Near Dark is a part of that time period, during the eighties, when the vampires and other monsters, went seriously mainstream. Earlier, The Lost Boys had been released, along with Fright Night, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, The Blob and The Howling, with top notch special effects and semi-all-star casts. This may explain why Near Dark seemed to fall just below everyone’s radar. It certainly fell below mine. I didn’t see this movie until five years after its release, during a midnight screening, in college.
This movie has an all-star cast, too. Fresh off their filming of Aliens, and working with one its directors, Kathryn Bigelow. Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, along with Adrian Pasdar (Pre-Heroes) and Jenny Wright (from Brat Pack fame) play a pack of Trailer Trash vampires, savaging the southwestern US. One of my favorite actors at the time, Tim Thomerson, also stars.
On a night out with the boys, Caleb spies hotty, Mae, in front of a bar. You have to listen closely to their dialogue in this scene, as Mae makes some mordantly funny remarks to Caleb’s attempts to hook up. In a dubious consent scene, right out of the Creeps Hand Manual, he forces her to give him a kiss, and she bites him. I say dubious because I always half suspected she was going to bite him anyway and he just forced her hand.
Mae flees, and Caleb, infected, tries to walk back home, but starts to burn up under Texas’ relentless sun. I don’t feel that the desert is a good place for vampires to hang out, but there’s actually a couple of good reasons why these vampires would. For one thing, there’d be a lot fewer vampires around, and thus no competition for food, and it’s a lot easier to flee the authorities, out in the middle of so much nowhere.
Caleb’s father and sister can see him crossing a field outside their home, but before he reaches them, he is abducted by Jessie, Diamondback, Severin, Mae, and a child vampire named Homer. It’s one of the few depictions of a child vampire I’ve ever seen in a movie. Up til then, movies had largely avoided mentioning them, as vampirism had often been depicted as having a sexual component, and nobody wanted to go there, I guess. It turns out that Homer is the one who turned Mae and I think he’s a little over fifty years old.
This is also the first time these types of vampires had ever been shown on screen, before. There were other modern day vampires but, like the Lost Boys, they hung out in or near cities, were rich, dressed smartly, were pretty, had no sense of humor, and mostly stayed in one territory because, of course, they’d be where the food is. These vampires are pure predators and all Redneck. There’s no European dilettante vibe about these guys. There’s nothing softly Romantic about them. They are not pretty, or sensual or wealthy. They’re brutal, savage and like to play with their food. They would probably eat most modern film vampires.
They’re to be feared. Not cozied up to.
Ironically, though they are brutal to their prey, they are loyal and loving to each other. Jesse and Diamondback have been husband and wife for decades. Diaomondback made Homer a vampire because she wanted a child, and she does treat him like her child. She’s fiercely protective of him and he clings to her, much like his mother, obeying her when she gives him orders. This is an interesting dynamic I don’t recall seeing in another vampire movie.
Severin is like Jesse’s brother, and behaves very much like the batshit uncle that everyone adores. He is gleefully, joyously, happy to be a vampire, which is a sharp contrast to the petulant, brooding, angst-filled, vampires we get today and I love this character for that very reason. He’s funny, gets all the best lines and even the best death. Though it’s never stated, we know Jesse was the one who turned him, and that he did it before Diamondback, which makes Severin older than her. Severin is Jesse’s firstborn and is given that level of respect.
There’s one scene, a kind of throwaway, where we see the vampires split up and choose their victims for the night, and it speaks somewhat to their characters. Severin uses his jovial charm to pick up a pair of hitchhikers, and Homer uses his seeming childhood to attract a victim. Mae mostly looks sexy, innocent and unsuspecting but she’s just as brutal a killer as the others, and if you’ve never seen the very lovely Jenny Wright, snap a man’s neck, then you haven’t been watching the correct movies.
These vampires are very, very human. They love each other, support each other and have each other’s back. They are a family. But Caleb has a family too. His father and sister have been out searching for him and finally find him at a rundown motel. What ensues is basically a fight between two people, Jesse and Caleb, to hold and protect their loved ones.
Also, the movie does very well in its depiction of women. I know the eighties gets a bad rap for its depictions of women in film, and for providing many of the tired-ass tropes, we hate so much today, but I think we’re selling the eighties a little short. There were a ton of movies released during the eighties, many of them genre films, that had women as the lead characters, and quite a lot of them, even if not well written, at least showed women with agency, who affected the plots.
This is, of course, thanks to Kathryn Bigelow who is known for putting strong female characters in all her films. Every strong woman you ever saw in a James Cameron film, from Aliens to Terminator 2, is owed to the influence of Ms. Bigelow.
Mae and Diamondback make meaningful decisions and affect the plot in ways the men don’t. Mae makes the decision to turn Caleb into a vampire and that affects the decisions of everyone else on the film. Later, at the end of the film, she makes the decision to be with Caleb, because she loves him, and this affects the movies outcome.
Caleb is at first reluctant to join this lifestyle and the others are ready to kill him if he doesn’t cooperate. They don’t like that Mae has been feeding him her own blood, so one night, in an out of the way bar, they force him to choose a victim.
The bar scene is one of two highlights in the movie. There’s just a handful of patrons but they all meet grisly ends, especially the bartender, who Severin allows to shoot Caleb in the stomach, to show him he’s immortal. Severin wears a pair of sharpened boot spurs and uses them to horrifying effect. Part of that horror is that you can see how much fun Severin is having during all of this, and you really like the character, and feel somewhat guilty that you’re enjoying all this too. Also, you know that they’re all going to force Caleb to participate in this carnage.
But instead of killing his prey, Caleb sets him free. He simply cannot bring himself to kill. Which sets in motion the second major set piece of the film, the motel shoutout. Instead of telling, I’ll show you:
Sunlight has ever been used to such great effect in any other vampire film.
The plot is also kept fairly tight. The characters make decisions, which prompt new ones, then the consequences are allowed to play out to their natural end. At any step along the way, characters could have opted out or gone their own way, but they don’t and it’s interesting watching how it all plays out, even when you know the eventual outcome. Caleb could have walked away from Mae. She could’ve walked away from him. Jesse and his family could’ve killed Caleb at any point along the way, rather than offering him a place in their family.
The only trouble I had with the plot was the coincidence of both families ending up in the same motel at a key point in the film, but one can overlook that, if you remember that these people are in the middle of no and where, so there’s very few places people could stay.
I think Near Dark is another one of those cult masterpieces, that few people have seen or thought about, but should. After growing up with films like this and The Lost Boys, it explains why people my age hate Twilight, so damn much.
We’re just used to a better class of monster.