The Tomb of Terror: Near Dark (1987)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Vampires have been a mainstay of horror ever since Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula popularized them in 1897. Every few years we see an influx of films centering on bloodsuckers. Certain things may change from film to film, such as the ridiculous lovesick sparkling vampire craze which we are currently in the midst of, but the basic rules always stay the same. Vampires have to drink blood. They can only be killed by sunlight or a stake to the heart. They hate garlic, crosses and holy water. Watch a vampire film and you’ll usually find at least three of these rules honored. And that’s how it should be. There’s nothing more annoying than a monster movie that changes all the rules of its monster. One exception to this rule is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, which reinvents the vampire mythos by stripping it to its core.
Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar, Carlito’s Way) is a simple country boy. He lives on a farm with his father (Tim Thomerson, Trancers series) and little sister. His nights are spent heading into town and lamenting his boring existence with his redneck buddies. All of that changes on the night he meets Mae (Jenny Wright, 1984’s The Wild Life). He first sees her walking out of a store, licking an ice cream cone in slow motion. After getting up the nerve to talk to her, Caleb strikes a good chemistry with Mae. He’s so smitten that he doesn’t immediately realize how strange she is.
Over the course of this first date, Mae acts more than a little peculiar. She talks about how beautiful the night is, horses freak out at the sight of her, she’s terrified of being caught in the sun, and she keeps saying, “You haven’t met any girls like me before.” Maybe Caleb thinks she’s just quirky, like Natalie Portman in Garden State. But this isn’t an indie comedy, it’s a horror movie—and like everyone in the audience has guessed, Mae is all but screaming “I’m a vampire!” during these opening segments. Caleb finally realizes it too, after Mae bites into his jugular and disappears as the sun rises.
Stumbling home, Caleb is overcome with pain. As the sun hits him, his skin begins to boil and smoke. His family watches in horror as an RV with blacked out windows pulls up behind him and his burning body is yanked inside. The passengers in this sunproofed RV are Mae and her “family”, other vampires who travel together in a pack. The mother and father of the group are Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Jesse (Lance Henriksen, Pumpkinhead). The wild card of the gang is Severen (Bill Paxton, Titanic), a psychopath whose first words to Caleb are “I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don’t mind much.” The final member is Homer (Joshua Miller, Halloween III: Season of the Witch), the vampire that turned Mae. Even though his body is only that of a pre-teen boy, he is in fact the oldest of the group.
As evidenced by the first line spoken by Severen, Mae’s family wants nothing to do with Caleb except kill him. Mae says that they can’t. She bit him and he’s starting to turn. Reluctantly they agree to bring Caleb along with them. Caleb, feeling sick and weak, doesn’t argue with their decision.
That night, as the family goes out to hunt, Caleb tells Mae that he has to go home. “You won’t make it far,” she warns him. He ignores her warning and heads for the bus station. He stumbles through town, dirty and feeling an uncontrollable pain in his stomach. People stare as he wanders into the bus station looking like a junkie. He buys a candy bar only to throw it up moments after eating. After begging for money, Caleb finds himself on a bus home. Unable to cope with the pain in his stomach, he gets off of the bus and makes his way back to Mae. She rips into her wrist and he feasts on the only thing that can now satiate his hunger: blood.
The set-up of the story is familiar. The reluctant vampire on film is as old as the reluctant werewolf. But the way director Kathryn Bigelow (a recent Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker) presents the story makes it interesting. Instead of being the tale of a woe-is-me vampire, such as those popularized in Interview with the Vampire, we instead see Caleb dealing with his newfound vampirism while also trying to integrate with the gang that Mae calls family. After first drinking from her blood, a reinvigorated Caleb asks Mae, “What’ll we do now?” “Anything we want,” she answers. “Till the end of time.”
Unfortunately for Caleb, this fairytale romance doesn’t end there. Unlike the wussy vampires of Twilight, the vamps of Near Dark are cold-blooded killers, and they demand that Caleb become one too if he’s going to stay with Mae. The following night, we see Mae explain to Caleb what it means to be a vampire, while the film cuts away to the rest of the family hunting their meals. The sequence builds perfectly. As Caleb realizes what it is he has to do in order to survive, we see it presented to us, as Jesse, Diamondback, Severen, and Homer feast on their victims. Eventually, Caleb finds himself pretending to hitchhike with Mae in order to find a meal. They are picked up by kindly semi truck driver, but Caleb can’t bring himself to kill the man. As he buckles over in pain on the side of the road, Caleb watches as Mae rips into the driver’s throat and dumps the body like a sack of meat. As he did before, Caleb eagerly sucks the blood secondhand from Mae’s wrist. In these scenes Pasdar expertly plays the part of the addict, craving his fix and reveling in it when he can finally have some.
This inaction shifts the movie into high gear. Jesse is furious that Caleb still hasn’t made a kill. He demands that the deed be done the following night, or Severen will finally get to make Caleb suffer. This leads the film into its best sequence, the bar massacre. The next night sees the family standing at the top of the hill. They look down on a lonely bar in the middle of a valley and descend upon it. “What do you folks want?” the bartender asks. “Only a couple more minutes of your time, about the same duration as the rest of your life,” Jesse answers, a wicked smile across his face. This sequence has everything a horror fan would want: quotable dialog, no-holds-barred action, and plentiful gore. In this scene, Caleb makes a decision which will lead to him having to choose between his family (who have been tracking him across the state) and Mae.