Ask the average film fan to name the most iconic vampire flick of the ‘80s and the answer is almost certain to be The Lost Boys. Shot with near-clinical music video panache by a pre-Batman and Robin Joel Schumacher and packed with hot young stars including Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Jamie Gertz and both Coreys (Haim & Feldman), it was a bonafide smash hit and remains one of the quintessential teen horror movies of the decade; its status rivaled only by Wes Craven’s landmark slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
But here’s a pro-tip: the most popular option is almost never the best, and while The Lost Boys was precision-engineered to capture the imaginations of the teen demographic, a better, nastier, sexier, and far cooler vampire movie slunk into the multiplexes that year, only to be summarily banished by the sun-like gleam of The Lost Boys’ box office clout. Good vampire movies are immortal, though; while it died a quick death on release, today Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark stands as not just the best fang flick of the ‘80s, but one of the greatest of all time.
Dark Deeds by the Highway
Co-written by Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and Eric Red (The Hitcher, Cohen and Tate), Near Dark eschews both Transylvanian castles and The Lost Boys’ Californian beaches, instead stalking the lonely highways and neon-lit honkytonks of the American Southwest, its immortal bloodsuckers rubbing stubbled cheeks with bikers, truckers, oil rig wildcatters and roadhouse barmaids. Our hero is young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), who takes a shine to the waifish, mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright) one fateful night. Bitten during a romantic tryst, Caleb cottons on to something being not-quite-right when his flesh begins to sizzle in the sunlight the next morning. Abducted by the rest of Mae’s vampire pack, the nascent nightcrawler is given an ultimatum: join them in their murderous and nomadic existence, or die.
Redneck Murder Hoboes
Mae’s vampiric family are terrifying and compelling in equal measure. Leather clad, caked in dust and dried blood, armed to the teeth and ferally hungry, they evoke both the roving gunslinger of Western myth and the cannibalistic hillbillies of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; good ol’ boys and gals with sardonic smiles and piercing eyes who’d as soon slit a throat as crack a joke.
They’re played by a murderer’s row of B-movie legends, three of whom had already done duty together in the previous year’s Aliens (directed by Bigelow’s future husband, James Cameron). A skeletal Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator) is vampire patriarch Jesse Hooker, while Jenette Goldstein (Aliens, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) is his bottle-blonde trailer trash bride, Diamondback. The late Bill Paxton (Aliens, Weird Science) steals every scene as gunslinging hick Severen, his leather jacket and slick black hair cribbed from cult punk-rocker Lux Interior of The Cramps. Joshua Miller (also in 1987's River’s Edge, and coincidentally the half-brother of The Lost Boys’ Jason Patric) rounds out the family as Homer, a cynical elder vampire in the body of a child.
Together they’re a horribly dysfunctional mob of monsters, drawn together by a twisted mix of affection, violence, and the simple need to survive another night, and Caleb must try to find a place for himself among them, even as his actual father (played by another B-movie boss, the great Tim Thomerson) scours the back roads in search of his son.
A New Mythology Written in Blood
One of Near Dark’s crucial idiosyncrasies is its steadfast refusal to use the word “vampire”. In a similar vein, we never see a pair of fangs, either; rather, it’s just a big bite taken out of someone’s neck and a fierce battening on the throat whenever one of our antiheroes feeds (“I hate it when they ain’t been shaved!” Severen snarls as he feasts on a hapless biker).
This isn’t just cleverness for its own sake. Near Dark exists in a world of fatalism, not mysticism. A neo-Western road movie, its moral universe reflects Peckinpah more than Stoker. Romance might be real – the relationship between Caleb and Mae, and even that between Jesse and Diamondback, is tender, though twisted – but its joys are fleeting. We see no crucifixes, no sharpened stakes, no wreaths of garlic flowers – these vampires are stripped of all but the most bare-essential magical elements. All we’re left with is blood, the relentless thirst for it, and the terrible things necessary to acquire it.
Red blood, blue nights
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s steely, carefully composed style captures this perfectly, with cinematographer Adam Greenberg (Terminators 1 & 2, Ghost) framing the story’s doomed romanticism against a bleakly unsentimental, yet still eerily beautiful postmodern backdrop. Halogen lights reflect in puddles of what might be water, skin creases and wrinkles are rimed with greasy dirt, benighted streets are an eerie blue, the killing sun a glaring, merciless blast-furnace yellow – all set to an unsettling electronic score by German art-rockers Tangerine Dream.
Yet Near Dark is also a Western, and many of the tropes of that most hallowed of film genres are present here, albeit darkly and drolly subverted. At one point a gunfight is truncated when a gunshot victim merely spits out the bullet that’s pierced him. At another, what would be a high noon shootout in more conventional genre fare takes place on a deserted main street at night. It all comes to a bloody apotheosis in a motel room shootout, with the undead clan making a Butch-and-Sundance-style stand against a small army of cops. The twist is that it’s broad daylight outside, and every bullet hole blasted through the drywall brings with it a ray of sunlight, searing the vampires within. It’s a bravura set piece; a hyperkinetic gunfight that brings together all the film’s genre influences in one explosive, exhilarating scene.
It’s that synthesis of tropes and influences into something new that makes Near Dark such a singular experience. It’s a horror/western hybrid that sneers at the romanticism inherent in both genres, but it’s still a love story. It’s an action movie where the villains are cooler than the nominal hero, and the big action beats involve the slaughter of innocents. It’s a B-movie with arthouse pretensions that – and this is rare indeed – actually manages to pull them off, putting its slick photography and sometimes heavy visual symbolism (at one point blood is sucked from a wrist while an oil derrick pumps in the background) in the service of a gritty genre narrative. No wonder it was so hard to market – it defies easy synopsis.
The thing is, as a film it gets its (never seen) fangs into you right from the get-go. Near Dark is no remote and cerebral meditation on mortality – it’s a brisk, pulpy, gleefully bloody meditation on mortality, and that makes all the difference. Why mope around New Orleans bemoaning your undead destiny (looking at you, Anne Rice) when you can bemoan your undead destiny while tearing 'round the desert having gunfights and burning down bars instead? For all its grim themes and hard-edged violence, Bigelow’s film is a bloody good time, and well worth slipping into your Halloween horror movie playlist.
Watch 'Near Dark'
Thursday 9 September, 12:35am on SBS VICELAND / Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton