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July 10, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Underappreciated Gems | July 10, 2008 |

1987 was a great year for the movie geek. It was the year of Robocop, The Running Man, Full Metal Jacket, Stakeout, Moonstruck, The Untouchables, and Lethal Weapon — all movies of varying quality that most of us have probably seen. One movie that has a place of infamy and honor on the geek list is certainly The Lost Boys, which was well-received and still holds a dear, if not somewhat ironic, place in the hearts of many. As a result, it was almost inevitable that Near Dark would be overlooked. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break), it came out three months after Joel Schumacher’s vampires-meets-teen-angst semi-epic. It lacked the star power of The Lost Boys, featuring what was basically a mixed bag of a then-unknown Adrian Pasdar combined with a few Aliens castaways, versus the juggernaut of The Coreys, a mulleted, bloodthirsty Jack Bauer, Dianne Wiest, Jason Patric and Herman Munster. Perhaps most importantly, due to its October release date, it missed the summer blockbuster season altogether, after moviegoers had already slaked their thirst for vampire shenanigans with July’s entry. It was a far darker, less teeny-bopper oriented feature, with little interest in the conventional vampire mythos; all of these things contributed to it ending up 128th in box office receipts, and earning little more than a paltry $3,000,000. Yet despite all of that, not to mention some pretty obvious flaws to the film itself, it’s well worth your attention and is a true underappreciated gem.

Near Dark is a simple tale. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy gets bitten by girl and then kidnapped by her adopted family of psychopathic blood-drinking outlaws. The boy in this case is Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), an Oklahoma farm boy who is listlessly wandering one night when he sees Mae (Jenny Wright), a odd, spacey girl who he finds strangely captivating. He gets her to go out with him, and despite the weird, almost trance-like state that she maintains, gazing at the sky and speaking of stars and eternity, he is entranced. Finally, after much back and forth between the two, they kiss (incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that their first kiss is without question an all-time great screen kiss), and of course, she bites him. The next thing he knows, he’s staggering home in amidst a searing dawn, slowly roasting (literally) in the sun, until a RV with blacked out windows swings past him and he is unceremoniously sucked into Mae’s bizarre and deadly family.

Obviously, Mae’s adopted family is a gang of vampires. The gaunt and grim Jesse (Lance Henriksen — Bishop from Aliens) is the groups pater familias, and he runs the gang with his mate, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein — Vasquez from Aliens). The two are accompanied by Severen (Bill Paxton, Hudson-sir-he’s-Hicks from Aliens… sense a trend?) and the oldest of the pack, Homer (Joshua Miller). We learn that they are essentially a roaming gang of vampiric nomads, traveling across the U.S., avoiding the law and human scrutiny as best they can by staying on the move, despite leaving a path of destruction and havoc in their wake. The rest of the film is pretty straightforward — Caleb is initially seduced by the power offered, but unable to make the kill. His father, Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) are trying to track him down, which all eventually leads to a Wild West-style showdown between Caleb and the pack.

The plot of Near Dark is certainly not going to win any awards or change the way you look at vampire films — there are some interesting twists to it, but also some fairly silly parts (the “cure” that is developed is forehead-slappingly dopey). But it’s just so damn interesting that you’ll find yourself drawn into it. I’ve talked before about vampire movies as a genre — there is far more bad than good when one examines the whole catalog. So when something comes along that puts a little extra spin on the concept — something that melds it successfully with other ideas or successfully intermingles other genres with it — I’m all for it. Such is the case here — Near Dark is obviously a vampire film — the pack hunts humans, they drink blood, they heal quickly and live forever. However, there is little supernatural kick-assery; no flying on wires, no fangs, no crosses or religious undertones at all, and no stakes through the heart or aversion to garlic. Because it’s also more than a vampire movie — it’s part romance, part road trip movie, part western, and honestly, part crime movie. In truth, take away the vampire part and you’ve got a pretty compelling, and at times disturbing, movie about what is essentially a roving band of serial killers. By taking away all of the Gothic lace-and-leather sentimentalism of many vampire pictures and transplanting the story to the dusty, dirt-caked nowhere-land of rural Oklahoma and Texas, the movie has a stark, Western-meets-Mad Max feel to it that is totally disparate from the typical genre conventions. Instead of leather, ruffled shirts and high boots, it’s denim jackets and cowboy boots. You can tell Bigelow was still developing her technique — it’s not quite as stylish as Strange Days, as hard-boiled as Blue Steel, or as flashy as Point Break, but she makes excellent use of the environments. Filmed in Casa Grande, Arizona, it creates a fantastic dichotomy of a dry, grungy wasteland and sparse, sun-drenched open country. As a result, the cinematography is an interesting addition to the tale of nomadic, killer vagabonds.

In addition to the gritty atmosphere provided by the choice of setting, there are a number of clever little puzzle pieces included. Perhaps borrowing a bit from Anne Rice, Joshua Miller’s Homer is a rather chilling addition — an immortal creature, the old man of the group, trapped in the body of a 10-year old boy. Watching him set traps for his victims by pretending to be a kid who fell off his bike is particularly twisted. The movie is filled with neat little throw-in lines to give you a sense of what they truly are. Henriksen’s Jesse, with his gaunt features and facial scars, comes off as a worn, soulless killer. When Caleb asks him how old he is, he simply responds, “Let’s put it this way: I fought for the South. We lost.” Similarly, while watching an abandoned vehicle burn, Severen cackles, “Hey, Jesse, remember that fire we started in Chicago?” Little touches that breath life into the roles. Of course, one of my favorite ideas in films like this that started with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and continued in films like Cronos is that the word “vampire” is never uttered. Caleb laments his being bit and the subsequent changes, but never is vampirism actually acknowledged.

Make no mistake — Near Dark is by no means a perfect film. The acting is terribly uneven, it seems badly dated at times, and it feels like it should be 20 or 30 minutes longer. You never really get to know the members of the gang — part of the reason those little snippets of character are so vital. The music, composed by Tangerine Dream in all their ear-stabbing 80’s splendor, makes it a sad victim of its decade (Tangerine Dream is also responsible for the awful, awful soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s horrifyingly dated epic, Legend). Jenny Wright in particular is a an interesting case study — she’s actually quiet good overall, but the writing fails her at times. There is only so much success to be had with lines like, “Listen to the night… it’s deafening.” When she’s allowed to simply be the sweet, almost fey-like woman-child trapped between two worlds, she’s wonderful. But when that extra dollop of mystical melodrama is thrown in, she falters. Bill Paxton, who was so much fun in Aliens and Weird Science in the two previous years, at times plays up the Chet/Hudson bit a little too much. Throw in an overdose of psychobilly yee-haw, and at times he’s downright irritating. Clocking in at under 100 minutes, it feels rushed at times, although perhaps character depth was never the point — maybe simply style and atmosphere were supposed to suffice.

However, it makes up for many of those weaknesses in originality and execution. Yes, it has its share of missteps, but when it hits its mark, it’s surprisingly effective. By combining a conventional vampire tale of death and rebirth with the darker tones of a crime thriller and a western’s gunslinger mentality (a daylight shootout at a hotel with local cops is particularly impressive example of this genre-bending), it creates a whole new world to serve as a vampire playground. While it’s not 100% successful, Near Dark has enough imagination and noir undertones (not to mention gore and violence) that it deserves the chance it never got in the theaters.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Underappreciated Gems | July 10, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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