Near Dark (1987)

Summer vacation is winding down. Despite my intent to complete the Top 70 Vampire Films of All Times list, I only made it through about 2/3. I’ve also been on some what of a manga kick this summer, but more on that later.

Last night I watched Near Dark, a 1987 vampire flick directed by Kathryn Biglow and starring Adrian Pasdar and the always wonderful Lance Henriksen. Adrian Pasdar is Caleb, a cowboy who makes the mistake of picking up Mae one lonely night. Caleb finds her to be a most “unusual girl,” even more so when she begs him to take her home as fast as he can right before dawn. Frustrated by her apparent lack of interest in being intimate when him, Caleb tries to take advantage of her obvious panic and refuses to drive the car until she kisses him. Big mistake. At this moment, a look of decision and resignation passes over Mae’s face and she bites him, instantly turning him into a vampire. No tortured turning scenes here — becoming a vampire is as simple and undramatic as that.

It turns out that Mae is a part of a vampire “family” that has been driving aimlessly across the country for who knows how long. These are not your typical gorgeous vampires by any means. They are vicious drifters, more like a group of roving serial killers than a nest of vampires. Henriksen is Jesse, the head of the clan. He and wife Diamondback serve as the parental figures for what is actually a rather stereotypical criminal “family.” Bill Paxton is the ridiculously sadist Severn, the oldest “son,” Joshua John Miller is Homer, the baby of the family, and Jenny Wright is Mae, the sweet and reluctant daughter. And true to this sort of thing, the vampire clan values family and loyalty above all and has a hyperbolic hatred of outsiders.

Mae’s family is none too happy that she has turned Caleb and Jesse gives him one night to make his first kill or the family will kill him instead. Poor Caleb quite literally doesn’t have the stomach for killing and things look bad for him until he and Jesse begin to bond when he plays a key roll in a daring escape from the police in full daylight. After that, Caleb and Jesse begin to engage in comfortable chatter as Caleb delights in discovering his new strengths and abilities. Jesse even begins to gaze at him like a proud father watching a child grow up.

The movie describes itself as “one of the most ferociously original vampire movies of our generation.” I’m not sure I’d go that far but I gotta say — I kind of like it. It certainly grew on me as I thought about how different it is from your normal vampire fare. The word “vampire” is never mentioned and there are no crucifixes, no holy water, no stakes, no coffins, no fangs, no secret organizations of priests and the like. In fact, the fact that the family are vampires doesn’t play too much of a roll in the violence and horror they perpetrate as they travel. One particularly gruesome scenes occurs at a local rundown bar. Jesse asks the waitress for “just a glass” and then calmly cuts her throat and collects her blood. Then Severn goes on to taunt and torture the 3 or 4 remaining men at the bar. Homer is perhaps the most disturbing of the bunch because he is 10 or 12 (not in vampire years, of course) and the juxtaposition of his childish face with his vicious behavior is unsettling. It is clear that the family will leave no survivors and it is downright painful, to say the least, to watch each human victim helpless wait for his turn to be slaughtered. Strangely, apart from the glass of blood collected from the waitress, the vampires don’t drink the blood from any other of the victims — they kill their victims just for pleasure.

Eventually, of course, Caleb must decide if he is ready to leave humanity behind him and join this band of killers, trading his warm and devoted human father for a father of an entirely different kind.

Initially, I watched Near Dark thinking that it was NOT on the Top 70 list — so I was watching it purely out of “love” for the genre. But happily, Near Dark is #7 on the list and so I get credit for it after all.