Film (1987). F/M and Near Dark Joint Venture. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red. Cast includes Jenette Goldstein, Lance Henriksen, Joshua John Miller, Adrian Pasdar, Bill Paxton, Tim Thomerson and Jenny Wright. 94 minutes. Colour.
In a small town at night in the deepest Oklahoma, young Caleb Colton (Pasdar) picks up the extremely attractive Mae (Wright), amiably expecting sex; but she is undead and bites his neck, turning him into a starter Vampire (vampires are not in fact mentioned at any point, though the film adheres to various generic conventions about their nature). Initially bewildered and nauseous, Caleb stumbles through the surreal vacancies of the unnamed town and across barren fields towards his home, where his worried father, veterinary surgeon Loy (Thomerson), watches helplessly as Mae and her vampire companions take him away.
From this point, Near Dark breaks into two narratives, which come together at the end. Caleb responds with mesmerized horror to Mae's companions, the most ominous (and seemingly ancient) of them being Jesse Hooker (Henriksen); the intense and at times anguished malevolence of his portrayal of a doomed soul did not give Henriksen any significant career boost – bad luck considering the later failure of Chris Carter's abject Television series Millennium (1996-1999) to make proper use of his gifts (see also X-Files). After a deadly fracas at a local bar, Caleb continues to evince ethical compunction about killing victims for their blood, winning Mae's heart. The undead hole up in a motel for the day – exposure to the sun ignites them – but are cornered by the local police, who are soon decimated. In the second narrative string, Caleb's father and his weensy sister hunt for him, eventually stumbling across the gang by accident.
Scenes of chaos and semi-rural desolation ensue, but Loy rescues his son and inspiredly gives him a blood transfusion (see Medicine), using his own normal blood. Caleb's instant recovery from undeadness gives Near Dark a modest sf rationale; and his application of the same process to Mae, as her undead companions burn to death in the sun, provides a happy ending.
Kathryn Bigelow's first commercial feature clearly fails to transform the Horror in SF topoi she (as both writer and director) seems to have been targetting; but Near Dark does subvert some clichés: discreet sucking, without visible fangs; a rendering of the undead, even including the quasi-Byronic Henriksen, as essentially feckless; and some scenes of confrontation that patently travesty the Western genre. Insider jokes – a movie marquee seen in the background advertises Aliens (1986), directed by Bigelow's future husband James Cameron and featuring members of the current cast, including Henriksen – have gained Near Dark some followers. But the main reason for the film's survival, however, may lie in its hallucinated mise en scene: night streets aglow with an emptiness near to vacuum, garaged trucker-trailers like dinosaurs about to rouse, and the Oklahoma summer sun almost viscerally painful to behold, even for the uninfected. [JC]
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