I’d been meaning to feature the little-known horror gem Near Dark (1987) in this series of goofy remembrances from my college days but never got around to it. Sadly, it’s taken the recent, untimely death of Bill Paxton to finally provide a proper kick in the pants.
As remembrances of Paxton’s most indelible performances came pouring in—Chet from Weird Science, Pvt. Hudson from Aliens, Dixon in One False Move, Hank in A Simple Plan, Fred Haise in Apollo 13—there was nary a mention of his appearance in Near Dark, a very early effort from Kathryn Bigelow, who’s gone on to become one of our finest directors and the only woman to win a Best Directing Oscar (for 2009’s The Hurt Locker).
The story goes that Bigelow was interested in doing a Western but was advised she’d have a better chance getting financing if she combined her preferred Western tropes with those of a more popular genre. Around this time, vampire films were being released from the penalty box in which they found themselves relegated after 1979’s one-two punch of mediocrity: the George Hamilton/Susan Saint James comedy vehicle Love at First Bite (“Your favorite pain in the neck is about to bite your funny bone!”) and John Badham’s Dracula (Frank Langella sporting hair the circumference of a basketball).
Thus, Bigelow and her co-writer, Eric Red (who also wrote The Hitcher, a particularly nasty piece of screenwriting), came up with their hybrid, a Western/vampire flick. Sound silly? Well, it’s not. It’s both terrifying and funny.
Adrian Pasdar stars as Caleb, a naive small-towner who gets more than he bargained for when he picks up Mae, a preternaturally pale drifter (Jenny Wright).
Turns out Mae is a vampire, part of a “family” consisting of de facto leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the unhinged and morbidly funny Severen (Bill Paxton) and whiny pre-teen Homer. This motley and dysfunctional crew live out of an RV, marauding bleak southwestern landscapes dressed like a biker gang in search of their next “meal.”
Unfortunately for Caleb, Mae’s goodbye kiss takes the form of a bite to the neck, which makes his walk home the next morning particularly uncomfortable seeing that his skin now crackles and smokes in the desert sun. Soon the RV is upon him—waste not, want not as my grandmother used to say—an abduction witnessed by Caleb’s father and sister just in front of their ranch. Inside the RV, Severen prepares to kill Caleb, but Mae stops him, explaining that she’s already infected Caleb (with her bite) and wants him to stay. The other vampires grudgingly agree to give Caleb a week to see if he can learn to hunt (i.e. kill innocent people and drink their blood). Despite needing blood to survive, Caleb refuses to play along, so Mae lets him drink her blood whenever she makes a kill. The rest of the family isn’t impressed—either Caleb starts killing or gets killed himself. Their frustration leads to a disturbing set piece in a bar in which the vampires, Severen especially, kill the occupants one-by-one, cracking wise the entire time. Think Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours but with slit throats and blood being quaffed from beer mugs.
Forced by the rising sun to take shelter in a hotel, the “family” is ambushed by the police. In the ensuing gunfight, Caleb proves his worth by dashing for the car with a blanket over his head. The vampires escape, but Caleb’s father remains in hot pursuit of his kidnapped son.
That’s about as far as I’ll go with a synopsis to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say the proceedings continue to be strange and bloody and unique, including one scene where one of the vampires dares someone to shoot him, takes a bullet to the chest and then proceeds to expectorate the bullet into his mouth and display it between his teeth like a gobstopper.
Although Near Dark received good notices when it first came out, it flopped badly. Luckily, VHS and cable saved it from obscurity, infusing (oof!) the film with new life and, subsequently, a much deserved cult status.
Full of indelible imagery (although it could be argued that any piece of exposed film featuring Lance Hendrickson’s mug couldn’t be categorized any other way)…
…the film acted as a calling card for Bigelow’s formidable directing skills—said Michael Wilmington in his review in the Chicago Tribune: “There’s a ghastly humor in all this, and Bigelow brings it out without overindulging it. Faced with a nearly repulsive subject, she makes the blood flow inside it, stream out over the cuts.”
Then there’s Paxton’s Severen. Yeah, it’s a bit one-note—all violent menace occasionally relieved with a perfectly timed bon mot—but Paxton chews on it with gleeful relish. If you’re going to go over the top, then actually do it, dammit. Like his Pvt. Hudson from Aliens, he does a lot with a little, stealing the show whenever he’s on-screen.
For those looking to see a little of his early work, Near Dark is a great place to start. It’s not for everyone, but those with the intestinal fortitude to see vampire who are gun-totting badasses rather than teen-angst poseurs, this is your film.
Here’s the (low-quality) trailer: