Good Example: Near Dark

by Jay Stringer

I wrote last time about The Lost Boys and it’s sequels. I’m going to finish off the horror series with another vampire film from the same year, and one that I think is far better. Sometimes I like to tease but today I’m stating it right from the off; I’m a big fan of Near Dark.

I’ve re watched both recently in deciding which films to write about, and in many ways their subject matter feels more relevant now than perhaps any time since the film was made.  Vampires of 2010 have something in common with 1987; they need a bit of a kick.

Back in the mid eighties vampires had lost their bite. Cinema had made them into dull authority figures, tame sex symbols or comic relief. Hammer horror had tried to update the trappings by bringing Dracula into the seventies, but they’d still used the same ideas and plots as their previous films. It was all too safe, all too easy. Avoid castles, avoid trips to Transylvania and don’t work for any strange old men whose name is an anagram of Dracula. Job done.

Whatever we might say these days about Bram Stoker’s original novel, and as outdated as it might seem, it worked at the time because it was relevant. It tapped into fears that were rife in the population of time, and worked as socially conscious horror. A century later the world was a much bigger place, and the population was concerned with different things. Spooky old men in castles, and bohemian interlopers preying on debutants, were not going to drive the chill bone deep into our hearts. And in a world where sex, drugs and aids filled our news stories every day, nobody was going to be taken by stories that hid these things away beneath the surface.

The Exorcist had taken demonic possession out of Dennis Wheatley novels and placed it into a child’s bedroom.  Halloween brought the human madman into our neighbourhood. Vampires needed to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Sesame Street and Flintstones movies. They needed to be made relevant and frightening.

It’s worth noting here that George Romero tried to do just that. His film Martin was an attempt to update the myth into something modern and ambiguous. I think it’s one of Romero’s better films and deserves a wider audience, but at the time it didn’t quite tap into whatever it is that makes a horror film work with the masses.

Joel Schumacher gets a lot of crap thrown at it. Lets be fair, much of it is deserved. But he also has managed to tap into that mainstream feeling a few times and capture something that works. He took The Lost Boys, a project that was an updating of the Peter Pan story filled with prepubescent vampires, and turned it into a story filled with ‘teenagers’ and rock music. Vampires went from being the elders statesmen to being the young rebels, the vandals and the punks. They were amongst us, they looked interesting, and they got to stay young forever. They rode motorbikes, stayed out late and shared bodily fluids.

The film is something of a double-edged sword. It made vampires into something modern, scary and violent, at the same time as making them into something cool and sexy.  The latter, combined with writers like Anne Rice, has lead us to an era when they are shiny pretty young things in million dollar love stories.

Near Dark attempted many of the same things as The Lost Boys, and in my opinion was far more successful as a story, whilst it failed to find the mainstream appeal of the biker vampires.

So why do I think it’s such a good example?

Near Dark is a very simple film in many ways. The story never really expands past a small cast of characters, and the stakes are all relatively small. It’s a rough and ready little tale of love, lust and loyalty, and it never loses touch with the story it’s telling.

Caleb is a young farmboy-type. He dreams of excitement, adventure, and getting far away from home. He’s Luke Skywalker in a cowboy cat. He see’s an attractive young woman walking around town one night and does his best to charm her, leading to the mother of all blood infections. You can pretty much choose which level you want to enjoy the story on. It can be a simple horror film, it can be a story of a teenager struggling to find himself, or it could be a grimy look at STD’s and every parent’s nightmare.

An easy trap for a writer to fall into is to write their story around the cliché’s and tropes of the genre they’re writing in. When writing a private detective story it can be easier to concentrate on fitting in the trench coat, the booze and the one-liners than two concentrates on the story and the characters. Writing a vampire story can often feel like a checklist exercise.

Mirrors? Check.

Crosses? Check.

Stakes? Check.

Creepy references to children of the night or not drinking wine? Check.

The Lost Boys finds a way to work in as many of the tropes as possible. And the film has fun whiles doing it, especially through the Frog Brothers, so this isn’t a total criticism. But I do prefer the approach taken by Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red; tell the story first and then work in the checklist items only when they’re needed. The film doesn’t need stakes, garlic, fangs, holy water or crosses and it doesn’t take any detours to fit them in.

Tied into this is another of my favourite aspects of the film; there is no expert. At some point in these films we always have the expert turn up and explain things, or the protagonists find an ancient book or website that explains everything they need to know. Almost nothing is explained in Near Dark and the film benefits because of this. The film never stops to explain things that aren’t needed, it trusts that the audience will pick up what they need to and fill in the rest themselves. The vampires are never referred to as vampires. The rules are never fully laid out.

Something else refreshing here is the sparse detail we are given about the vampires’ back-stories. We get a few lines here and there, a few memories and wise cracks, but no extended monologue about the changing world or the pain of living forever. The actors here are never asked to brood about eternal damnation or loneliness, and their skin never gets shiny.

It seems that the vampires of this world have a strange sense if denial. They seem to enjoy their life, but with no real reason to. In The Lost Boys they were still the coolest characters. They got to fly, to rise motorbikes and to do whatever they wanted. It looked like one long party. But in Near Dark they are leading a very lonely and isolated existence. Travelling from motel to motel, never staying in one place for long, losing touch with the outside world. Each of them is trapped in the person they were when they crossed over, ranging from Jesse Hooker’s references to losing the civil war to Homer being stuck forever as an eleven year old boy. They seem to have fun as they drift from town to town, from slaughter to slaughter, but the audience can see it as self-deception. There is nothing romantic or colourful about their lives.

The film is far from perfect. It’s leading man was Adrian Pasdar and, whilst he’s a good actor and does good work here, he didn’t have the presence or experience to go up against Lance Henriksen or Bill Paxton. The latter has never been as good as he was here, chewing scenery as a sociopathic leather-clad vampire. It does play a little loose with the few rules it sets up, but on all occasions the film manages to stop just short of playing too loose with those rules. The speed at which the vampires burn in sunlight seems to vary for dramatic effect. This is most noticeable in the final confrontation when Mae and Homer are both in direct sunlight and Homer, who has been in the sun for a few seconds less, burns up quicker. There are enough possible explanations that we can let it pass, but I have questioned it every time I’ve watched the movie.

There were budget constraints too, with backers not sure in either a vampire movie or a western, and so the filmmakers were forced to compromise on many of their original intentions. I would argue this is often a good thing. Artists work best when they’re painting their way out of a corner, when they have rules and constraints forcing them to be creative rather than complacent. Raiders Of The Lost Ark shines not because Spielberg had all the toys in the box, but because he limited himself to bringing it in under time and under budget. If his rubber shark had worked better we might have seen much more of it in JAWS and if Jon Landis had been more confident of his puppet we might have seen far more of the American werewolf. Here Bigelow is never allowed to let a scene stretch on for too long, or for special effects to get too elaborate. The locations are limited to a few motels, highways and one memorable bar sequence, but that all helps my enjoyment of it as a lean movie.

The ending is polarising. A blood transfusion is used as a way out of the vampire curse. I can see why this causes problems for a few people, and I’m not saying they’re out and out wrong, but the ending has never bothered me. My the very nature of the film it’s going to come down to a personal choice; because the filmmakers never went into detail explaining how vampirism works they also don’t have to go into too much detail about how to cure it. All they have to be is consistent with the internal logic of the film, and I think they manage that.

I think if you stand The Lost Boys and Near Dark side by side, then the latter is the one that is continuing to age with more grace. I enjoy The Lost Boys a hell of a lot, but it wears it age on its sleeve. The clothes, the hair, the music. There is no escaping that it is a film set in 1987. There is also no question that it’s a vampire film, pure and simple. I think that Near Dark transcends this. It is less tied down to the year it was made in, with less pop culture elements that would instantly date it. It’s a film with vampires in it, but it’s also a western and a crime story, and much harder to place in time.

Through shrewd and effective filmmaking, Kathryn Bigelow managed to make –in my opinion- the best vampire film of all time.

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