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Near Dark (1987)

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Posted 16th February 2012 at 11:19 AM by thelostclassics

The following review appears on my website:

With huge franchises like Twilight and popular TV shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries as well as literally thousands of vampire romances covering bookshelves and appearing on Kindles. It's perhaps difficult now to think that there was a time when the vampire sub genre was no great shakes. But following Hammer closing up shop in the mid 70s very few vampire movies were released. Sure there was Blacula (1972) and John Badham's Dracula, a follow-up to Saturday Night Fever and a retread of Universal's 1931 classic, with Laurence Oliver as Van Helsing and Frank Langella, occasionally on horseback, as the count. But movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills have Eyes (1977) and notably Halloween (1978) indicated a change in the horror film landscape. No longer were audience members sated by drips of blood on Dracula's fangs but blades had to be seen to puncture like Kevin Bacon's infamous demise in Friday the 13th or heads had to explode as seen in Cronenburg's Scanners (1981), a blood covered Ingrid Pitt didn't cause people to repel, rather it was a blood and innard strewn Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Dracula and his brides were no longer the boogeymen of cinema. Instead it was Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger and the zombies of Fulci and Romero's canon.

Essentially the volume had been turned up to eleven in the horror scene and vampires were outmoded. Then Tony Scott adapted Whitley Strieber's cult novel The Hunger (1983) as an arthouse part erotic/part horror tale but even a lengthy MTV-esque introduction by goth legends Bauhaus (fittingly 'Bela Lugosi's dead') and David Bowie as a vampire didn't validate the film for the VHS generation.

Pray for daylight.
It would take a less serious approach to get crowds back in seats. Tom Holland's lost classic Fright Night (1985) and Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys (1987) were the movies that made vampires cool again. There was enough gore on display for the inevitable video freeze frames, and comedy sidekicks - who will ever forget Evil Ed or the Frogg brothers? - to keep in line with the horror-comedy fusion that was brought about by Return of the Living Dead (1985) and the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. However more than anything they made vampires cool again. Whether it was the very metrosexual Jerry Dandridge (played by The Hunger's Susan Sarandon's ex husband Chris) or the straight-off-a-Motley-Crue-video looking pretty boy vampires of The Lost Boys. Vampires were relevant again, but were they scary and tragic? Or did they just hiss one liners like "Welcome to Fright Night!" or "You missed sucker!" at teenagers?

I sure haven't met any girls like you.

Eric Red, hot off of script duties on the Rutget Hauer horror The Hitcher (1986), planned to make a western movie with Kathryn Bigelow. However, when they failed to get the backing for a Western they decided to blend it into a vampire road movie. The vampire western had been done before with John Carradine as the count in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). The vampires would be a menacing nomadic pack drifting through modern day Oklahoma and Texas.

Just a couple more minutes of your time, about the same duration as the rest of your life.

The film opens with rancher Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) picking up a pretty drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) and hanging out in rural Oklahoma. As they embrace she bites him on the neck and then runs off. As the sun rises Caleb's skin starts to burn and he is quickly bundled into a van filled with Mae's vampire companions. Caleb learns that he has been turned into one of them and is given a week to prove that he can hunt and kill with them. Meanwhile his father (Tim Thompson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) start searching for Caleb.

There's somethin' you want to show me?

It's impossible to think of Near Dark without talking about the cast. True, Adrian (TV's Judging Amy) Pasdar is good as Caleb and Jenny Wright is mesmerising as the waif-like Mae. But the spoils go to the Aliens-reunion cast Lance Henricksen, Jenette Goldstein and notably Bill Paxton as Jesse, Diamondback and Severen respectively. They radiate an air of menace and from the moment you see them you know something horrible is just waiting to happen.

Hey Jesse, remember when we started that fire in Chicago?

The scene in the bar stands out the most with Henricksen sneering, Diamondback jealously lashing out at a pretty barmaid and Severen playing with his food - "I hates it when they ain't shaved." Joshua John Miller is excellent as Homer, a character similar to Claudia in Ann Rice's Interview with the Vampire, in that he is eternally young and treated as a surrogate son to Diamondback and Jesse despite his experiences. Hints at their ages appear with Jesse, still donning a Civil War hair style, telling Caleb that his side lost that war.

In fairness to Fright Night and The Lost Boys, Chris Sarandon, Stephen Geoffreys and Kiefer Sutherland all managed to pull of their roles with a mixture of charisma and pathos that ensures that they will never be considered caricatures but Near Dark feels more earthy. True, Severen - like most Bill Paxton characters of the time - is doling out the one liners but there is a mixture of emotions such as rage ass well as the scene where he shushes a biker gently as he kills him. However, Homer feels like the most realised of the group as he yearns for Caleb's sister Sarah and gently tries to make her his companion. These scenes would be echoed years later in Let the right one in (2004) and its remake Let Me In (2010).

And I'm Homer. H-O-M-E-R. Mispronounce it and I wouldn't want to be you.

As later came to be expected from a Kathryn Bigelow film - Point Break, The Hurt Locker - there are some great visuals in the movie such as sunrise on the Oklahoman plains, Caleb on horseback and of course the shoot out where the State Troopers' bullets are less lethal than the shafts of light they puncture into the motel's walls. This visual motif also appeared in Ringo Lam's City on Fire (1987) and with the same effect in Robert Rodriguez' From Dusk till Dawn (1996). The latter owes quite a lot to Near Dark, being a similar blend of genres, down and dirty road house vampires and fx. So much so it's difficult to think that Quentin Tarantino didn't have this movie on his mind when writing the script.

It ain't what's goin' on son. It's what's comin' off. Your face. Clean off.

Although it wasn't a box office success when released. The film, like all Lost Classics, developed a cult following on TV, video and DVD. I met Michael Biehn on Halloween 2011 and talked with him about the movie as he was initially offered the role of Jesse, he said about the high regard that the film was kept in with his friends who appeared in the movie, then smiled and said that no way could he top Lance Henricksen's portrayal. For a horror film, there are pretty good roles and even better performances. Another interesting piece of trivia is that the great child actor Joshua John Miller who played Tim in another 80s great - River's Edge - just prior to Near Dark is the half brother of Jason Patric, who played the lead Michael in The Lost Boys. It would be interesting to learn if there was a rivalry there going into the release dates in the summer of 1987.

Final Thoughts

If you're finding it difficult to try and sense what type of movie Near Dark is, try putting it into this perspective. If Fright Night and The Lost Boys were (much better) forerunners of Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then Near Dark is the forerunner of Let the right one in. Not just a great vampire movie, but a really enjoyable movie.

Check it out.
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