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Cinema Obscura - a weekly trek through the darker and frequently more random and forgotten regions of Cult, Foreign and Obscure cinema and pretty much everything in between. Each week highlighting a film worth hunting down, for those who like to wander away from the more-traveled-roads of Mainstream cinema.
Out of the horror gallery of rouges which includes the likes of Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, Zombies and my personal favorite Werewolves, I would have to say the one which has already held the least love from myself has always been “The Vampire" and it's a disinterest in these creatures of the night, which has only grown in recent years, especially as the vampire mythos has only grown increasingly watered down with the ever increasing rise in popularity of the Paranormal Romance genre, with the “Twilight"— saga being especially guilty of this crime of butchering Bram Stokers iconic creation, with Stephanie Meyer seemingly using it as a platform for promoting her Mormon beliefs, while Stoker's own version was rumored to have born out of his rejection by his actor friend Henry Irving and no doubt the reason that Dracula dies via stake, noteworthy especially for it's phallus shape. Still it's ironic that one spurned love story would spawn a bunch of half assed imitators which have been born in the wake of Twilight's surprise success, the vast majority of which proving equally dire and which have no doubt only seen publication after their authors found a way to turn their male lead into a vampire, while hopeful salvation did seem to appear in the form of “True Blood" with it's lashings of gore and sex and fun characters, this hope was quickly dashed as the series fell into the toilet during itŠ—Ès third season, while also proving there is only so much of Anna Paquin's horrible attempt a southern accent that one person can take.
Still to every rule there must be an exception and the 80's produced a handful of great Vampire movies, with the majority of which these having a comical edge, as seen in classics such as “The Lost Boys" (1987) and “Fright Night" (1985) and then along comes “Near Dark" (1987), which despite starting life as a western was given a vampire twist after a studio executive suggesting that the film would be viable if it was combined with another genre and hence director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Eric Red who had previous scored a hit with another horror classic “The Hitcher" crafted what is possibly the earliest and best example of the vampire western.
Set in the dusty backwaters of the American Midwest were farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) has a chance encounter with a mysterious girl called Mae (Jenny Wright) who turns out to be a vampire and after turning Caleb into a vampire as well , turns his life upside down as he finds himself taken in by her adopted family of fellow vampires lead by the dangerous Jesse (Lance Henriksen), who roam the highways in stolen vehicles looking for potential victims to feed upon, as Caleb tries to fight his ever increasing urges, unaware that his father (Tim Thomerson) and Sister (Marcie Leeds) are also following closely behind.
One of the most remarkable things about this film is that despite being made in the late eighties “Near Dark" has somehow managed to avoid looking as dated as it's counterparts, even with the electro heavy soundtrack courtesy of “Tangerine Dream" perfectly matching the setting and action perfectly, while the dust stained drifter styling of Bigelow's vampire gang still look pretty timeless, while perfectly suited for a group who live their lives on the desolate desert roads which they hunt, while still allowing for each characters room individual style and also making Severen's (Bill Paxton) an early example of the undead pinup. Still perhaps because fashion tastes in the Midwest haven't seemingly changed much since the film was released, is the reason it still looks pretty current.
The vampire group almost seem like a mini reunion of the cast of “Aliens" with Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jennete Goldstein all joining the cast fresh of that film and still have a great onscreen chemistry while truly believable as a group who have lived and killed together for years and possibly centuries judging by some of the banter shared between the characters, with Severen and Jesse sharing a joke about starting the great Chicago fire of 1871. Meanwhile Goldstein continues to live up to her reputation as the human chameleon appearing here as Jessie's wife the rock chix esq Dimondback and shedding the eternally tough exterior of her most memorable role as Vasquez in “Aliens" (1986) to bring a deadly shark like beauty to her performance here as Dimondback who while more reserved than the boys, relishes none the less in the bloody carnage which follows in the groups wake.
What probably makes this film so enjoyable to a vampire hater such as myself, is how it manages to break with the traditional settings and conventions of the genre, as there is not a drafty castle or coffin in sight, let alone the fact that the word vampire is not uttered once throughout, while none of the group flash fangs or morph their faces when they go into vampire mode, with Bigelow instead portraying them as nomadic psychos with a lust for blood drinking, yet keeping all the traditional weaknesses as they are injured easily by silver and sunlight and become weak when deprived of blood, which is an especially key part of Caleb's character as he constantly battles to fight the animalistic urges taking him over, with Mae supporting him by allowing him to feed from her which in turn leads to much distain from the rest of the group, who'd rather dump him in the middle of the desert after he frequent fails to feed on the living and threatening to bring the attention the law upon their activities. Meanwhile equally interesting to watch is the Vampire child Homer (Joshua Miller) who finds him frequently frustrated to live his eternal life trapped in a child's body while seeing an chilling opportunity for a mate in Caleb's younger sister, which despite coming late in the film, still adds an interesting angle to the story while also proving the breaking point for Caleb.
Equally refreshing is that here there is zero attempt here toÎ¾romanticizeÎ¾the groups blood drinking activities, outside of Caleb's initial turning, much like seen the feeding seen in the likes of “30 Days of Night" (2007) and this films closest relative “From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996) blood drinking is shown as an act of raw animalistic hunger, as the group are more like drug addicts constantly craving their next fix and tearing the throats out of their victim, while a memorable bar room slaughter, shows them relishing in tormenting their victims, who can only watch on frozen with fear as one of the group feeds on their chosen victim. Meanwhile Bigelow shows a lot of confidence with her directing debut here, pulling off a handful of great set pieces from a daylight motel shoot out to a showdown in an 18 wheeler are all skillfully handled, while providing a great grounding for her style of direction which would later lead to her directing the equally cult "Point Break" (1991) and “Strange Days" (1995), before later finally gaining the recognition she deserved with the Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker" (2008).
The other ace in Bigelow's deck here is truly Adam Greenburg's who memorably made The apocalyptic future of “Terminator" so bleak is on hand here to bring his stunning cinematography to the film, adding at times a dreamlike quality to the film, while the desert shot in the brilliant sunlight of day is highly reminiscent of Terrance Malick's “Badlands" (1973) and makes even the barren desert and minimalist towns memorably haunting.
Sadly there are a couple of minor flaws to the film, such as Adrian Pasdar who frequently seems to be out of his depth though it is unclear whether this is due to his inexperience as an actor, or just because of working with such a powerhouse cast who make up for a lot of his weaknesses, while the other slight niggle coming from the supposed vampirism cure via blood transfusion, which was an idea originally proposed as the ending for “28 days Later" that thankfully never made it past the storyboard stage, after its plausibility was brought into question and while it's none the less plausible here it is almost an acceptable leap of faith on the behalf of Bigelow, as part of the lead up to the final confrontation between Caleb and the rest of the gang. Still flaws and all this is an important movie in the Vampire genre and one that reminds of us all of a time when vampires were still scary and certainly don't fricking sparkle!!