Bloodthirsty and Lonely in the Heartland: Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK

NEAR DARK (1987)

The vampire endures. The first great vampire of the screen was Max Schreck’s horrifying Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922). A few years later, Bela Lugosi’s turn in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) established the archetype of the cinema vampire, swapping Orlok’s repulsiveness for a seductive, gothic grandeur.

In the time since, the vampire has proved an extremely durable figure, retaining its prominence in the pantheon of movie monsters. It’s also proved highly adaptable to different eras and idioms. We’ve seen Old World vampires, urban vampires, spiritual vampires, pathological vampires, hipster vampires, raver vampires, addict vampires, glam vampires, dreamboat vampires, French, Russian, Korean, Cuban, and Iranian vampires, and the list goes on and on.

For me, one of the great vampire films is the criminally underseen Near Dark (1987), made by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). It’s also one of the most distinctly American, grafting its narrative to the themes and iconography of the American western.

Its opening shots ground us in the visual language of the cowboy film — the big sky and vast Oklahoma plains rolling by through the window of a battered pickup truck, driven by a rugged young man in denim and a ten-gallon hat. Yet the pulsing, moody synth soundtrack (courtesy of electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream) suggests another tone, something more mysterious, nocturnal, unearthly.

Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright), searching for connection in a lonesome vision of the American heartland (NEAR DARK, 1987)

In town, the driver, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), spots a young woman (Jenny Wright) eating an ice cream cone, her jeans belted by a length of rope. Her name is Mae and she needs a ride. Caleb is happy to oblige. She’s very beautiful, but there’s something strange about her. “You’ve never met a girl like me,” she says. Pointing to the sky, she remarks, “I’ll still be here when the light from that star hits the ground.”

As dawn approaches, May grows increasingly anxious to get home. Caleb pressures her for a kiss (not cool dude!). It proves to be a fateful move. She obliges him, tentatively at first, but it becomes something more passionate — and then she sinks her teeth into his neck.

An unorthodox vampire clan with a camper instead of castle (NEAR DARK, 1987)

As Caleb begins to undergo changes — weakened by sunlight, repelled by food — he’s swept up by Mae’s band of blood-drinkers and drawn into their roving drift along the highways of Middle America. These vampires have none of the aristocratic bearing of a Dracula or a Lestat. Instead of a castle, they have a camper; instead of capes, they have cowboy boots. Along with Mae, there is the psychotic Severen (Bill Paxton); Homer (Joshua John Miller), who is ancient but trapped in the body of a young boy; as well as Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the parental figures of the group. They exist in a state or permanent transience, living the vampiric equivalent of a hand-to-mouth existence, which means venturing out each night to prey on the other denizens of the road.

Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, fresh off the set of James Cameron’s ALIENS (NEAR DARK, 1987)

Their reason for existence as a unit, it would seem, is for the sake of some company on the journey. Indeed, their bond feels palpable, and, among the actors, was probably genuine. Henriksen, Goldstein, and Paxton had just come off the set of Aliens, directed by Bigelow’s then-husband James Cameron, where they had played members of an ill-fated military expedition.

The America they inhabit is hardly a homey one. Rendered by Bigelow, its identifying quality is a hanging loneliness, the expansiveness of the landscape only a reminder of its emptiness. Its human outposts are places of transit, many of them on the verge of desolation — truck stops, cheap motels, bus stations, stretches of highway where you might be inclined to pick up a hitchhiker just to break up the isolation.

Throughout the history of the genre, from Stagecoach (1939) to High Noon (1952) to Unforgiven (1992), the western has often examined the dynamics of communities on the margins, where the rules of society are not so defined. Traditionally, this was the frontier, where such communities were still in their elementary stages. Near Dark, as with other neo-westerns like No Country for Old Men (2007) or Hell or High Water (2016), is set in the semi-rural, economically depressed lands known alternatively as the Heartland and fly-over country. It’s a post-Manifest Destiny vision, where the west has already been conquered, but the established civic and social institutions have begun to deteriorate from within.

Bigelow grafts the iconography of the western into a horror film narrative (NEAR DARK, 1987)

It’s no wonder, then, that for all their menace, the clannishness of the vampire gang holds a dark appeal for Caleb. Life in their fold seems to promise a kind of deliverance from the life he knows — both its loneliness and its limitations. Yet to join them means completely severing himself from human society and giving himself over the the stark brutality of their lifestyle, which comes into stark focus during an extraordinary set-piece in a roadhouse saloon.

Near Dark was greeted warmly by critics, who admired its blend of grit and tenderness, a quality that would come to be one of Bigelow’s signatures. However, this admiration did not translate to box office success, likely due to the shadow cast by the glossier, Brat-Pack-powered teen vamp flick The Lost Boys (1987), which was released a few months earlier. Yet Near Dark has developed a cult following in the years since its release, and remains absolutely essential viewing, both as an early example of Bigelow’s special touch, and as a unique, frightening, and genuinely moving cinema experience for the Halloween season.

Near Dark is rarely played in theaters, so don’t miss you chance to see it (on 35mm no less) at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Tuesday, October 16. The screening is part of our American Boogeymen series, introduced by BMFI Board Member, Alice Bullitt, M.A. The series kicks off on Tuesday, October 9 with the theatrical return of John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween. The series continues on Tuesday, October 23 with the new 4K remaster of Donnie Darko, and concludes on Tuesday, October 30 with Carrie.

See you at the movies!

— Jacob Mazer, Special Programming Manager, BMFI

Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Upcoming films, special events, and film courses at BMFI

Bryn Mawr Film Institute

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A non-profit art house movie theater & film education center on Philadelphia's Main Line. http://www.brynmawrfilm.org

Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Upcoming films, special events, and film courses at BMFI

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