Kathryn Bigelow - Near Dark (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
7Mar/140

Kathryn Bigelow – Near Dark (1986)

Kathryn Bigelow's sophomore effort, Near Dark, removes the Gothic mystique around vampires and puts them into the grungy west.  Caleb, out for a bit of action, thinks that he's hit the perfect mark when he connects with Mae.  Instead, she gives him pleasure he didn't expect and can't handle when he's indoctrinated into a nomadic vampire band.

Near DarkAndrewCommentaryBannerKyle, I type with no hesitation that today's film is the most interesting point in Kathryn Bigelow's career.  Near Dark is my favorite vampire film of all time, beating out the likes of Nosferatu and Let The Right One In.  So before we go any further I'm dying to know your reaction to the movie.Kyle Commentary BannerI really liked it. I probably wouldn't go as far as to say it's my favorite of all time, but I also can't pull any immediate contenders for that spot off the top of my head. I think the most impressive thing to me was how condensed the timeline is that we're dealing with — the majority of the movie feels very claustrophobic and doom-ridden. And that gets worse over time. The fact that we don't get any time to break and deal with the main character assimilating to his new situation, and that the night just wears on and on for the most part, makes it seem like we're embarking on some (and I realize this is unintentionally mentioning a film from last week again) Blue Velvet-esque nightmare odyssey that has to be minutes away from ending in disaster.

The irony is the crew Caleb falls in with—led by Lance Henriksen as some kind of Charles-Manson-possessing-Lou-Reed's-body father figure—have been doing this for a long time. Everything to them is old hat, which makes our dread even more substantial. I haven't seen a lot of vampire movies that consider the timelessness of the "vampire plight" in that way. Some that approach it with a kind of tragic, epic regard, but none where every night is the same kind of debauched lunacy, and one that the characters are ok with.The loved onesNewer Andrew cutout commentary The matter-of-fact way Bigelow treats the vampire clans murder spree and general penchant for violence is interesting here because it highlights a lot of assumptions we make about horror films in general.  First off, there's never any indication that the people they end up feeding off of, or even the family that Caleb comes from, are innocent or happy in their lives.  That plays off of the similar theme from The Loveless last week about the way the townspeople bought into their images and are unable to make any meaningful connection as a result of that.  The only person that we can treat as innocent is Caleb's sister Sarah, and we could really just chalk that up to not knowing the world that well yet.  The best horror makes the monster sympathetic in some way, but few go so far as to suggest that the "right" way of living isn't that.

What makes Near Dark so amazing is how Bigelow challenges gendered assumptions about horror and vampires by combining opposing visuals.  The vampire family is presented as a loving clan that knows and understands each other through their impulses.  By contrast, the mom is absent from Caleb's family, and Caleb's attraction to Mae ends up filling up that maternal absence by literally giving birth to a new Caleb.  All the while Mae just treats Caleb like he's a pet she bought from the store and the rest of the humans as cattle.  Now, "humans as cattle" isn't exactly an original trope, but when compared to the empty fields where Caleb's family seems to be growing mounds of dirt, it's a damn sight better than what the humans are working with.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryBoth of those comments get at something that stuck with me once the movie was over—the relationship between Caleb and Mae. More specifically, where it starts and where it ends. Early on, when we're first introduced to both characters, there's a dual threat going on: on the one hand, Caleb seems at the very least vaguely predatory (stopping his truck on a country road and refusing to take a visibly anxious Mae home until she agrees to kiss him), and on the other hand, we sense based on the genre conventions at play that he's probably going to get vampire'd here at any second. When, once the latter turns out to be true, Caleb then sticks around as a primary character, that surprised me a little. That he is effectively, as you mention, a pet or a curiosity to Mae is interesting in how it twists that initial dynamic.

But then we get to the last act. Mae and Caleb's relationship has evolved slightly, mostly to the degree that we understand her need for Caleb as a product of her profound loneliness (an issue addressed in a far better, creepier, wholly unclean way when Homer, the "child" vampire, brings Caleb's sister back with him to join the group). Bigelow and (co-screenwriter) Eric Red make an interesting decision then to end the movie by having Caleb's father "cure" Mae of her vampirism so that they can live happily ever after.

It's a decision that perhaps shows Bigelow's savviness with a studio that would undoubtedly have forced a romantic payoff anyway, but this seems like an intention of the script and story all along. It has a disturbing quality that I haven't quite wrapped my mind around yet—I'd be interested to know what you make of that.Not too muchNewer Andrew cutout commentary I'm glad that you put quotes around cure, because there is no doubt in my mind that the blood of Caleb and his family is the centerpiece of Mae's fall fashion right after the credits roll.  We know that she was happy being a vampire.  Even though she treats him as a curiosity she says outright that she can help him live until the time the light from those dying stars reaches them.  The one image that Bigelow doesn't really have a companion to is that last freeze frame because Bigelow stops at the moment Mae realizes that she's been raped.

The imagery goes from one that is favorable to female pleasure to overloaded images of male domination.  The first time that Mae feeds Caleb he's in a very submissive and pleasing position as Bigelow makes it look like he's feeding directly from her menstrual blood.  This goes back to birthing a pet since, in some species, the new family will eat the placenta and other afterbirth for nutrients and strength.  But the real kicker is later on after she feeds Caleb again and he's grown stronger.  She's still dominant, but in the background there are these machines pumping furiously into the ground while she has to shove him away.  That sadistic, empty smile that he gives with his face smeared in blood is the creepiest shot in the movie.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI think you nailed why the ending feels so false in its "now we'll be happy forever" fashion. The fact that she's had her identity taken from her—especially given the fact that audiences are naturally going to assume that "not a vampire" is better than "vampire"—undercuts what that last scene is suggesting with its formal elements. My initial impression was that I was uncomfortable with the way the movie wraps up by having Caleb "save" Mae, and I guess that's still true.

There are also the scenes you mention where she talks about the night being so bright as to almost be blinding. It's clever as a way to emphasize their literal condition—one where they can never see sunlight—but it also seems significant that Mae is the only one of her whole crew that manages to have any wonder left. The rest are rolling around seeming almost begrudgingly amused at the same things they've experienced every night for (sometimes) hundreds of years, but she is a little more philosophical than the rest. Not enoughNewer Andrew cutout commentary That's what makes the way the film wraps up so much worse.  Mae doesn't even get to go out on her own terms and she's the one who knows her condition is a gift.  Bigelow's use of light in that context is especially impressive.  Our expectation in vampire films is that the light is the savior and our heroes are always holding out until the sun comes up.  But the key to how she looks at the light is right there in the title.  If Mae is the real heroine of the story, and given the unique moral compass the film is aligned with there's not much room for doubt there, near dark is the time that would be most dangerous and most exciting for her.  So when we first get a glimpse of sunlight it's after these sequences where Mae and Caleb stand out so clearly against the night sky.  There's never a moment where they seem to fade away and the lighting is attuned to Mae's perception - clear at night, and a bullet during the day.

That also brings to attention just one of the many little details I like about the film - like how the vampire family has to pack large amounts of masking tape and reflectors to keep the sun from baking them alive.

Tiny Kyle Commentary I do like the practical considerations. There's a point where they check into a bungalow and the Henriksen character unrolls a big scroll of cloth only to reveal a cylinder of tin foil inside. I like how they're playing with the more mythic elements of vampires there in a clever, demystifying way.

Another visual point that works really well is when Caleb first comes home after being bitten by Mae. He's quickly becoming sick, sweating and shaking like a junkie, and he eventually starts to run across a field toward his family's home. We get these great mid-to-long shots where he starts literally smoking, falling down and half crawling, and it works really nicely to convey the kind of crushing, oppressive quality that the day has for the vampires. It's a surreal image, because as you mention we can finally see everything in the frame clearly, and yet it's the most helpless-feeling point in the movie up until then.Point of no returnNewer Andrew cutout commentary It sums up Caleb in the pet theme really well too.  He's either a hound dog looking to force himself on a girl to get a good time, or he's a mangy beast who needs put down.

Regarding effective moments, how about the extended bar massacre sequence?  This, by far, shows the leaps that Bigelow made as a director since The Loveless.  The soundtrack of jukebox hits playing in the background as the family tries to sit down and have a snack while each member gets their taste in their own individual fashion.  The surreality comes from just how normal Bigelow treats it.  There's none of the desolate decomposition or genital background imagery, just a family looking to get something to eat.

It's also a sign of how much more control she has over tone through the soundtrack.  There were many moments in The Loveless that felt dragged out not because of the existential isolation of the characters, but because the song wasn't over.  Yet in Near Dark, we hear Peggy Lee's "Fever" running in the background with a chilly guitar line instead of the classic bass that accompanies her.  It's another one of those things that's slightly off hearing the song sung by a man instead, as Mae approaches the cowboy and makes her version of a romantic gesture by offering him to Caleb.  It's gender blurring from top to bottom - Mae asking the man to dance, the man singing the woman's song, and Caleb embarrassed and shamed by his lust.  What an exquisite sequence.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe scene in the bar is where things started to fall into rhythm for me I think. It's also where we first really come to understand the family's distinct otherness. We get that they're vampires, and we've had the scenes where they talk about Caleb having to make his first kill in order to stick around, but that scene they go from a group of identifiable trouble-makers to psychotic sadists (there's a great line that Henriksen has that really shows how much moments like these have come to define the small amount of pleasure he gets out of anything anymore—he says something to the bartender about how they don't want much of his time, "only about as much longer as you'll be alive," or something like that).

This scene also acts as a good bridge into another important aspect of the movie. The Bill Paxton Factor.Kissy kissyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe performances, overall, are a huge step above what we got in The Loveless.  As good as Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright are in the leads, I have to tip my hat toward Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein the most.  The rough sheen of both of their voices as they drawl on about the times they've had together is genuinely sweet among all the carnage.  For the Paxton Factor - I'm a bit more interested in what you have to say about his performance here.  Since I watched him eat garbage off of a naked body and laughing obnoxiously at his three-armed friend rotating in The Dark Backward I've hit peak-Paxton.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI'm with you that Henriksen is a high point, though that mostly feels like, as someone who's seem him in many movies and TV shows, I just now discovered the original version of a great song I've only ever heard covers of before.

I bring up Bill Paxton because this seems like his Nicolas Cage moment—his affected mania fits perfectly with the character, and he seems like an outward manifestation of the group's built up rage. It's as if the stress of living for hundreds of years gets siphoned into Paxton's character and he relishes being able to pour it out on the unsuspecting people they come into contact with.I'm here for you sillyNewer Andrew cutout commentary I like the way you put that.  Paxton specializes in a simmering intensity that makes him an unpredictable but completely plausible element, a quality that also made him shine as a director with Frailty.  The scene where he gives Caleb his spurs made me think he was going to reach over and begrudgingly kiss the schelb for a moment.  He makes a perfect outlet for the group because he doesn't have a partner, like the elders and now Mae do, and little Homer doesn't have the same physical build to kill people like his hormones are constantly commanding him to.

Speaking of the kid who plays Homer, the one aspect of the film I wasn't entirely sold on the first couple of times I watched it was Joshua Miller's performance.  But this, my third trek through, was a lot more forgiving.  Some of his costuming and affectations are more of a direct product of the '80s than the timeless window everyone else seems to exist in.  But the moment that completely sold me, and makes a fitting parallel to Mae and Caleb's tale, is the quivering relish he gives his voice when he lures Sarah back into their room.  It's so creepy that I imagine a young Alex Proyas watching the film and getting the inspiration for his child Stranger in Dark City.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryAnd the desperation of the moment shortly following that, when he tries to defend what he's done to Henriksen, is really effective. Here's a character who we already know through a few bits of dialogue is trapped in a different way than the others—unable to interact with anyone outside his immediate world past the level of his permanent childishness—to such an extent that any partner will do. Even (and maybe especially) one who will many years from now be able to identify with his unique sort of aging.

It's a great moment in how it marries his utter desperation to the entire group's completely disconnected, hermetic morality—the idea that doing this to another person is wrong, especially a child, never enters the discussion. Again, that goes back to the idea you mentioned early on that they don't feel cursed or burdened by their situation.Terrible youthNewer Andrew cutout commentary A couple of things I wanted to point out before we wrapped this up.  Two of the observations I discussed today I've built around some other thoughts.  The way I've thought about the images play off of each other comes from some research I did on the film four years ago and unearthed the idea of how Mae is a destabilizing influence because the film is both a horror film and a western, and as a woman she is both the corrupting influence who destroys domestic purity in on and the settling influence who takes frontier men and ties them down in the other.  I feel like a terrible academic because I can't recall the exact source, but that got me thinking about how all the other images play off of each other.

The other comes from the podcast I did about three years ago with Danny, Jacob, and Ryan.  Jacob and I both noticed the same thing about the terrible implication for Mae in the ending, but he is the one who came up with the idea that she is most likely going to kill the family afterward.  A highly plausible scenario that I wanted to make sure he gets credit for here.

Tiny Kyle Commentary And one that I think makes the movie work better in retrospect.  I can see why this one developed a slow but enthusiastic fan base. It's always interesting to watch those movies in a situation like this, several years late to the game, because you never know just how a movie will grow in your memory after the fact.

 

What did you doNewer Andrew cutout commentary It's still growing on me too.  Different aspects of the film, like the soundtrack or Joshua Miller's performance, jump out at me each time I watch it.  I like that the fan base for this one is a small and dedicated crew versus, say, the fan base for The Lost Boys - which is no less a dedicated or fun group, but then we have to get a conversation about Joel Schumacher, which is a long conversation for another time.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI almost brought up The Lost Boys as a counterpoint to this. That's a movie I enjoy but have never understood the enthusiasm of its following. This one is more interesting. It's also the second in a row (and second overall) of the Kathryn Bigelow project to showcase her talents as a director who's comfortable working firmly within a genre while making subtle efforts to subvert it.

Next week: Blue Steel!

Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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