Near Dark–the Best Western/Horror/Romance/Family Drama Vampire Movie Ever Made: Part 1

Because the family that slays together, stays together

(Part 1 is a very spoiler-free introduction to a general synopsis of Near Dark, its creator, performers and general trivia for those who have shockingly never seen it; Part 2 will be more in-depth and just lousy with spoilers, so do yourself a favor and see the movie beforehand…and if you are any kind of self-respecting horror fan, you should anyway).

Something I’ll never understand is how people have “favorites”. What’s your favorite color? Food? Music? How do you even answer that? You mean right now? Current mood, time, place, company, circumstances? With all the variations in the world, how can anybody settle for just one favorite of anything? I resent the very question. It puts me on the spot and I feel like as if it’s a shortcut to being labeled. Which is why when I tell you that Near Dark is my favorite vampire movie–by god, I’m saying something.

And yet, so many people–even hardcore horror fans–have never seen it. Then again, it’s a wonder it was ever released at all…starting with the fact that the director was a woman. In 1987, there had only been a grand total of 14 women directors. But then, Kathryn Bigelow is the kind of badass bitch that doesn’t even notice that glass ceiling she’s breaking…and then has the audacity to not only become the first woman director to an Oscar for best picture for Hurt Locker, she didn’t even bother mentioning it in her acceptance speech. She wants to be seen as a director…not a woman director.

With good reason. Do a quick google search of Bigelow and you’ll find a plethora of pearl-clutching articles written by scandalized biddies about her “obsession” with making violent films. In other words, she doesn’t make rom-coms and feel-y movies and just isn’t lady-like in general. Not entirely untrue: she’s a woman, not a lady. As I told my mother when I was five, “I don’t wanna be a lady. They gots too much rules”, and Bigelow is not one to self-hobble. And her movies are violent–Point Break, Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit–these are all objectively violent, decidedly un-lady-like films. (Fun fact: in Bigelow’s very first film, The Set-up, she insisted that her actors actually fight. One of those actors was a very young Gary Busey. Which explains a lot).

Kathryn Bigelow: 1987 and 2009. Apparently, vampires do exist…

But, ignoring the fact that nobody ever chided Scorsese for being too goddamn violent, Bigelow–surprisingly soft-spoken, private yet fiercely independent—ignored the criticism and defied expectations. And Near Dark was no exception.

Bigelow co-wrote Near Dark with Eric Red (who wrote Bad Moon, Blue Steel both the underrated 1986 version of The Hitcher and the piece of shit 2007 remake) as a western. Producers were unimpressed. Westerns were dead; horror was in. So Bigelow and Red tweaked the story to become a genre-busting, western-horror-family drama-romance or “boy meets girl–girl bites boy–boy becomes reluctant bloodsucker of a roving outlaw vampire family”. Bigelow then approached producer Edward Feldman and told him that either she directed or walked. Feldman gave her five days to prove she knew what she was doing and instead of calling him a sexist shithead and telling him to shove that script so far up his ass he gagged on it, she quietly proved herself instead. Which is infinitely more effective than my way.

She had more than knee-jerk sexism working against her, too. Originally slated to take place in Oklahoma, their entire set was destroyed in a record-breaking flood, then hit by a freak summer snow storm in the second location of Coolidge, Arizona for the first time in 100 years. A sudden windstorm swept up on the day of a pivotal fiery scene. And since they couldn’t film from noon to dusk, the cast and crew spent the entire 40 day shoot living very much like their characters–vampires sleeping in shithouse motels.

Luckily, the cast also resembled the characters in that they were family of sorts…or at least in the incestuous sense. Bigelow was briefly married to James Cameron during his Terminator/Alien years. Lance Henricksen and Bill Paxton both had small parts in The Terminator. Jeanette Goldstein had a small role in Terminator 2 playing John Connor’s foster mother. And all three were in Aliens, as Bishop, Private Hudson and Private Vasquez. In fact, originally Bigelow wanted another Aliens alum, Michael Biehn, to play Jesse. Luckily, he “didn’t understand the script” and the part went to Henricksen instead. Hopefully Biehn went on to get Hooked on Phonics, because the story really isn’t really that fucking hard to understand, guy.

Family reunion

Bigelow chose not to give her characters a lot of the sillier traits of vampires. They don’t transform into bats, there is no fear of garlic or crucifixes, they don’t tote around their own caskets. They don’t even have visible fangs. In fact, the word “vampire” is never even mentioned. Their attributes are superhuman strength, immunity to pain and immortality; their primary weakness, sunlight. And also, the whole bloodsucking thing. As Mae says, “The night has its price”. But it is that very low-tech, gritty minimalism that makes Near Dark great–it’s just almost believable. There is no romance to this family–they drift every night in stolen crap vehicles, they are dirty, unkempt and just skirt the edge of skankiness. They are, for all the world, that vacant-eyed hitchhiker with a straight razor in his boot. With the exception of Larry Fessenden’s Habit, it is the most believable vampire movie then and since. The Lost Boys looks like Peter Pan by comparison.

You can see why people were confused

Unfortunately, the eighties were all about silly, shiny and shallow; it was also about big studios, trendy stars and lots of money to back it up. “Indie horror” wasn’t even a recognized genre…especially when it was released by a bankrupt studio within a couple of weeks of the Warner-backed Lost Boys. De Laurentiis was on the verge of bankruptcy, so the marketing was almost non-existent. Even the official theatrical poster was confusing: an out-of-context burnt Severen, captioned so vaguely that it was impossible to discern what it was even about. Near Dark ended up being released in a handful of theatres, critically panned by all 12 people who saw it, gave a weak chuckle and died, while Lost Boys was a mega-hit and is still loved by silly bitches everywhere. After a short stint of being ignored at video stores, Near Dark almost disappeared.

Somebody got the short end of the genetic stick.

(Fun fact: Lost Boys star Jason Patric is the older half-brother of Joshua John Miller…whose father is Jason “Father Karras” Miller of the Exorcist, which must have led to some tense conversation at Thanksgiving dinner).

But thanks to an elitist cadre of Tarantino-esque movie geeks like me, copies of the VHS survived. And those movie geeks shared it with other movie geeks, who shared it with horror fans until slowly it gained a sort of momentum and became a genuine cult classic.

Meanwhile, Bigelow cashed in with Point Break, Bill Paxton went A-list, starred in many movies (including the fucked-up-in-the best-way indie horror Frailty), did a polygamy series I never watched…and died; Jeanette continued her career as character actor extraordinaire and runs a bra boutique for bodacious ladies (no, really); Lance Henricksen starred in another cult classic, the TV series Millennium, then went on to a undeserved career of being the best thing in bad movies; Adrian Pasdar played the titular anti-hero protagonist in the critically praised Fox series Profit, about a psychopathic corporate shitbag. Unfortunately, it only lasted eight episodes, because a bunch of typically irony-free fundies who had obviously never read the Old Testament, were offended that Profit’s evil deeds went unpunished. Rupert Murdoch reluctantly pulled the plug on his favorite show and, no doubt, grieved over killing his greedy shitbag doppelganger. Personally, I think it’s actually relatively tame compared to say, Breaking Bad, but you can check it out for yourself –all eight episodes are on Youtube.

Joshua John Miller continued playing misunderstood weirdos, until he fucked off acting completely, earned his MFA in creative writing, co-wrote Final Girls with his life partner, M.A. Fortin, and, at least on one occasion, allegedly got funky (IMDb bills him as “Harmonica Boy”). The exquisitely beautiful Jenny Wright starred in another great horror cult classic, I, Madman, had parts in unworthy movies and seemed to drop off the face of the earth. I heard all kinds of rumors–she got sick of Hollywood and fucked off for good, that she married a billionaire, and a few other plausible scenarios. Unfortunately, the truth is sadder and way too familiar: she became another just-say-no drug cautionary tale and doesn’t seem altogether stable, which is actually sort of tragic. Jenny deserved better.

Next time, I’ll go more into Near Dark the movie. Before filming, Lance Henriksen and the other cast members developed fascinating backstories for their characters, and that–along with Bigelow’s mythological interpretation–adds depth and texture to what appears to be a stripped-down, single-themed film. It gave me a slightly different perspective on the film and I appreciate it even more…but if you haven’t watched it (and why haven’t you watched it??), please watch it before you proceed because there will be spoilers galore, and I would hate to ruin the experience. Unless you’re one of those weirdos who reads the last page of a book first, then you might like them. Either way, that’s next. Weirdo.

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