The Tomb of Terror: Near Dark (1987)
Near Dark isn’t the scariest film, but it knows how to do action. Anyone who’s seen director Bigelow’s other work (which also includes Point Break and Strange Days) knows that she is one of the best action directors working today. Near Dark was her first solo effort as a director, but you wouldn’t be able to guess from watching the film. Every shot not only succinctly tells the story, but looks gorgeous at the same time. Helping in that regard is cinematographer Adam Greenberg, at the time fresh off the success of The Terminator. Their collaboration brings to life some of the best action scenes in horror cinema. Not only is the aforementioned bar massacre amazing, but it is followed by a daytime shoot-out between the vampire clan and the cops. This sequence is fun for any action/horror junkie. As the family tries to shoot their way out of a motel room to freedom, they have to deal with the beams of sunlight being made by their bullet holes.
None of this awesome action would have mattered at all if the script wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily Bigelow and her co-writer Eric Red (1986’s The Hitcher) knock that aspect out of the park too. Their script makes everyone into three-dimensional characters, all while keeping the exposition to a bare minimum. We don’t get any long diatribes about what it’s like to be a vampire or how the family ended up the way they are. Instead, insightful backstory is sprinkled throughout the film. After lighting their RV on fire to change vehicles, Severen says, “Hey Jesse, remember that fire we started in Chicago?” Even when Caleb asks Jesse point blank how old he is, an unnecessary monologue is avoided. “Let’s just say I fought for the south,” Jesse answers. “We lost.”
The actors all give great performances that bring these characters to life (or unlife). Pasdar and Wright make you believe not only their romance, but also the conflict both of them feel in being undead. Thomerson brings a strong presence to the supporting role of Caleb’s father. But the real fun in the cast is in the vampire family. Henriksen, Goldstein, and Paxton all worked together on Aliens (playing Bishop, Vasquez, and Hudson, respectively) and that experience really informs their characters’ relationships here. Goldstein is unrecognizable if you’ve only seen her in Aliens and she gives a commanding performance as the family matriarch. A long scar and overgrown fingernails give Jesse a discomforting look, but Henriksen sells the character and never lets makeup do the work for him. Bill Paxton has long been one of my favorite actors, and I cite Near Dark as his best work. He really digs into the part of the crazed killer, making Severen the most memorable aspect of the entire film.
Near Dark was released in theaters a few weeks after the big budget studio film The Lost Boys. It seems that the multiplex wasn’t big enough for two films about a young man becoming a vampire, and the Corey-filled Lost Boys killed at the box office. While that film stuck true to nearly a century of vampire mythology, Near Dark was able to strip the nature of the vampire down to its core and end up the better film. All overtly supernatural happenings are left out of the film, except for vampires having eternal life and dying from exposure to the sun. There are no elongated fangs, shapeshifting, or flying. The word vampire isn’t even mentioned once in the film. Near Dark treats the change as a disease and keeps it as grounded in reality as it possibly can be. It even adds an element to the vampire that I’ve never seen in another film. After being shot in the stomach, a vampire feels pain—not from the bullet, but from the blood loss. Since blood is what keeps a vampire alive, this makes complete sense. There are few movies that would be interested in adding something to the vampire mythos while at the same time leaving so much out. Near Dark not only takes those chances, but they pay off in spades.
Final Grade: A
Near Dark was saved from VHS oblivion by Anchor Bay in 2002 in a fully loaded two disc set. Disc 1 contains the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer and a commentary by co-writer/director Kathryn Bigelow. The commentary is a bit of a disappointment though, with long gaps of silence keeping the few interesting stories far away from each other. The main meat of the set is on disc 2, with the highlight being the documentary “Living in Darkness.” In this 50 minute segment, we hear from Bigelow, the producers, and most of the main cast. The best stories come from Lance Henriksen, who gives his own take on Jesse’s unseen backstory and recalls how he got into character by scaring the crap out of hitchhikers he picked up on the way to set. Don’t leave once the credits start to roll though; stick around and you’ll see the cast and crew give their ideas on what a Near Dark sequel might look like. Also featured on disc 2 are trailers, a deleted scene with commentary by Bigelow, animated storyboards, still galleries, and talent bios. The set is complimented by an informative booklet and a copy of the script in PDF form.
A few years after the comprehensive two disc set was released, Anchor Bay for some reason put out a single disc version. This release copied disc 1 of the previous set, but added the deleted scene to the bonus feature selection. More features were restored to the recent Blu-ray release from Lionsgate. In addition to the commentary and deleted scene, we saw “Living in Darkness” and the film’s trailers make a comeback. Unfortunately, this release was brought about by the success of Twilight, and so Lionsgate made the boneheaded decision to change the disc’s art to attract that crowd. It’s an embarrassment of a cover, but the disc inside is worth picking up if you don’t have the two disc set.