One of the first images in Near Dark is young Adrian Pasdar as Caleb, slapping a mosquito as it draws blood from his arm. A nuisance, not something to be thought of twice. Caleb is relaxing against the moody Midwestern sky without a care in the world. The only thing drawing his attention is friends, alcohol and a gorgeous girl wandering the streets seemngly without a care herself. The night beckons him.
Kathryn Bigelow’s solo directing debut doesn’t take iconography from specific genre such as westerns or horror, but rather filters them through a uniform lens. It’s hard to see where one genre begins and one ends because they’re all used to tell a singular yet broad story. Part horror, part romance, part western road movie, Near Dark is an all-encompassing cinematic experience that can’t be understood through a singular approach to genre.
As Near Dark fails to resemble any other film through a specific genre lens, so too does the orchestral score. Bolstered by the rich synth score from Tangerine Dream, the atmosphere is heavy with mood to accompany the Bigelow’s classic. Tangerine Dream’s hypnotic score perfectly accentuates the shifting genres. At times hauntingly operatic, thudding chimes for open western plains but still leaving room for a romanticism in the heart of every vampire story.
Near Dark does for vampires what The Terminator does for machines. Both films redefine genre conventions entirely but are so much more than mashups of horror with western and science fiction, respectively. They both utilize said familiarity to establish ground rules but are far more interested in ordinary people caught in the extraordinary. And that’s not only because they share the same cinematographer in Adam Greenberg.
Greenberg’s night imagery captures a dreamlike texture in darkness, pulling young Caleb toward what will eventually become his family of the night. Deserts are dry and vast, nary a soul in sight that isn’t a member of Jesse Hooker’s vampire gang or one of their victims. Streets are cold and damp, wet pavement reflecting the few lights that illuminate a deafening night. So when Caleb wanders over in an attempt to seduce Mae, the aura surrounding them feels appropriate. Calebs asks Mae for a bite of her ice cream cone, she hesitantly obliges—with the bite, anyway.
Caleb’s human family, his father and sister, spend over half the film’s run time tracking him down through Midwest America. They don’t know he’s being dragged down forty miles of rough road by the least hospitable compatriots you could ask for.
Even after embracing eternity, the more human members of Jesse’s gang still yearn for familar connections. Bigelow brings this up in the film’s commentary. She and co-writer Eric Red spent time giving every member a private hell for them to deal with. The tragic cases of duality haunt them as they spend forever roaming the country plains feeding and killing for their own entertainment. Night calls to the creatures of Jesse’s Hooker’s vampire gang.
The gang of vampires only have one constant in their eternity: each other. They’re headed by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, who is old enough to have fought for the wrong side of the Civil War. Diamondback, Jenette Goldstein as Jesse’s girlfriend/matriarch of the gang, has devoted herself to protecting her makeshift clan of murderers. Homer, a creepy Joshua Miller, as an aging man inside a child’s body. Mae, the youngest and kindest of the group who still remains. Last but certainly not least, Severen, played by the late-great Bill Paxton, provides several differing layers of cool. He’s part cowboy, punk rocker, and 100% gleeful anarchist.
Only Severen is without remorse, as Bigelow goes as far to call him a “perfect vampire.” Severen only has his hedonism. He just loves being a vampire. Like a drunk, crazy uncle who can’t wait to get hammered on Thanksgiving dinner, Severen pounces on every opportunity to celebrate his power by gleefully eating his way through the U.S. countryside. In totally abandoning his humanity, he proves to be a perfect foil for Caleb, the innocent and thick-skulled country boy trying to retain his. Severen first threatens to decapitate him before forcibly pushing Caleb to his breaking point, in hopes that he’ll join their ragtag psychotic family. There’s almost a hint of tragedy in the afterlife Severen lives, but he would never recognize it. His biggest concern seems to be when his victims haven’t been shaved. He hates it when they ain’t been shaved.
As the group burns their RV, silhouettes dancing in tandem with the raging fire, Severen asks, “Hey, Jesse. Remember when we started that fire in Chicago?” The night is their home but the chaos is their livelihood. What else do they have? “What do you want?” asks a fearing bartender. Jesse calmly shuts the door behind him, “Just a few moments of your time about the same duration as the rest of your life.” It’s only a blink of an eye for them. Lance Henriksen, who plays vampire patriarch Jesse, to this day praises the script as “poetry,” in how it reads.
Eternal life is a funny thing when they don’t spend anytime living. Jesse and Diamondback have each other. Severen doesn’t care about anything. Homer never had the opportunity to live nearly as long a human life as his elders. He wants more to life than what could be offered as a member of the undead.
When Homer comes across Jesse’s younger sister, Sarah, he yearns for someone else to understand him, his damnation. There’s an opportunity for him to turn someone his own age into a vampire to share the burden of eternal physical youth with an elderly soul. On top of that, Homer is jealous of the twisted relationship between Caleb and Mae. Turning Mae, he feels an ownership over her, negating her own bits of humanity left within.
Make no mistake, Mae still resembles a human. Not that she is the only one not covered from head-to-toe in filth at some point in the film, she doesn’t come across as someone sickly and sinister like her vampiric clan. Though she participates in the groups actions, she doesn’t have the callous nature of her murderous group. She shows seemingly no ill intent with Caleb on their first meeting, hesitant at spending time with him as her vampiric nature would bring him harm. They’re only two young idiots who are remarkably attracted to one another. Caleb, thinking with the wrong head, doesn’t recognize her attempts at explanations as to who and what she really is. She attempts to confide in Caleb, “The light that’s leaving that star right now will take a billion years to get down here. You want to know why you’ve never met a girl like me before? Because I’ll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to earth in a billion years” She takes his blood but not his life. Instead, she changes the course of it so he can see the end of the light, too.
Caleb, as oblivious as he is, is still fundamentally human. He doesn’t kill a single person in the film, even during his fight with Severen, where he bests the perfect vampire, defeating him by jack-hammering a truck. At every opportunity, he strives to help people who are put in harm’s way. Except for Mae because he can’t think outside his own attempts at seduction and that bites him in the ass/neck. Caleb allows the bar patron escape after the fang gang obliterates it, only to also help the gang escape a police shootout in broad daylight. The daylight escape nearly costing him his own life in the process. Who knows? Maybe if he hadn’t run into his own family at a motel, Jesse and his gang would have dragged him further down the rabbit hole of their lifestyle. But he wasn’t. Caleb chooses to save his family of the day, forsaking his family of the night. Some might say he found his humanity, but maybe he never lost it in the first place.
In the end, after being turned back into a human via blood transfusion alongside Caleb, Mae is visibly startled by the sight of a bright light. After being blinded by night, she’s greeted by the cold light of day. Uncertain as to whether or not she deserves to be human again, or if she even wants to. Mae nearly took Caleb’s humanity, Caleb gave back hers. It’s up to her what she does with it. Caleb gives her a warm embrace and comforting words. “It’s just the sun.”
Featured Image: Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment