Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 5: "Near Dark" by David Pretty

Greetings, Enfanginated Ones!

My Player-style pitch for this movie: Near Dark is like True Blood being molested by Natural Born Killers.


I first saw this flick as the opening act of a double bill with Hellraiser.  In many ways, this young, punk upstart blew the high-profile veteran off the stage.  Long before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker she was making balsy, modestly-budgeted horror and action films.

Around the time same Near Dark was made she was rubbing shoulders with Hollywood luminaries like James Cameron.  They eventually married in 1989 but divorced two years later.  It's obvious to me that Kathryn picked up a few directorial techniques from Cameron since Near Dark features several stylistic picks ups from The Terminator and Aliens (as well as cast alumni Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.)  The funny thing is, I consider the writing and especially the dialogue to actually be a tad sharper here.

The film's premise is quite simple: bored of small town life, local hayseed Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) becomes taken with a beautiful stranger in town named Mae (Jenny Wright).  When they go out on disjointed date together, Caleb is fascinated by Mae's sad but ethereal quality.  Then, just prior to sunrise, she inexplicably gives him a class-A hickey and then promptly runs away.  Caleb tries to go after her but is horrified when his skin begins to pop and sizzle under the glare of the morning sun.  He's barely rescued by Mae's unconventional family, which includes laconic Jesse (Henrikson), slinky Diamondback (Goldstein) and borderline psychotic Severen (Paxton).

Severen considers Babyvamp Caleb to be useless baggage and tries to convince the others to kill him.   Mae manages to negotiate a temporary reprieve, provided he can learn to hunt and kill.  Unfortunately he proves to be completely inept at this and Mae is forced to let Caleb feed from her wrist just to keep him alive.

Caleb finally manages to ingratiate himself to the group when he daringly rescues them all from the police.  But eventually Caleb is forced to choose between the mortal family that seeks to recover him and the undead clan that that now refuses to let him go.

Anyone who thinks that female directors can't make a full-blooded horror film obviously hasn't seen Near Dark.  To this day, I'm bitter with Lion's Gate studios for releasing the Blu-Ray with this horrid Twilight-inspired cover:

Stephanie Meyer may have found inspiration in Near Dark's forbidden love story but that's where the similarities end.  The vampires in Near Dark are vicious, cruel and truly enjoy savoring the fear of their victims.  When this pack of undead lunatics enter a shit-kicker bar bent on perusing the walking menu, the scene slowly builds from squirm-inducing to nigh-unbearable.  It's during these times that the film hits Tarantino-like heights of tension.

Despite it's modest budget, the film also looks fantastic, with plenty of evocative night sky and daybreak scenes.  The film's production design and costume departments also serve to dial up the grungy and dangerous tone the film is striving for.

Bigelow also manages to wring some genuinely emotional scenes out of the material; an area in which her "King of the World" ex-husband sometimes comes across as heavy-handed.  The performances are also very tight.  Adrian Pasdar is earnest and true as the hero and we root for him as he doggedly clings to the last vestiges of his humanity.  Jenny Wright is winsome and sexy as Mae and I really wish she was still active in films.

As for the "bad guys": Lance Henriksen couldn't deliver a bad performance if his life depended on it and I've been a charter member of "The Jenette Goldstein Fanclub" ever since her star-turn as Vasquez in Aliens.  Finally, Bill Paxton steals the show as the unhinged Severen and every scene he's in exudes danger and chaos.   He's a destructive force of nature who's motivation to create mayhem, suffering and terror seems to be just as pressing as his need for blood.

Now, some might consider the end of the film to be a bit of a cheat but I think it's interesting to view their condition as almost medical.  After all, the word "vampire" is never actually mentioned in the entire film and I love that the supernatural aspects of the affliction have been jettisoned.  I also think it's relevant that no core members of the original pack ever consider seeking help for their "affliction" since they're having way too much fun.

Near Dark has been overshadowed somewhat by The Lost Boys (also from 1987) but I actually think I like this one a tad better.  This one is a bloody and beautiful good time.

Tilt: up.

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