Director: Kathryn Bigelow (USA). Year of Release: 1988
Late at night, a truck stop in one of those Southern States like Arkansas or Oklahoma where all the men wear stetsons. One of the would-be cowboys goes over to a woman who his mates think is out of he league. He says he’s never met a girl like her and she agrees, she parries off his romantic advances but does tell him that she’s looking for a lift home.
Meet Caleb, who is prettier than he is intelligent, and Mae, whose love bite is causing Caleb to feel peckish for some blood. As they chat outside, Mae points to a star, says that it will take billions of years for their light to reach earth, and that she’ll be there to greet it. Do you get it? In case you didn’t, she gets panicky when she realises that we’re approaching daybreak and tells Caleb he must get her home before the sun goes up.
To quench his thirst for blood, Caleb must kill, but he’s not really that sort of guy. But Mae’s family is very insistent and keeps setting up easy targets for him. They visit a local bar together, where the vampire family harasses the locals, who discover that vampires are impervious to bullets. Caleb still can’t find it in him to kill anyone, so Mae lets him drink her blood for the time being.
There follow a number of escapades which depend on two opposing facts. On the one hand, the vampires appear to be indestructible and have superhuman strength, which means that any fights (including the bar fight) lack any jeopardy. You just know that they are going to win. On the other, if they stay out after sunrise, their skin will burn to a frazzle, no matter how much Factor 40 they apply. This is sometimes debilitating, sometimes fatal, sometimes a mild inconvenience.
To try to keep up the tension, Near Dark operates an implausible time scheme. One minute, we are approaching daybreak, the next the sun is high in the skies, the next we are in the middle of the night. As the brightness of the outside lightning changes rapidly, there is no obvious break in the action. I’m not sure whether this is on purpose, the result of a low budget, or a subtle point that just passed me by. Whichever it is, it makes the plot development slightly implausible.
We have another moment of tension where Caleb’s biological family – now just a father and sister, come in contact with his new vampire family. Mae’s younger brother (or possibly just a member of the undead in child-like form, it’s hard to tell) Homer takes a shine to Caleb’s sister, and Caleb is forced to choose between his different ties. This has the potential to be interesting, but to be honest it mainly has the feeling of something that has been set up to take the plot somewhere.
The film ultimately contains a deus ex machina in a blood transfusion machine cobbled up in Caleb’s dad’s garage. Because, you see, if you extract someone’s blood, then whatever it was that was turning them into a vampire need no longer be effective. I guess that this is a clever plot twist, but I just couldn’t get past the thought: and you made this sensitive medical device out of stuff that you had lying around, just how exactly? Maybe I’m overthinking things here.
This enables a plausible (in amongst the general “what the fuck is happening here?” aspect of the plot) happy ending. Whether or not you see this as an asset depends to a large extent on whether you think that films should be there to calm our nerves or to reflect the cruel brutality of modern life. Let’s just say that I found that the happy end played a dramatic purpose, but blunted whatever the film was trying to say, especially as it was achieved through such implausible means.
For all this, Near Dark always looks marvellous, as you’d expect from a film by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. There are lots of set piece scenes of things bursting into flame which look great. And in the simple, but often mishandled, task of getting the characters to point A to point B, Bigelow – in her second film, the first directed on her own – barely puts a foot wrong.
Maybe a last call out on the music. At the risk of exposing my age, I do remember that value added to films by a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It is not overwhelmingly intrusive, but puts its foot on the accelerator whenever we need to increase the tension. Near Dark’s soundtrack is similar to that of Sorcerer or Michael Mann’s Thief. Please don’t ask me to hum any of the songs, but the music is solid and helps us react to the film’s changes in pace.
There is nothing wrong with Near Dark, and, as said, there are some spectacular set piece scenes. At the same time, I’m not sure that it has anything in particular to say. Things happen, and then they stop happening. Everything ends up ok in the end. While I didn’t dislike the film, it was hard to raise a voice much stronger than one that says “Yeah, whatever”.