(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t seen Near Dark–and why the hell haven’t you??–STOP. Allez. Go away. Politely fuck off. From this point on, I will be assuming that you have seen Near Dark–and seriously, if you haven’t, why not?–and will absolutely destroy all suspense, including the best parts…so, again, politely fuck off. And go watch the movie, for fuck’s sake).
According to Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark isn’t about vampires. Nor is it some allegorical social commentary on bloodsucking entities draining the hapless public. It isn’t even a story about romance. It’s a mythological battle between the Father of the Day and the Father of the Night, both fighting for the return of their errant son. In other words, it’s a family saga. Granted, one is a fucked up killer family, but a family nevertheless. And that is what makes Bigelow so ball-swingingly badass: she never thinks small.
Recently, I read an interview with the late Bill Paxton (GAME OVER MAN GAME OVER…sorry, it’s still funny) who compared the literal bloodsucking vampire family in Near Dark to the figurative bloodsucking criminal family in The Godfather: they are both deeply loyal, ferociously protective families, who just happen to be vicious, amoral killers. As someone who has watched The Godfather well over 100 times, not only do I concur, as a kid, I envied their ruthless devotion. The fact that they were murderers was besides the point.
And from that, you may infer as much wrong as you please.
In this case, there are two families, both claiming the central protagonist Caleb, a handsome dumbass, who makes the mistake of me-too-ing the exquisitely beautiful vampire Mae (bet you’ll think twice before playing that, “not leaving until you give me a kiss” shit now, laughing boy), only to get yoinked into clan’s temporary caravan to clean up Mae’s mess of not finishing the job (Jesse: “That was sloppy, Mae…real sloppy”). Upon discovering that Mae had bitten Caleb, the disgusted family reluctantly takes him in as a sort of probationary son-in-law…on the condition that he proves “he’s one of us”.
Unlike most Near Dark fans, it is Jesse, not Severen who fascinates me the most, probably due to Lance Henriksen’s extreme dedication to the role of the patriarch, Jesse Hooker. Since it was already established that Jesse was vamp-turned during the Civil War (“…I fought for the South. We lost.”), Henriksen built on that idea to develop the story of Jesse’s vampire resurrection: Jesse was a seaman in the confederate navy, when the ship was hit and sank into the Chesapeake. From the depths of the deep brackish water, bloodsucking sirens emerged and glutted themselves on a veritable smorgasbord of his shipmates. But one of them took pity on Jesse and turned him instead.
For authenticity, Henricksen dipped his clip on rat’s tail in black tar, lost 25 pounds to make his cheeks sunken and his chest appear especially bony and cadaverous He even went and had acrylic nails put on and broke them with pliers…and then drove up and down the highways in full character, scaring the shit out of hitchhikers and at least one cop.
Yet, for a bloodsucking killer, Jesse isn’t nearly as gleefully sinister as Henriksen himself. In fact, it is Jesse’s stillness which gives him a sort of menacing gravitas. According to Bigelow, Jesse is capable of guilt/remorse, but has long since been resigned to his fate; if so, his compartmentalizing game is fucking on point. But perhaps that is why he is hellbent on sustaining his pack–it gives him a purpose beyond bloodsucking; maybe even a perverse sense of normality. Accepting Caleb into the clan has less to do with Mae’s happiness than the fact that a local boy’s solar-induced explosion might leave the clan vulnerable to discovery. So the clan is obliged to snatch up Mae’s Mistake and throw him into their huge, ratty Bite-o-bago, in full view Caleb’s sister and dad AKA Father of Light. Game on, broheim.
Caleb also has to deal with his quasi-brother-in-law, Severen. According to the cast mythology, Jesse turned Severen because he reminded him of his kid brother who died before the War, which–in the whole vamp clan spectrum makes him both the Uncle Who Plays too Rough and The Brother Who Pretends to be Joking. But unlike his big brother, who is resigned to his fate, Severen revels in his. Bigelow describes him as the perfect vampire–naturally bloodthirsty and completely lacking in any remorse or conscience. He plays with his victims with the same sadistic glee of a mouse-pouncing cat. Paxton said in an interview that he played the role as the Lizard King–he affected the same slinky swagger and even Morrison’s trademark leather pants…but it is Paxton–naturally blessed (cursed?) with an asshole face, a face that got him typecast for many years to come–lunatics, bastards and assholes.
And it is that asshole lunatic face which first greets Caleb in the Bite-o-bago–being cat-pounced by blood-giddy Severen, clearly delighted by this unexpected bonanza. He is more than happy to clean up Mae’s mess, but first asks Jesse’s permission, leaving no doubt as to who the patriarch is. Jesse assents, “Do it…fast!”, confirming Bigelow’s description as being resigned to his fate, not relishing the kill. Not so with Diamondback, the indisputable matriarch (“Let the good times roll!”), who seems almost as thrilled as Severen…until Mae spoils all the fun by admitting she already turned Caleb…which changes everything. To protect the family, they can’t be leaving stray baby-vamps about to give them away; they have no choice but to half kidnap, half adopt Caleb, who is left in the beautiful Mae’s loving arms, WTF-stunned and visually processing the consequences of an extorted kiss.
The only person more disappointed than Severen is Homer, who turned Mae, which he feels gives him rights of ownership. And here is my confession: if there is a weakness in Near Dark, it’s Joshua John Miller’s Homer and I will freely admit that I hate him hard. He is the only miscast character and the second worst actor (the worst: Caleb’s little sister, who is bad even my child actor standards) in the movie. There is nothing vampirish about him–he’s a big, doughy, whiny, literal man-child, constantly whingeing on about the horrors of being a “big man in a little body”. Apparently, Bigelow was impressed with Miller’s performance in River’s Edge, though he didn’t make much of an impression on me–I remember Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper, Keanu Reeves…I even remember Ione Skye. But Miller? Doesn’t even register.
At any rate, he takes his role as the baby brother, and while it’s never explained, Diamondback’s semi-appalling maternal instincts for Homer suggests that she was the one who turned him. If so, that is the only thing I dislike about her–the way she jumps to the ungrateful little shit’s defense every time he turns chickenshit and decides to play the little boy. But he doesn’t play little boy when it comes to Mae–Mae was supposed to be his; when the time comes, he will exact his whingey revenge.
In the meantime, Father of the Day, played by the marvelous, underrated Tim Thomerson–whom I first saw in a comic competition doing this bit, which still cracks me up 168 years later–wants his boy back. Loy is a veterinarian, which plays a kind of half-assed, just-go-with-it role later. It just occurred to me that the closest parallel I can think of in terms of Greek mythology is the abduction of Persephone. The Clan is Hades, which would make Loy Demeter, which I admit is one helluva stretch and probably doesn’t work at all. So…Bigelow’s pantheon is best: Father of the Night battling the Father of the Day over prodigal Caleb.
But when Caleb tries to return to Loy, he winds up painfully blood-jonesing in a bus station, where the most cop-looking cop ever sizes him up for the junky he is. Officer Cliché also risks losing a hand by grabbing Caleb’s face with a truly vile bloody bandaged hand, though he is decent enough to help get Caleb on a bus and out of his town. As Mae predicts, he doesn’t get far and ends up literally crawling back to her. At this point, Caleb–clearly not a suitable candidate for Mensa–still doesn’t seem to fully understand what he is, until Mae bites open a wrist vein for him for a much-needed fix, which seems to have a similar erotic effect on him as it does in most vampire movies. For the first time, he see the upside of Vampdom–superhuman vitality, preternatural senses and immortality…until Mae makes it clear that “the night has its price”–he has to kill…and Jesse makes it clear that he has a week to prove he is “one of us”.
To be one of the clan means boosting a different vehicle every few days, then disposing of them via gleeful bonfires before stalking their prey according to their particular strengths–Mae uses her femininity. Homer plays injured child. Severen uses his greasy redneck..sex appeal?…to lure what must have been the two most hard-up women in the goddamn world into picking him up, because…damn. Though, to be fair, the streets are so empty, he might have been the only man available. Severen seems the type who would immediately write a letter to some low-rent porn rag to brag about his conquest.
Meanwhile, Jesse and Diamondback troll for hitchhikers and reminisce about the day she picked up Jesse by the side of the road (“I just knew you were trouble…”). Suddenly, two impossibly preppy-looking carjackers fall right into their trap–making it clear to an amused Jesse that they plan on raping Diamondback. Diamondback is weirdly sexy. Not MILF sexy; uncomfortably sexy–like being hot for your friend’s mom. Goldstein’s backstory for Diamondback was that she was a poor woman during the depression, who couldn’t afford to touch up the cheap peroxide job on her hair, which actually dovetails nicely with the whole outlaw Bonnie Parker image. (She also gets off the sickest burn in Aliens. Bonus: Bill Paxton is the victim).
Unlike the preppy carjackers, Caleb and Mae truly are dangerous hitchhikers. Or Mae is, at least. But her attempts to get Caleb over his no-kill hang-up aren’t going well. They’ve been picked up by an happily oblivious truck driver, which Caleb just can’t seem to bite, though the driver does provide him with some valuable foreshadowing-truck driving advice (“you got two brakes. One brake is for the cab-this one over here. The other one is for the trailer. This one right here. When you want to brake the truck, you gotta brake the trailer first. Then you gotta brake your cab. or else you jackknife. The trailer hits the cab, no more truck. No more truck, no more truck driver”). Naturally, he can’t close the deal and here is where I can prove I’m not a completely nice person, because I really want him to just bite the dude and be a fucking vampire, already. I mean, it’s nothing personal. He’s dead, either way. So stop being a pussy and DO IT.
Instead, Mae has to do the dirty work and then allow Caleb to literally suck her dry (almost). Obviously, this does not go over well with the Family, especially not daddy Jesse–not only is Caleb proving he is definitely NOT one of them, he is endangering Mae’s undead life; he either makes a kill that night or he’s “done”. Diamondback makes an interesting threat and I’m still not sure I completely follow: “Done means dead without dying. Means you’ll be uncomfortable for a long, long time…”, but doesn’t elaborate exactly what “dead without dying” means, though I’m sure it must suck.
The bar scene–make that THE BAR SCENE, because it is quite simply one of the best scenes in horror. Bold statement, I know, but I’ll stand by it under torture. From the opening riff of John Parr’s “Naughty Naughty” to Paxton’s gruesome, over-the-top performance, the glass of waitress, “Fever” by The motherfucking Cramps, to the final inferno…well, I can’t say it’s iconic because there are still people who have inexplicably not seen Near Dark, but by god, it needs to be. In fact, it’s just far too great a scene for me to rehash; I’d rather talk about what was going on behind the scenes. First of all, they actually had to build the bar, and they actually burned it down. Better, there is a very good reason Paxton was able to give such a convincing crazed performance–he was basically gakked out of his head.
According to Paxton, on the morning they were to shoot the bar scene, he woke up with a debilitating migraine. He called up Bigelow, told her the situation and she sent a doctor to give him a B12 shot.
Now. I don’t want to imply or insinuate, but I’m going to anyway–back in the day, when the Beautiful People aka famous and/or rich folks got a “B12 injection”, that was a euphemism for mainlining speed. And the reason I believe that Paxton got an extra-special B12 shot is because I went through a brief period in which I had to take B12 shots and it made me feel…no different at all. And since Paxton attributes his manic performance to that B12 shot, either I got totally ripped off, or he got legally gakked….because he. felt. GREAT. Hey–not judging. Just because I just say no doesn’t mean I expect others to as well, especially if it results in an unforgettable scene.
And great lines. Paxton ad libbed some of his lines–“Jesse, I smell like a dead pole cat” and my favorite, “I hate’em when they ain’t been shaved”, for example; others were suggested by Henricksen, like everybody else’s favorite line, “Finger lickin’ good”.
A few other cool little factoids: the late Robert Winley, the biker who gets his ass kicked, also got his ass kicked in a bar in the opening scene of T2, yet another example of Cameron-Bigelow cinematic incest. And when the bartender shoots Caleb, Pasdar’s pained gasps are real–he forgot not to breathe in when the blood squibs were hit.
The point of the scene, of course, is to give Caleb every opportunity to kill–first by goading him, then jealousy. By this time, I was openly yelling for him to BITE HIM. After all, it was just James Le Gros–back then, James Le Gros was in every other indie, anyway–he could easily be spared. Instead, he leaps through the window, Caleb chases him down and…of course…doesn’t bite him.
…and unfortunately, it looks as if there will be a Part 3. Most posts will most certainly not be this detailed…but Near Dark is worth the effort. And, hopefully, the read.