Thirty years of horror: Near Dark (1987)

Tom: Some thing are better left buried. For instance, your recollection of Near Dark as a stylish contemporary Western-themed vampire adventure directed by action auteur Kathryn Bigelow. If that’s how you remember it, hold that thought and watch something else instead.

After the jump, at least they don’t sparkle.

Chris: I think I got lucky here, a bit. My first experience with Near Dark was six or seven years ago after seeing it mentioned here in the Quarter To Three forums. I’m a fan of Kathryn Bigelow and was really excited to see this. Thankfully, I’d never had this happy original encounter with the movie when it came out, so I was sort of expecting it to have not aged well when I first watched it. There are some really good bits here, to be sure, and it’s fun to see younger versions of Paxton and Henriksen. Both guys nowadays tend to play thing fairly stoic; I enjoyed seeing them go over the top.

Tom: My overall takeaway from Near Dark is that it’s absolutely drenched in Cameron. The indestructible villains, the shootouts, the lighting, the tanker truck finale, the soundtrack. It’s all very Cameron, but without Cameron’s insight into character and action. The Terminator cast a long shadow over action movies in the 80s. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Bigelow and Cameron were an item at this point in their careers. They would marry a few years after Near Dark. But I don’t think Bigelow found her own style until the over-the-top dudeness of Point Break, which you can see all the way up through Hurt Locker, in which Point Break’s mad search for the perfect wave is applied to war.

Chris: You can see how maybe this had an effect on more talented and creative types, though. It’s easy to see how someone like a Joss Whedon would get the idea for both Angel and Spike out of seeing these vampires scurrying through sunlight wrapped in blankets. Bigelow gives Mae a conscience, and a sense of wanting to be good and be human comes up again and again in more recent vampire fiction (for good and, mostly, bad.)

That’s the crux of my middling feelings for this movie, I think. Looking back at some of the other vampire flicks we’ve watched — Dracula, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Black Sunday — those movies all involved fairly sad and bad endings for folks connected to our protagonists. Wives, fiancees, and other love interests fall permanent victim to the baddies in those films. Here, Bigelow departs from conventional vampire lore by introducing the ever-plentiful barnyard blood transfusion, and ends her film on a happy note. It’s difficult to watch this and not lay some of the blame for Bella and Edward on Near Dark.

Tom: Eric Red co-wrote Near Dark with Bigelow. It shows every sign of being Red’s follow-up to The Hitcher. Evil nomads in the dusty Southwest. Showdowns on the highway. Guns and cops and hitchhikers. Red was a fixture of horror in the 80s and it’s a bit sad to see him struggle for relevance these days. He recently made an unremarkable ghost story called 100 Feet in which Famke Janssen is placed under house arrest in a — are you ready for the twist? — haunted house. That happens to be haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Who she murdered in self defense! She can’t travel more than 100 feet from the house because she has an electronic ankle bracelet. Put it on your shelf alongside other ankle braceleted heroes, such as Robin Tunney in Cherish and Shia Labeouf in Disturbia.

Chris: It never occurred to me how much this movie looks like The Hitcher until you mentioned it here. Now you’ve got me wondering how that holds up. I’m guessing that the star is C. Thomas Howell-ingly bad.

Tom: Any movie based on tormenting C. Thomas Howell can’t be all bad.

Chris: Again though, dig the Red influence. The number of folks since this who’ve tried to make a good vampire film set in the Southwest tells me that there’s a definite allure and connection here for subject and setting, not that they’ve ever managed to get a particularly satisfying film to result.

Tom: I wish there was more with the idea of nomadic vampires and less about our wholesome hero. Near Dark opens with a whole lot of stuff to not care about. Adrian Pasdar (who?) putting up with silliness from Jenny Wright (who?) just to get laid. Okay, we’ve all been there, although not specifically with Jenny Wright (who?). But then there’s about an hour of Adrian Pasdar (who?) stumbling around with dirt or burns or whatever on his face. The vampire crew don’t fare much better. I have no idea what’s going on with Jenette Goldstein playing a character named Diamondback in a clown wig.


I don’t remember any hair like that in the 80s. The only thing more ridiculous is Bill Paxton’s performance as Chet from Weird Science turned vampire with a bad accent. The script takes pains to explain to the audience how trucks can jackknife. Thanks, movie. Really, we just need to see the truck explode. The dynamics of braking aren’t really that important.

Chris: You dare to dismiss Jenny Wright’s fantastically sexy underbite? No mention of Tim Thomerson? C’mon, Tom. It’s a general rule of thumb: if Tim Thomerson shows up in your movie, you’ve made some sort of terrible mistake.

Tom: All the Trancers movies are on the phone. They’d like to have a word with you. Hold on sec, call waiting. Oh, it’s the Dollman movies.

Chris: When people talk about how goofy music and fashion in the 1980s were, this movie is part of the reason why. I might be missing some better examples, but it feels like one of the great problems with a lot of movies from this era was the way they were disconnected from non-mainstream parts of society. Diamondback’s ridiculous hair looks like “punk” as envisioned by a midwestern Baptist quilting circle.

Tom: Granny punk! Here it is again, just for good measure.


Chris: Near Dark isn’t the most egregious example of this sort of disconnected nonsense, but it sure is apparent here. How does this happen? Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t afford to spend a week in a place like Austin to get a better feel on what a group of hipster vampires might look like in 1987 terms?

Tom: How about the music? The Tangerine Dream soundtrack is harmless enough, but every now and then the 80s rock guitars kick in and suddenly I’m playing Duke Nukem.

Chris: That’s even more of the problem. Those too-slick synths and then pedal-pressed, overdriven guitars make me feel like I’m watching a vintage commercial simultaneously selling me beer, Wrangler jeans, and pickup trucks. Quick, go grab your CD for the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa album and check out the lurid cover. That record came out six months after Near Dark’s release. Imagine this movie with vintage Pixies echo-chamber guitar and whomping, hell-raising drums. This film was never going to be a mainstream, heavily distributed commercial release, and it makes me sad that so much of it has the feel of some of the worst aspects of lowest-common-denominator ’80s commercialism pushed so far to the front.

Tom: I remembered the roadhouse scene being not so, uh, languid. And the idea of a vampire with spurs looking not quite so silly as Paxton prancing around on top of a bar swinging his leg at the camera. I do remember James Le Gros as vampire chow, but I don’t remember him being quite so passive. I guess he does call the cops. So many of these scenes were way cooler in my memory. Even the finale. Here is a word-for-word recreation of the ending.


“Fun times.”

Station wagon explodes.

“Caleb, what’s happening? I’m afraid.”

“Don’t be. It’s just the sun.”

Freeze frame. Yes, freeze frame. Now roll the credits. Near Dark isn’t very aptly named; Bigelow has a long way to go to Zero Dark Thirty.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)