“We thought we were driving South
In our late model hearse
We had no clue we were headed
From bad to worse”
“The Vampire Roadtrip” by The Hammerdowns
There is something so quintessentially American about road trips. I’m not talking about a new-ish SUV careening down major highways and byways, leading you to chain hotels and eateries that are as about authentic and pure as a televangelist’s intentions. No. A real road trip is through the back roads that vein out through small town and no town America. Motels that haven’t seen a glory day since the thriving vitality of Route 66, farmlands and plains that harbor both a working and poor class that middle America likes to forget, as well as a shadowland for drifters and the lost.
Wanderlust as a necessity is a concept that marries beautifully with the supernatural creature of the vampire. Sailing under the radar of mainstream society is a smart move for anyone involved in the art of bloodletting, living or undead. If you never stop long enough to gather moss, dust or notice, then you have the closest thing to freedom…for a price. Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film, Near Dark, taps into this beautifully with both the American Modern West mythos, but also the bigger scale vampire one as well.
Originally conceived as a Western by Bigelow and her writing partner on this film, Eric Red (who also wrote the 1986 Rutger Hauer classic, The Hitcher), they moved it into modern times and incorporated the vampire motif to better place it into the more viable horror market. What they created was a hybrid film that is as much a tone poem to the darkness and beauty of the American Mid- and Southwest as it is a peek into familial dynamics. Well, that and a lot of blood drinking, of course.
Life is pretty simple for young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a good looking modern day cowboy living in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma (which is about 96% of the state, by the way) with his single dad, Loy (Tim Thomerson) and his little sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds). Going out one night, he sees a vision of blonde, Midwestern gamine beauty in the form of Mae (Jenny Wright), standing alone and demurely eating an ice cream cone. Caleb is instantly smitten and chats her up, snapping up the chance to be alone with her when she needs a ride.
While they are driving, Mae has Caleb suddenly stop the truck, but instead of a round of heavy-petting-rural-style, she wants him to get out and “listen to the night.” Bemused and baffled, Caleb exclaims that he’s never met any girl like her. She confirms this when telling him about how it can take a million years from the light of a dying star to reach Earth and when it does, she’ll still be alive to see it. This does not alarm Caleb, cause when your better instincts get blocked by both a well born guilelessness and the endorphins of physical attraction, you are marked for bait.
Caleb tries to introduce Mae to his trusty horse, even sweetly referring to his lovely companion as “Ma’am.” His horse ends up reacting to her as if it had heard the line about how she will outlive a dying star, which is to say freaked out and highly skittish. Not to be deterred, he tries to lasso Mae only to be on the receiving end of her preternatural strength as she ends up pulling him towards her with the rope. Before things can grow more friendly, she starts nervously telling Caleb to take her home before dawn. Which he does, but not before stopping midway in the middle of a dirt road, demanding at least a kiss. In a lesson of be careful what you ask for, she does indeed kiss him, only to bend her mouth to his neck and successfully nip him.
Mae runs out of the truck, leaving Caleb with a bloody neck and a vehicle that now has all of the quit in the world. Walking back home, smoke starts to emanate more and more from his body as the sun rises higher and higher. He almost makes it home, where his Dad and Sarah are outside long enough to see their loved one yanked into one crusty Winnebago with foil and black spray paint covering almost all of the windows. It is from here that both Caleb’s and our own worldview of a seemingly staid existence is torched into cinders.
“Howdy! I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don’t mind none,” is one of the most disturbing and sociopathically fun greetings ever and it’s the first thing Caleb hears as he is greeted by Mae’s pseudo family. Everyone other than Mae is initially ecstatic about the prospect of eviscerating him until she throws herself on top of him, letting them know that he is “turned.”
Now it is time to officially meet the family.
There’s Jesse (Lance Henriksen, who by law should be placed in everything), a sinewy Civil War veteran who reveals that he fought for the South and smiles when he adds, “We lost.” He is the pater familia and his every move and word carries the strange melange of menace, stoicism, and a resigned heart. Next to Jesse is Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein), a peroxide mother figure in chaps who wields a switchblade with controlled ferocity but also quietly looks out for her clan. Speaking of, there’s Severin (Bill Paxton), a living wildcard in black leather and the nice Southern gent who had previously offered to remove Caleb’s head. Last but not least is Homer (Joshua John Miller), a grown man trapped in the body of a child whose presence radiates all things polluted and sullied. The ultimate bad seed and the one who was responsible for “turning” Mae, whom despite being as much a killer as the rest, still has the closest thing to a visible conscience. The contrast between her and Homer is a whisper of perversity, especially given his initial reactions to Caleb. This leads to one of the best and weirdest lines in the film, when Homer spits at him, “He’s so ugly. He makes my gums ache.” Miller’s delivery of this line is so supreme. Raw faced jealousy and a dandy-edged bitchery grow emotional fangs that snap at the poor, handsome cowpoke who has had better weeks.
We get a good peek into some of the tactics the family use individually for feeding, including Homer staging a bicycle accident in the middle of the road and Severin easily charming his way into getting a ride from two pretty girls. There’s a nice glimpse at the bond between Diamondback and Jesse, right before they get interrupted by two carjackers, who are just dumb enough to be nonplussed when the grinning vampire patriarch calmly states, “You ain’t gonna look too good with your face ripped off.” It is when Mae tries to help initiate Caleb into his new life that the hiccups show, with him hungry but thoroughly unable to kill a kindly truck driver (Roger Aaron Brown), leaving the job to Mae. She ends up feeding Caleb with her own blood in a striking scene in a field full of oil drills and lightning with the sexuality blatant but not quite overly glaring.
Finding this out, the rest of the family are getting mighty itchy about Caleb lacking the ability to kill and give him one more night to prove his mettle. In one gloriously harrowing sequence, they descend upon a bar that is best described by Severin with the lines, “I’ll be goddamned! Shitkicker heaven!” If there are places where angels fear to tread, then this bar is where liberals and fans of My Bloody Valentine certainly need to fear to tread. The following events, including an exquisitely executed mix of dark humor and queasy ultra violence, marks this as one of the best scenes from both vampire and horror cinema, period. The soundtrack, starting off with John Parr’s “Naughty Naughty” (a seemingly inexplicable choice that actually works quite well for the beginning), lulls into the light boogie of Jools Holland’s “Morse Code,” hits a shudder and an apex with The Cramps’ electric and slithery cover of the old Peggy Lee chestnut “Fever,” and ends with the melancholy strains of George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away.” (If I ever find a bar cool enough to have this sort of jukebox, I know that I have truly found home.)
In a film ripe with great dialogue, the bar scene has some of the cherriest of lines, including Paxton’s ad-libbed “I hate’em when they ain’t been shaved” after imbibing from a newly killed scruffy Skynyrd, and Jesse almost cooing to a nervous waitress, “Your skin is as soft as a preacher’s belly.” Anyone in the words game should be thrilled to write anything three-fourths as good as that last one and even more blessed to have a man like Lance Henriksen utter it.
Mae sets up the perfect bait with a young and massively scared shitless roper, not to mention the last living human in the whole joint. The kid bolts, leading Caleb to chase and actually catch him, only to let the very lucky near-victim go. Naturally, the kid runs off to the police and a huge stand off outside one especially shady looking no-tell-motel emerges. Caleb saves both the day and his own life by risking self-immolation so he can grab the van and get everyone out of Dodge. From there, time becomes a sharp stiletto blade as Caleb’s family back home edge closer to finding him and his newly surrogate family start to accept him, placing any and all in mortal danger.
There is real magic to what Kathryn Bigelow has created with Near Dark. Bringing in all the right chess pieces, from co-writer Eric Red to one of the best ensemble casts any director could dream of, to the gorgeous cinematography of Adam Greenberg (who had also lensed both Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and the match-for-match and note-for-note score of German super group Tangerine Dream, Bigelow made a film that is striking, poetic and honest.
Gone are most of the trappings of the vampire genre, such as fear of religious icons, with Jesse actually owning a gun with a cross displayed upon it, the ability to physically transform, not to mention the frilly-laced romanticism born of the Anne Rice-era. Instead of pretty porcelain doll-child-woman-killer Claudia from Interview with a Vampire, we get Homer, whose frustrations and innate nature are displayed in one cataclysmic being in a dirty tee-shirt displaying William S. Burroughs and a vibe of sadness laced with anger that goes from fermented to fetid. Miller’s performance, right down to his bizarre wiggle when Diamondback slits the waitress’ throat at the bar, is a total marvel.
The performances in general are absolutely huge in Near Dark. In the hands of lesser actors, the film’s power would have been significantly muted. Pasdar brings a real likability to Caleb, to the extent that one can overlook some his fairly bone-headed decision making earlier in the film. Matching him is Jenny Wright’s unforgettable presence as the beautiful and quasi-haunting Mae. The fact that Mae, although slightly more gentle in approach than her clan, is still every ounce a killer, is brilliant because it shows the lack of moral judgment from Bigelow and Red. The director herself has stated in interviews that a lot of the approach with the pseudo-family was partially based on the behavior of animals, wolves especially.
It is this approach that almost cleanly divorces Near Dark from the European Gothic traditions, creating a wholly American view as a result. With the clan, every single member is a North American archetype. This is especially true with Jesse, the bone thin but muscle strong rural soldier of the War Against Northern Aggression. Henriksen’s Jesse is a man to be reckoned with. One look will either turn you to stone or make you realize that there is a universe of experience and emotions underneath the steely eyed visage. Jenette Goldstein is every bit his equal, fleshing out Diamondback to be both the strong-hearted momma but also the alpha female who is not necessarily above toying with prey for fun and time passage. Couple that with Paxton’s charismatic and jubilantly insane Severin and you have a batch of fascinating and thoroughly American vampires.
Near Dark was Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature and her first major directorial job, though her debut effort with 1981’s The Loveless, starring both a pre-fame Willam Dafoe and rockabilly-revival singer Robert Gordon, is well worth checking out. While mainstream press and audiences alike are more aware of her Academy Award-winning work with films like The Hurt Locker (2008), Near Dark is a treasure of tight filmmaking, stellar performances and a score that is lush and taut with an undercurrent of tension. It wasn’t the first purely American vampire film, either in story or cast, but it was and is, one of the absolute best of its breed. Every stained motel wall and burned out vehicle retains an imprint of a life lost and gained that you may not want to know about, but the stain is there regardless. Welcome to Bad America.