“Howdy. I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don’t mind none.”
The Scoop: 1987 R, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, and Lance Henriksen
Tagline: Killing you would be easy, they’d rather terrify you… forever.
Summary Capsule: Oklahoma boy discovers why it’s a bad idea to sexually harass the new girl in town and subsequently falls in with your typical Southern vampire clan.
Shalen’s rating: Two out of three cast members who were also in Aliens.
Shalen’s review: I’ve seen a fair number of vampire movies now, and I’m gradually working my way through what canon there is of this quasi-horror subgenre. I say quasi-horror because, while they do involve some morbidity and gore, vampire movies generally aren’t very frightening. This one mostly isn’t either, but it’s still much better than the run of the mill. I’ve set up a little comparison for you so that you’ll know how to distinguish Near Dark from the more gothically typical vampire movies:
Things that are NOT in this movie:
- Tom Cruise pretending to be French.
- European accents, complete with the word “shall.”
- Tom Cruise making bad jokes while killing hookers.
- Overuse of phrases such as “vampire elder,” “vampire clan,” “vampire tea party,” etc.
- Total absence of Trancers cult star Tim Thomerson.
Things that ARE in this movie:
- Lance Henrickson being scary. Pretending is not involved.
- Southern accents, complete with the word “ain’t.”
- Bill Paxton making bad jokes while killing bikers.
- No use of the word “vampire” at all.
- Tim Thomerson as Loy Colton, doing a startlingly good job of actually acting.
So we can see that Near Dark is already a far superior movie in many respects. It also has a mysterious quality called “character development,” which is also frequently absent from vampire-oriented movies. This isn’t a movie that tries to keep us in suspense about the characters’ motivations or hold them aloof from the viewer to maintain some sort of mysterious quality. We’re right down there in the infernal pit with them, and while the view isn’t pretty, it’s hard to tear your eyes from it. The film even has one or two subtler metaphoric touches, like the way the crew of vampires gets grimier as Caleb gets to know them better, and the way Caleb also seems to get visibly dirtier himself as the film goes on.
Unlike other Southern vampire movies, this one is not oriented from the point of view of vampire hunters. There aren’t any. Jesse and his crew seem to occupy the same seedy underbelly as their victims, mostly beneath the law’s notice rather than above it. They’ve achieved a stable group structure into which good-old-boy Caleb enters as a disruptive influence after being bitten by Mae. He then gradually descends further and further into their nihilistic, predatory lifestyle, even as his father and little sister search for him throughout Oklahoma and nearby states.
Sadly enough, protagonist Adrian Pasdar is probably the worst actor in the movie. He has every single scene he’s in stolen by a costar, particularly Bill Paxton as Severen. Severen has most of the movie’s best lines, delivered with a menacing, crazed relish that absolutely glues the eye to him whenever he’s on screen. I was also a big fan of Lance Henricksen as Jesse, the paternal figure of this twisted little family. He’s captured that air of dignified lethality that a few Southern gentlemen take on later in life, and it’s very impressive to watch.1
This movie does have one minor flaw that vampire movies tend to have, which is that day and night are completely arbitrary. Sometimes one night seems to last about a week, and others it’s over when you’ll swear it was sunset five minutes ago. The last instance of this is particularly glaring. I’d also have preferred a little exposition as to the “cure” that happens near the end of the film. It’s one of the only things in the movie that departs completely from traditional vampire lore, and there’s no explanation at all.
That aspect of the ending does feel a little tacked-on. I can’t help thinking this film might actually have been better with a slightly darker ending. Either way, it didn’t deserve its utter failure at the box office. I sat all the way through this one and actually enjoyed it, which is more than I can say for The Lost Boys.2
I recommend this film very highly. It’s an often-overlooked but very watchable and fascinating movie with a different take on an old genre. It has a great script and some good acting to dress out the simple plot, and it’s never a slave to its effects. How many vampire movies can you say that about?
1. I keep trying not to use the word “cool,” as in “Lance Henricksen is SO COOL,” because then I would have to start typing things like “omfg this is such a cool movie everyun shuld watch it” and I would have no choice but to kill myself.
2. Not a Cory Feldman fan.
- As Caleb staggers through town, just before the bus stop scene – the cinema behind him is showing Aliens which also featured Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein.
- Severen asks Jesse if he remembers “that fire we started in Chicago.” This refers to the great fire in the Midwest/Chicago in 1871 that left more than 100,000 people homeless and destroyed businesses. The fire still remains a mystery to this day.
- Carjackers. The other white meat.
- When Homer brings Sarah to the hotel room, it is night time, and Sarah makes reference to how late everyone is staying up. A minute later, Severen goes out and gets Loy, and it is still night. Two minutes later, when the Colton’s flee the room, it is broad daylight out.
- Jesse and Severen’s card game.
- Vampire kid – common theme with Lost Boys which came out the same year as this one.
- Lance Henrickson is on Shalen’s Awesome Scary Guy list right next to Willem Dafoe.
- The cure. Why did that work, exactly? It’s a nice metaphor, but… Why?
- Unusually for a vampire movie, the word “vampire” is never mentioned.
- While shooting in the desert, Lance Henriksen relieved the boredom between takes by hopping in his car and taking short drives through the desert, still in costume and often staying in character. According to Henriksen and Bill Paxton, the two were stopped by a policeman who became so unnerved questioning ‘Jesse’ about his speeding that the officer became visibly uncomfortable, stepping back and placing his hand on his firearm. The obviously flustered officer decided to send them on their way rather than write them a ticket.
- Was the last movie produced and released by DEG (DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group) as the studio went bankrupt. As a result, the film did not receive much publicity during its release in the fall of 1987 which lead, in turn, to its box office failure.
Mae: horses don’t like me.
Caleb: How old are you?
Jesse: Let’s just say I fought for the South. We lost.
Severen: I hate it when they ain’t been shaved.
Mae: Look at the night. It’s so bright it’ll blind you!
Severen: It ain’t what’s goin’ on, son. It’s what’s comin’ off. Your face. Clean off.
Caleb: I sure haven’t met any girls like you.
Mae: You sure haven’t.
Severen: Hey, Jesse, remember that fire we started in Chicago?
Bartender: What do you people want?
Jesse: Just a few minutes of your time. About the same duration as the rest of your life.
Severen: Howdy. I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don’t mind none.
Jesse: I taught Severen everything he knows, but not everything I know.
Mae: Then you might as well kill me, too.
Mae: He’s been bit, but he ain’t been bled. He’s probably already turned by now.
Jesse: You’re gonna look real ugly with your face ripped off.
Diamondback (to Jesse): First time I laid eyes on you, I knew you was trouble.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Dead Birds
- The Lost Boys
- Vampires: Los Muertos