‘Near Dark’ Is A Uniquely American Masterpiece Of An Unheralded Cinematic Subgenre: The Vampire Neo-Western – Decider

Backlit and backgrounded by an oil derrick pumping mindless on a sultry Texas midnight, a young couple engage in an act of sanguine, carnal communion: Beautiful, lovestoned cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), on his knees in the hardpack clay, drinks from a vein lissome Mae (Jenny Wright) has opened in her own wrist. Scored by a throbbing Tangerine Dream track, the moment is liebstod in a grand, Wagnerian sense: the act of communion made metaphorical as a love act and literalized in the consumption of the dead in the pursuit of eternal life. Its gospel, can I get a hallelujah?

Mae is a vampire the youngest in a literal sense but only second-youngest in appearance of a band of nomadic vampires making their way through the South in a converted Winnebego, its windows covered with tinfoil to defeat the suns necrotizing light. She tells Caleb early in their first nights reluctant courtship if he sees a particular star and if he knows that shell still be alive when the light from it thats leaving at that moment, arrives on Earth in a few millennia. Caleb doesnt understand poetry enough to understand that shes not reciting any. Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelows second film, is an elegy for subsistence, addiction, illness, rootlessness, and despair on the outside of an America that will not tolerate any of those sins.

Bigelow and co-writer Eric Reds vampires are predators, sure, but rather than rotting aristocrats from a failed European state, their members also include:

Theyre a family in the way that families are sometimes constructed from cast-offs who find some purpose in the comfort of the similarly-lost. But there are always more cast-offs. Mae was turned because Homer was lonesome, but however old he is on the inside on the outside Homers just a snot-nosed little brat. Mae is more interested in Caleb. Caleb is beautiful. She sees him see her outside an ice cream stand in one of those breathless moments on a still night when youre still young but just barely and hanging out with your buddies, acting tough for each other. One of his friends sees her first and says that he must be dreaming. Caleb tells him he can go on dreaming and goes to work. Because Caleb is just a kid himself, the best thing he can think of to do is take her to meet his horse but his horse, of course, doesnt like Mae very much. The next best thing he can think of is to refuse to take Mae home until she gives him a kiss. For his transgression, she gives him a bite.

Near Dark is one of the key films of my development during a crucial summer of my life: 1989. I was sixteen. It had come out in 1987 of course, but VHS made films into fort/da fetish objects. I watched it on a loop with Miracle Mile and Heathers: a trio of pictures I see now that formed what has been something like a blueprint, or skeleton, for the way I handle feelings of lonesomeness, self-loathing, and detachment. They lit a path that made verbal gymnastics hip, leather and the company of weirdos the rule, falling in sway to grand romantic notions the prerequisite to a life lived dramatically. The end of the search for consequence and commitment. I must have seen Near Dark a hundred times that year at least it or one of its sisters was always playing in triplicate loops in the background.

Ive seen it a couple dozen times since on multiple formats, including once in a private screening of a degraded and precious 35mm print. When I found an old jukebox on Craigslist and restored it, I made a point to load it with the tracks played during the central honkytonk slaughter in the film: John Parrs Naughty Naughty, The Cramps iconic cover of Fever, George Straits The Cowboy Rides Away. I never considered how unlikely this lineup was for a juke in the kind of joint where the gang runs riot through a waitress, a bartender (dubbed Mr. Pigknuckle) and a pair of hapless pool players and I never was able to find Jools Hollands Morse Code on 45 (was it ever pressed?) at the same time I was finding the roadmap for my interior life in 1989, I was also finding through films like this and Say Anything, the ways in which music could say the things I couldnt say and the ways back through writing about music that I could finally express exactly what was wrong with me.

The gang isnt happy Mae has turned Caleb instead of eaten him. An extra mouth to feed is a burden on all of them who, as armed and vicious as they are, are hand-to-mouth and concerned with discovery and destruction in a world where the chips are decidedly stacked against them. The reason there arent a lot of vampire westerns is self-evident. But Caleb wont fully be one of them until he takes a victim this sucking off of Mae is a stopgap now that he can no longer eat solid foods. When Caleb tries to run home, to cobble together enough fare for a bus ride back across the flat Texas expanse, a plainclothes policeman (Troy Evans) asks Caleb what kind of junkie he is finally wonders if hes sick and pays for the rest of the fare himself. 1987 is the heart of the AIDS epidemic and the height of Nancy Reagans Just Say No War on Drugs in the United States I think its no coincidence this and David Cronenbergs The Fly (1986) appear within a year of one another. Horror films were always best, and first, at the grim duty of telling what a society is most afraid of. He tries to run now back to his captors before the sun rises a mirror of Maes flight at the start of the film after Calebs unsuccessful seduction/successful assault of her. He gets to experience the fear hed given to her now. And then Mae feeds him. Theres text here of how a woman filmmaker addresses a relationship thats begun in deception and abuse and continues in dangerous codependency. All of these people are lost. No one is their best self when theyre afraid and alone.

Near Dark is a seminal, quintessential film of the 1980s, burning with style and alight with the paranoia and doom of the age. The films of the previous decade wore their nihilism on their sleeves; the films of the 80s couch it in huge action extravaganzas where wars in jungles are refought against invisible enemies to be lost again; a citys privatized police corps becomes absurdly-militarized inhuman necromancy; time travel is made possible to find your dad is a pervert, your moms a succubus, and the guy waxing your car tried to rape her that one time at prom. Or its Near Dark, a slice of Americana populated by an arrested gallery of the unwanted and derelict, Larping lost and devalued cultural moments like the Confederacy, the rock star dream, the lie of a nuclear family in the post-nuclear age.

Near Dark isnt great because its about rebels at war with an organizing principle; its a masterpiece of how the fetishization of rebels in American culture leads to these pathetic ghouls dying by themselves in backwaters only they haunt anymore. And then they burn it all down because of their listless, undirected, immoderate rage. The last we see of Jessie and Diamondback is them accepting their fate, grasping flaming hands like doomed Harry and Julie at the end of Miracle Mile, or the murderer Veronica lighting a ciggy in front of her destroyed high school crucible in Heathers. We surrendered to oblivion in the 80s. Like the Cambodians detailed in that same years Spalding Gray film Swimming to Cambodia, waving to the Americans abandoning them to their deaths. Goodbye. Goodbye. Near Dark is an essay of our depressed national adolescence, our continued folly, our operatic way lit to majestic tragedy where we get to live the rock and roll dream of dying young, but what good is it when you cant leave behind a beautiful corpse?

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is due in 2020. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.

Watch Near Dark on Shudder

The rest is here:
'Near Dark' Is A Uniquely American Masterpiece Of An Unheralded Cinematic Subgenre: The Vampire Neo-Western - Decider

Related Post

Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
This entry was posted in Vampire. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.