but not needlessly gratuitous. There's one scene that demonstrates just how unremittingly baaaad these vampires are, in which they descend on a bar and, while The Cramps' version of "Fever" plays on the jukebox, systematically and brutally wipe out the clientele. Severin, here, has a wonderfully black way with one-liners: "Finger lickin' good," he bellows as he licks thick, arterial blood from his hands.

In fact, Paxton, along with Henriksen and Goldstein had appeared, a year previously, playing marines in Aliens, directed by Bigelow's then-husband James Cameron. It's hard to work out who influenced who -- there's so many parallels between the two drectors, some shared aesthetic. At their best, they're both excellent genre directors, and they even appear (coinsciously or not) to replicate scenes from each other's films. It would, you imagine, be harder for Bigelow to succeed in a male-dominated industry (I can only think of John Carpenter's collaborator, Debra Hill, as another woman working in films at such a prominent level during that time). It makes Bigelow's achievements in Near Dark (and, later, with Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days) all the more impressive.

There's been talk for a while about a sequel, original co-screenwriter Erik Red saying earlier this year: "If [Near Dark] was Bonnie & Clyde and Jesse James, the sequel is The Hatfields and The McCoys. It has a shocking opening and action sequences you won’t believe, including a spectacular showdown finale on a freight train at dawn."

I'm not inclined to leap up and down with joy at the thought of this. Near Dark is a cult classic in its own right, and I think its legacy is best preserved without the need for a sequel.

And not bad for a film where the "v" word isn't mentioned once...

There's a Special Edition DVD available from Anchor Bay you can get here.


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