Monday, November 8, 2010

Film Review: NEAR DARK (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (THE LOVELESS, THE HURT LOCKER, POINT BREAK). Written by Bigelow and Eric Red (THE HITCHER, BODY PARTS). Music by Tangerine Dream. Starring Adrian Pasdar (SOLARBABIES, TOP GUN), Jenny Wright (PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL; I, MADMAN), Lance Henriksen (ALIENS, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM), Bill Paxton (TRUE LIES, ALIENS), Tim Thomerson (DOLLMAN, TRANCERS), Joshua John Miller (TEEN WITCH, RIVER'S EDGE). Cinematography by Adam Greenberg (THE TERMINATOR, 10 TO MIDNIGHT, 3 MEN AND A BABY).
Tag-line: "Killing you would be easy, they'd rather terrify you...forever."
Best one-liner: "Caleb, those people back there, they wasn't normal. Normal folks, they don't spit out bullets when you shoot 'em, no sir." (Later paraphrased in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN.)

I'm sure a fair amount of you have seen NEAR DARK. For those who haven't, it's a two-fisted, shit-kickin' vampire Western that sort of combines all of my favorite things about THE LOST BOYS, Carpenter's VAMPIRES, and POINT BREAK. It slits your throat with a sharpened spur, sears your skin, and explodes in a grotesque display of vampiric immolation. Now, with that in mind, take a gander at the DVD re-release cover:

Sweet God- my worst fears realized- NEAR DARK appropriated by the lily-livered aficionados of TWILIGHT, CGI, and unbridled airbrushing! But it doesn't matter– here's nine reasons why, even if it's remade and/or commandeered by these knuckleheads, NEAR DARK will still live on as an 80's genre classic:

#1. The vampires' mode of travel: a beat-up, nasty old Recreational Vehicle.

There's no sugar-coating their nomadic, hand-to-fang, poverty-stricken existence. They cruise around in a pedophile-mobile with blacked-out windows cause they've got no other choice. No Gothic mansions, no Ann Ricey-TWILIGHTY-romanticized shenanigans- it's a daily struggle for survival that's closer to Buñuel's LAND WITHOUT BREAD or Marc Singer's DARK DAYS than some TRUE BLOOD wankfest. And the RV says it all.

#2. Hey, look, it's a James LeGros cameo!

If you can't appreciate the simple joy of an unexpected LeGros appearance, maybe you don't deserve to enjoy NEAR DARK. And Bigelow even spares him in the midst of a vampire rampage, thus continuing to prove my theory that anybody and everybody worth their salt has a soft spot for LeGros.

#3. The Tangerine Dream score. While on the whole it's not one of their very best scores (like their work on THIEF, FLASHPOINT, or THE PARK IS MINE), certain tracks- like "Bus Station"- possess a certain, fleeting atmospheric quality, like an entrancing invitation to a dangerous fairy-tale world. In short, it's the kind of music that, even though it's looping endlessly on the DVD menu, oddly, it doesn't bother you. In fact, you're looking for an excuse not to start the movie, cause you'd kind of like to listen to Tangerine Dream for just a little longer if ya don't mind.

#4. Tim Thomerson. Undervalued. Underused. Under-recognized.

And here in the kind of mainstream, stalwart, square-jawed, all-American farmer role he should have been booking more often. He's likeable, believable, and deserves to be a household name. And not just in Charles Band's household. Perhaps I exaggerate, but come on, let's hear it for Thomerson.

#5. Bill Paxton is loopier than a corkscrew.

I think that the critical acclaim for a show such as BIG LOVE has made the world, to some
extent, forget that Paxton made his name as one of the zaniest hombres this side of the Marx Brothers.

"I hate 'em when they ain't been shaved!" he laments (as he slurps the blood from an unkempt, hirsute biker). He dances, he prances, he lacerates necks with a sharpened spur. He blows air kisses, blows people away with a six-gun, and shouts "Bullseye!" afterwards. Why a vampire would need to resort to firearms is anybody's guess, but Paxton makes it so you don't really care so long as he keeps twirlin' em and verbalizin' his smart-assed remarks.

Something to ponder: are these the same pleather pants that reappear in BOXING HELENA?

"Finger-lickin' good!" he declares after a particularly fiendish bout of blood-drinking.

Bravo, Paxton. Bravo.

#6. Joshua John Miller. AKA 'The Creepy Kid from RIVER'S EDGE and TEEN WITCH. Other than David Bennent, I'm unsure I can think of anyone more qualified to play the role of 'irascible, centuries old vampire trapped in a child's body.'

#7. Adam Greenberg's cinematography.

Bigelow- via her then-paramour, James Cameron- had already got her hands on Paxton and Henriksen, so why not raid his DP, as well? Bigelow, originally a painter, has always been able to extract striking images from her cinematographers, and the magnificent visuals here are dusty, weather-beaten, and severe. And since I already mentioned that Bigelow was a painter, I'll also mention that her first studio was in an Off-Track Betting building. That's what NEAR DARK is, in a nutshell. Crude yet painterly visions transmitted directly from the scrap-paper and cigarette-butt strewn floors of an OTB. Print that in the paper.

#8. The way the vamps burn.

More like the spontaneous combustion of a back-alley wino than a poetic end to an aristocratic villain, the slow-motion searing and flaying of skin and the blackening of their shabby, smoldering rags makes for quite a memorable, mesmerizing visual despite the grotesquery, even though I'm not sure if grotesquery is, in fact, a real word.

#9. Lance Henriksen.

Gaunt, heavily scarred, possessing a wicked rat-tail, and at one point explaining that he's a Civil War veteran ("I fought for the South. We lost."), Henriksen is, as always, scary good. "Your skin is as soft as a preacher's belly," he can be heard to declare with the sort of impassive malevolence that defines his performance. His character, Jesse Hooker, is a sort of 'bottom line' kinda guy. He's not evil per se (although, uh, it is insinuated that he set the Great Chicago Fire of 1871), he just happens to look out for number one in such a way that he leaves a trail of massacred innocents and general sleazy vampire wreckage in his wake, wherever he goes, whenever he goes. He also cheekily spits up the bullets he's been shot with and uses them to taunt his adversaries.

Lance Henriksen: certainly deserving a place in the vampire hall-of-fame.

Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Thomerson does not get enough credit for the understated work he does in this film. Where he's often cast in more wackier roles (see CHERRY 2000), there is some fantastic casting against type going on here and he brings a real, tangible gravitas to the role which gets me every time. It also acts as a nice contrast to the more outrageous characters (Paxton) in the film.

And isn't that re-issue DVD art just gahd-awful?! Blech. I'm glad I have my original Anchor Bay DVD edition with the more decent artwork, thankyouverymuch.

And what can you say about Paxton? This and his whiny bitch marine in ALIENS are his finest moments, IMO. He just steals every scene he's in and looks like he's having a blast doing it.

And let me also chime in with some love fer LeGros! Love him and his work. He enlivens pretty much everything he's in, even small cameos like the one he did in SINGLES ("It's OK to loathe these people.") or ZODIAC. I wish someone would give him a meatier role.

Sean Gill said...

I first took note of Thomerson after my first viewing of TRANCERS. Only later did I learn that I'd already seen him (but not taken note) in FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Altman's A WEDDING, and Peckinpah's OSTERMAN WEEKEND- needless to say, though, since TRANCERS I've followed his work with great interest.

Agreed on Paxton- though I might add his simpering near-cameo role in TRUE LIES to the short list as well, just for sheer absurdity's sake. (And I haven't yet seen the killer-hobo flick THE VAGRANT, in which Paxton apparently co-stars with Ironside.)

And LeGros- never got the recognition he deserved. And he pops up EVERYWHERE. Saw him in NEAR DARK, THE RAPTURE, and PHANTASM II within a week's time, and certainly didn't plan it. Then I'm having a drink at a friends' bar, look up to the TV and see LeGros guest-starring on some LAW & ORDER show!

Tempest said...

I saw this years ago and noticed that they never use the word "vampire." It is something else unique about this film. I agree too, that there was nothing romanticized or appealing about their lifestyle--they were not wealthy or live in gothic mansions as you mentioned. Miller was a riot and I always found him funny. He seemed to vanish as he got older, but it happens.

Sean Gill said...


Strangely enough, it seems Joshua John Miller mostly gave up acting to become a novelist and filmmaker- though he certainly had a string of extremely memorable performances from RIVER'S EDGE to TEEN WITCH to CLASS OF 1999.