Videodrome :: Near Dark (1987)

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Videodrome :: Near Dark (1987)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

More so than any other genre, horror is at its most potent when leaving exposition to a minimum. This is a tricky facet of storytelling, as providing some semblance of backstory is a necessary evil of developing plot and characters, and so much horror relies on establishing folklore that directly engineers fear. As a result, the effectiveness of horror, or lack thereof, becomes a balancing act of story mechanics and terror evocation, often two sides of the same coin. The more you add to one and take away from the other, the more the overall story allows itself to be picked apart. Prioritizing story cohesion over atmospheric dread may lead to a horror film that can’t be held to narrative scrutiny, but it’s also the cinematic equivalent of taking the wind out of the audience’s sails. Anticipation and suspense – the primary emotions horror seeks to manipulate – begin to flounder when expected to work in exact tandem with rationale.

While undoubtedly a classic, it’s arguable that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) would induce more unease by omitting Dr. Richmond’s “and-this-is-why-everything-is-happening” Freudian-esque monologue about Norman Bate’s psychosis. A more contemporary example is Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), which grinds to a halt after a secret underground facility is discovered. The film’s antagonist then proceeds to give the protagonist – and, more importantly, the audience – a lengthy and convoluted explanation for all the horror that’s been taking place for the past hour and a half. Horror fans know these scenes all too well; we’ve seen them time and time again. They usually involve a crotchety librarian or retired professor pulling an ancient book from a dusty shelf that explains the legend of a supernatural assailant, or a conveniently placed next- door neighbor that reveals the checkered past of any given town’s dark history, or the discovery of a lost scrapbook that gets more and more sinister with each turn of the page. These recycled tropes are often the result of filmmakers giving the wrong answers instead of asking the right questions. Is Michael Meyers the boogeyman? We never find out at the end of Halloween (1978); it’s not until subsequent franchise installments that we learn about Meyers and his connection to final-girl, Laurie Strode. Was Jack Torrance always the caretaker at The Overlook Hotel? At the end of The Shining (1980), we’re left with an ambiguous photo of Torrance amongst party-goers, dated July 4th, 1921 – no further explanation given.

In 1987, Kathryn Bigelow followed The Loveless (1981) with her vampire-western matchup, Near Dark. Shot in just under forty-seven days and released in two hundred and sixty-two theaters during the Halloween season of 1987, Near Dark grossed $3.4 million below its $5 million budget. It received a lukewarm reception from audiences and critics, with writers such as The New York Times Caryn James critiquing Bigelow’s “too-studied compositions” as clashing with “her [Bigelow’s] unstudied approach.” In his review for The Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Bill Paxton as the undead sex symbol is exceptional, but not exceptional enough to put across the cop-out that concludes the film.” Near Dark was a genre dark horse at the time of its release, competing with successful horror franchise installments such as Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors, Evil Dead II, and Slumber Party Massacre II. It was also an underdog within the vampire subgenre. Earlier that summer, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys was released to rabid fanfare, earning over $32 million against its $8.5 million budget. Boasting a star studded cast that included Corey Haim, Kiefer Sutherland, and Corey Feldman, The Lost Boys would become a box-office smash and one of the definitive vampire movies of the eighties.

In retrospect, Near Dark has endured amongst horror aficionados as one of the most eminent genre-hybrids ever made for many reasons: the kinetic pacing that mixes art-house ambiance with multiplex populism, the seamless blending of outlaw-western with vampire-horror, and the synth-soaked score from Tangerine Dream. But Near Dark’s under-discussed ace-in-the-hole is that it’s a horror film that handles exposition with the utmost confidence and grace. It’s so cocksure in its approach it hardly feels like it’s Bigelow’s solo directorial debut. Rather than get
bogged down by lore and backstories, Bigelow chooses to drop us right into a film without the parachute of exposition. We’re introduced to a dusty landscape of two-lane roads and sprawling farmland, more reminiscent of an Americana coming-of-age drama than horror. After squashing a blood-sucking mosquito (a foreshadowing of things to come), a young cowboy named Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) drives off into the darkening skies of an Oklahoma sunset. After arriving at the main drag of his one-horse town, Caleb meets a young drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright), and their mutual attraction is instantaneous. After spending the night together, Mae bites Caleb on the neck and runs off. Disorientated and weak, Caleb stumbles back home to his father and kid sister, his flesh burning and smoking in the rising sun. But just before he gets to his front door, Caleb is kidnapped by an RV full of vagabond vampires who are torn between killing him and nurturing him into their nocturnal existence.

Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red (who wrote the underrated HBO thriller The Hitcher the previous year, another exercise in “less is more” exposition) make the apt choice to keep the world of Near Dark only as big as the immediate story. Outside of the ragtag band of vampires traveling around the forgotten corners of America in search of prey, Near Dark doesn’t bother explaining the mythos of its vampiric universe. It skips over much of the “why” and “how” in favor of momentum, keeping the audience rooted in Caleb’s perspective (we only know as much as our hero) and the plot barreling forward at breakneck speed. We never get any information on the larger infrastructure of the vampiric network, or if there even is one. The only indication of an origin story is vaguely mentioned by the vampire’s de-facto leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen). When asked by Caleb, “Hey Jesse, how old are you?” Jesse gives the ambiguous response, “Let’s put it this way – I fought for the south…we lost.”

Of course, Bigelow benefits from dallying in the familiar playground of vampires. The well-worn mythology, dating as far back as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), had been well documented on the silver screen by the time Near Dark was released. Films ranging from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) indoctrinated audiences into the basic “rules of the world” of vampires: they don’t dig sunlight or religious paraphernalia, and they survive by feasting on the blood of humans. But some cinematic vampires possess more specific traits: they can shapeshift into animals or mist, they cannot enter a premise without permission, and their timelines range from immortality to a slow, degenerative aging. Near Dark strips vampiric folklore back to its bare essentials, only taking as much as it needs to function and keep the story moving forward. Without succumbing to flashbacks or expository monologues, Bigelow provides just enough vampiric lore to keep the audience engaged without immolating pacing or entertainment. In fact, the word “vampire” is never even mentioned during Near Dark‘s runtime.

Besides sticking with some of the classic hallmarks of vampirism (exposure to daylight can kill vampires, and they possess otherworldly strength), Bigelow subverts other tropes without wasting time on explanation. At the start of a gunfight scene, a cross can be seen on the handle of Jesse’s pistol, alluding to the fact that Near Dark‘s vampires do not follow the same “rules” of traditional mythology. When Severen and Jesse torch the motor home, Severen asks Jesse if he remembers a “fire that they had started in Chicago.” While it’s never said, the implication is that Severn means the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, suggesting that Severen and Jesse have known each other for at least a hundred years.

Vampire horror and its surrounding mythology is only one subgenre that Bigelow employs in Near Dark’s cinematic framework. It also operates as a kind of esoteric road-movie and neo-western, often pinballing between these genres within the course of a single scene. Near Dark wastes no time drawing us into a world that resembles a George Stevens melodrama, in no small part because Caleb is introduced in a similar pose to James Dean’s iconic back-seat slouch in Giant (1956). From here, the opening screen time of Near Dark is a composite of imagery that favors the romantic desolation of middle-of-nowhere America over the gothic gloom of vampirism. The first fifteen minutes of Near Dark looks more like a lost Bruce Springsteen music video than a horror film, conjuring Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984). The last fifteen minutes play out like a western, with Caleb arriving in town on horseback to face off against Jesse in a classic wild west stand-off reminiscent of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1967). Instead of the candlelit castles of Bram Stoker’s novel and the formal elegance of Tod Browning’s films, Near Dark evokes the lonesome sunsets of Larry McMurtry stories and the neon melancholy of Robby Müeller polaroids. The iconography of Near Dark’s bible-belt America is in no small part due to cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who also shot La Bamba (1987) the same year, as well as one of the most isually stunning sci-fi/action films of the 1980s, The Terminator (1984) – which also includes a brief appearance by Bill Paxton.

While Bigelow keeps the pacing quick and the storytelling lean, she’s not afraid to linger in moments either. In one of Near Dark’s most famous set pieces, Caleb and the gang of vampires stroll into a dive bar and proceed to kill off all the patrons and staff in a ten-minute-long scene straight out of a Tarantino fever dream. The sequence is not only intrepid for a first-time solo director, but incredibly masculine for a female director. From dive-bar massacres to motel-room shoot-outs, Near Dark is bursting at the seams with alpha-male bravado. It’s the kind of rowdy, rough ‘n tumble energy you’d most often find in a John McTiernan or Sam Fuller film. Rather than lean into femininity, Bigelow keeps her vampires rooted in muscular grit, and Near Dark is all the more vicious because of it. “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons,” Bigelow would later say in 1990. “I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t.”

Bigelow’s directorial confidence is primarily marked by the unwavering trust in her actors, allowing their performances to fill in the blanks where the script leaves off. The previous year, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton traveled through outer space together in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), and there’s familiar chemistry to the ensemble as they traverse the backroads of America as outlaw vampires (in an early scene, Caleb walks through a downtown area, and behind him, we see the glowing lights of a theater marquee showing Aliens – a wink from Bigelow to the audience). Bigelow lets the actors convey an unspoken, deep-rooted history that’s similar to that of a dysfunctional family. It’s in the way they play cards and bicker with each other, constantly pushing buttons and testing limits. The subtext of their interactions negates the need for further exposition. A reluctant gesture or snarky quip speaks more than a thousand words of dialogue, and it’s all we need to understand their interpersonal relationships.

Out of all the performances, Bill Paxton’s role as Severen is the most memorable. In contrast to Wright’s pixie-girl seduction and Henriksen’s brooding stoicism, Paxton approaches Severen with live-wire energy. He’s more like a boisterous gunslinger than a mystical vampire, stealing every scene he’s in and delivering all the best lines. There’s a palpable sense of joy in Paxton’s portrayal of Severen; you can feel that he’s having fun with the role and enjoying every minute of screen time. In one scene, Severen posts up at a bar stool, slapping his hands on the counter and exclaiming, “Bartender, give me a couple of shots of whatever donkey piss you’re shoving down these cocksuckers throats!” Has there ever been a better bit of barroom dialogue?

Whether it’s zombies, ghosts, demons, or vampires, all horror requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief. The use of mystery to entice audiences into terror is often only as effective as how many question marks are replaced with periods by the time the credits roll. When horror is firing at all cylinders, practical thoughts of “why” or “how” don’t matter to an audience. We’re too caught up in the thrill ride taking place on screen to consider logistics. And, if afterwards, we’re left to ponder the paranormal or murderous events, we’re prone to meditate on their sensationalism before their logic. We’ll remember Regan MacNeil crab-walking down the staircase in The Exorcist (1973) before dissecting why Pazuzu specifically chose Regan as his next vessel. We’ll remember Severen using his boots’ spurs to slash a bartender’s throat in Near Dark before asking why simple blood transfusions couldn’t solve all vampirism. Such considerations are neither here nor there when an audience feels like they’re being properly entertained. After all, horror movies are all about catharsis and escapism. But in an effort to satisfy summation for what lurks in the shadows, it’s easy to lose sight of the mystery that attracted us to the shadows in the first place; the more that’s revealed, the less there is to be scared of. But such an austere approach requires extreme self-assurance from a director, as they’re willing to sacrifice the reliable scaffolding of narrative structure for the wager of directorial vision; a risky bet for any filmmaker not wholly secure with their craft. “It’s a gamble you take,” director and writer P.T Anderson once said regarding filmmaking. “But sometimes it’s better to confuse the audience for five minutes than to let them get ahead of you for ten seconds.” In the case of Near Dark, Bigelow neither confuses nor placates to audience’s expectations. Instead, she delivers one of the most unique American vampire films ever made, and a masterclass on how not to let exposition get in the way of horror. | e hehr

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