Before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would make From Dusk Till Dawn in 1996 and John Carpenter Vampires in 1998, Kathryn Bigelow gave us one of the earlier “vampire westerns” in her fantastic 1987 directorial debut Near Dark. Like the two aforementioned films, Near Dark is a vampire film set within the backdrop of the western American frontier. Yet in contrast to both Tarantino and Don Jakoby’s pulpy, blood-soaked screenplays full of vulgar men and exploding vampires, Near Dark is a delicate, elliptical, and at times even poetic mood piece.
Set somewhere in the American southwest, the film opens following a young man named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who meets an attractive young girl (or so he thinks) named Mae (Jenny Wright), who flirts with him before biting his neck and running away before dawn. As the morning sun rises, Caleb’s skin begins to burn, and he is suddenly whisked away into an RV. Once aboard, he learns that Mae is part of a roaming group of vampires led by the frightening but charismatic Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen). Having been bitten and turned into a vampire, he has little choice but to join their caravan.
The film follows Caleb’s journey as he adapts to his new lifestyle. Unwilling to kill others to drink their blood, he is taken under the wing of Mae, who feeds him from her opened wrists every night, likely out of some sense of guilt for forcing such a lifestyle upon him without his say. As the film’s title would suggest, much of the runtime transpires under the eerie blanket of night, draped in the soft synth-rock and electric guitar sounds of the always wonderful Tangerine Dream. The film takes on a dreamy tone through its elliptical editing and minimal performances, focused for much more of its runtime on the complicated, purgatorial feelings of Caleb’s new life than on any kind of straightforward narrative.
Unlike its two pulpy 90s successors, Near Dark treats the mythical subject of the vampire itself with an empathetic mundanity rather than abject disgust and horror. Taking place for the majority of its runtime within the point of view of a group of vampires, the film portrays the monsters not as bloodsucking beasts but as ordinary people who have lost touch with their humanity in their dark years of isolation. Furthermore, the film locates a kind of sad, quiet beauty within all the horror. “The night has its price”, Mae tells Caleb early on, a simple statement wrought with both acceptance of the horrors of their monstrous disease and a subtle appreciation of the new perspective it grants on life.
Of course, despite the comparatively delicate nature of the film, it cannot avoid the inherent violence and bloodshed of its two genre reference points. The two most inspired scenes of the film are indeed probably its most violent – one transpiring as a particularly bloody riff on the typical western saloon brawl and the other a uniquely inventive take on the outlaw shootout, where the daylight-leaking holes left in the wall by stray revolver rounds pose as much a threat to the gang’s survival as the bullets themselves.
At its core, Near Dark is brilliant precisely because it is a film that fuses an outlaw premise of a traditional western, wherein a “normal” person is thrust into an uncomfortable new violent life and ultimately learns to become a new person from the experience, with the alienating, tangible body horror of a vampire movie. I’ve seen a criticism of the ending – which follows Caleb and Mae as they reverse their vampirism disease via blood transfusion – that states such a development is a classic deus ex machina. While I don’t necessarily disagree, I do think the sudden simplicity of the ability to change is a core feature of the film’s message. If vampirisim is framed within the film to be a life filled with melancholy and defeated acceptance, marked by a total rejection of others’ humanity, then why can’t its characters be allowed to transform their existence into one of warmth and empathy? The night has its price, but that doesn’t mean we must accept it.