NEAR DARK (1987): DIRECTOR KATHRYN BIGELOW

BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

1987 saw the release of two important vampire films that took the subgenre in interesting new directions, placing their vampire stories in contemporary American settings that had very little in common with Dracula’s Gothic Transylvanian castle. Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (released two months apart near the end of the year) brought us a new sort of modern vampire, the sort that travels in packs and often takes a great deal of pleasure in being a vampire. But these vampires, however deadly and dangerous, also seemed much more human than predecessors such as Dracula, emphasizing the fact that they themselves started out as humans before they were turned—and making the vampires seem even more like humans by making this process reversible. The Lost Boys, an avowedly postmodern work,will be discussed in detail in Part X of this project, on postmodern horror films. This section deals with Near Dark and with the implications of its figuration of vampires.

Near Dark begins with a shot of a young cowboy-type, Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), already announcing the many points of connection between this film and the Western genre.[1] We hear a buzz and see that Caleb is being bitten by a mosquito, which proceeds to suck his blood, cleverly foreshadowing the vampire elements of the film. Caleb then rouses himself, squashes the mosquito, and heads into town in his pickup truck, just as the sun is going down. He heads to the local bar, where he is greeted by some of his fellow rednecks but is then distracted by the appearance of boyish but sexy young Mae (Jenny Wright), who saunters by, innocently but seductively licking an ice cream cone. He approaches her and asks, “Have a bite?” He has no idea what he’s getting into, of course, but for viewers it is pretty obvious. Thus, in the first three minutes or so of the film, we have already been treated to several bits of suggestive vampire imagery, while also being warned that this vampire film is going to take place in a cultural and geographical setting that is unusual for the subgenre.

“You haven’t met any girls like me,” Mae tells Caleb after they drive together into the desert in his truck. And she certainly does seem quirky. But this is no manic pixie dream girl. This girl is a vampire, and we will soon learn that she is a member of a traveling vampire gang, the members of which feed off of humans, then keep on the move to avoid getting caught. She points to a star in the sky and tells Caleb that the light currently leaving that star will reach earth in a billion years—and that she will still be around when it arrives. Unlike her fellow vampires, Mae does not relish the life of killing, but she does relish the notion of living forever and she is willing to kill to cheat death.

And Near Dark is, in fact, a love story—and in many ways a classic one. Two young people meet, fall in love, encounter difficulties, overcome the difficulties, and wind up together. Their difficulties, though, are of a special kind. For example, when Caleb, good old boy that he is, attempts to woo Mae by introducing her to his favorite horse, the animal reacts violently and runs away, much to Caleb’s puzzlement. Caleb then proves his masculine cowboy skills by lassoing Mae with his trusty cowboy rope, on to find, in the subsequent tug of war with the rope, that she is physically stronger than he is, puzzling him even more. The evidence is quickly mounting (still in the film’s first ten minutes) that Caleb has gotten himself into a situation far beyond his previous experience. But Mae is mesmerizing and erotically fascinating (as vampires often are), so there is no chance that he is going to be put off by her obvious strangeness. In fact, again exerting his male power in a moment that points toward date rape, he demands a kiss from her, which predictably turns into a bite on the neck, after which Mae frantically exits the truck and runs away, terrified by the approach of sunrise. When the truck fails to start after her exit, Caleb also sets out on foot, then inexplicably (to him) finds that the rising sun scorches and debilitates him. At this point, meanwhile, we as viewers are a step ahead of him; we know that he, too, is becoming a vampire thanks to Mae’s bite, though even we have been given relatively little information about the actual terms of Mae’s existence.

Those terms will become more clear when we meet her “family,” who zip by in their camper and pick up Caleb, then rush back to the Quonset hut that protects them from the sun during daylight hours. Inside the camper are Mae’s vampire associates, led by stern-faced Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen, in his usual somber mode) and highlighted by the wild young vampire Severen (played with sadistic glee by Bill Paxton), who is a sort of redneck version of the young vampires in The Lost Boys. The gang also includes Jesse’s girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) and a young boy vampire, Homer (Joshua John Miller), who dramatizes the poignance of being trapped in eternal childhood as a never-aging vampire (and who never tires of letting the other vampires hear about his resultant angst). The young Homer was, ironically, the vampire who turned Mae, further complicating the family dynamic of the group, which is disrupted by the arrival of Caleb, who may or may not be able to adjust to life as a vampire. Jesse agrees to give him a week to prove that he can function as one of the gang.

In the meantime, Mae’s turning of Caleb and Caleb’s subsequent disappearance threaten to call attention to the gang, so they decide to flee the area. But first they burn their camper—which reminds Severen of “that fire we started in Chicago,” in an apparent reference to the destructive Chicago Fire of 1871, providing a reminder of the longevity of the vampires. By this point, Caleb (who seems a little slow on the uptake) still doesn’t realize that he has joined a gang of vampires—but then who would? Ill and struggling with his transformation, he just wants to get back home to his father and little sister back in Fix, Oklahoma. On the way, he discovers that he can no longer digest regular food. Meanwhile, traveling about is not that easy for a vampire who doesn’t know the ropes, but Mae rescues him and opens her wrist to let him drink from her blood, restoring his strength in what is clearly coded as a sexual exchange, though Mae’s role here is also a very maternal one.

Mae assures Caleb that his new life will have its rewards—but that he will have to learn to hunt and kill in order to survive. It’s the standard vampire curse, though these vampires don’t generally seem all that troubled by it. Severen, in particular, clearly takes great pleasure in killing, but the group as a whole seems to regard hunting humans as an activity that is as much recreation as it is necessary feeding. In one telling scene, the vampires show their true colors when they gleefully massacre the staff and patrons of a redneck roadhouse, employing killing strategies that go well beyond conventional vampire techniques. As Auerbach puts it, in this scene, the “hillbilly vampires kill the inhabitants of a bar with sickening ingenuity” (187). Homer even shoots one of them with a revolver, Western style. Caleb, however, is still unable to bring himself to partake in the killing. In fact, he never kills as a vampire in the film; he only, kills vampires. His reluctance causes the gang, which is running out of patience with his squeamishness, to turn on him. However, they have had so much fun in the roadhouse that they have lost track of time, so they have to forego dealing with him at the moment in order to give priority to finding refuge in a seedy motel to escape the rising sun.

Getting under cover before sunrise seems to be a continual problem for these vampires. Indeed, while Near Dark is a virtual compendium of conventional vampire mythologies (though in an unconventional setting), the inability to tolerate sunlight is the vampire characteristic that is most prominently foregrounded in this film, where it serves the narrative function of making them vulnerable (somewhat like Superman’s Kryptonite), while also clearly functioning symbolically to identify the vampires as creatures of darkness, moral as well as literal. These vampires are, in fact, particularly dark-hearted, though there is no indication that they are connected with dark forces in a Satanic or metaphysical sense. Instead, they are dark in a more down-to-earth sense, more like particularly malevolent serial killers than creatures of supernatural evil. Mae, though, is an exception. Apparently the newest of the vampires (other than Caleb)[2], she has learned to kill in order to survive, but does not appear to relish it in the way the others do. She even has a different relationship with the darkness of night than do the other vampires, regarding it, not just as protection from the sun, but with an almost poetic fascination—she sees it as something beautiful and mysterious, dark but blinding, silent but deafening.

Near Dark might have depicted Mae and Caleb as vampiric Bonnie and Clyde figures (especially as represented in Arthur Penn’s important 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde), despite the fact that they travel as part of a larger gang and not just as a couple. Then again, even Bonnie and Clyde traveled with the larger Barrow gang during their exploits. But Mae and Caleb stand apart from the rest of the gang, both displaying an innocence that the other vampires entirely lack. Caleb never descends into murderousness, while Mae does not seem irredeemable in the way the other vampires do. The analogy with Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang stands in other ways as well, including the near replication of specific scenes from the earlier film, as when the vampire gang is surrounded in their motel hideout by a heavily-armed contingent of police, recreating a very similar scene in which the Barrow gang barely escapes a similar assault in the 1967 film (partly based on a real event in June 1933, when Bonnie and Clyde Barrow narrowly avoided being captured or killed at a tourist camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas). Aided by the fact that bullets appear to do only minor damage to them, the vampires also escape their motel ambush, while Caleb’s assistance in this escape wins him, at least momentarily, the vampires’ approval and membership into their close-knit circle.

The motif of a traveling criminal gang that moves about, leaving death in its wake, has been prominent in American culture at least since the days of Wild West criminals like the James gang, and it is probably no accident that the leader of the vampires in Near Dark shares a first name with the most notorious member of the James gang. Indeed, the vampire Jesse even reveals in the course of the film that he fought for the South in the Civil War, as had the original Jesse James.[3] This connection, along with the setting of the film, again links Near Dark to the genre of the Western, providing a context for the vampire narrative that differs dramatically from that of its Gothic origins. The vampires themselves seem almost aware of this generic connection; in one scene, they play poker and Jesse and Severen jokingly pull six-guns on each other with charges of cheating, as if consciously (but ironically) re-enacting what would be a classic Western scene.

Films such as Near Dark remove the vampire from the physical context of the dark, mysterious castle and from class context of the Old World aristocracy and give us vampire figures that live very much in our own contemporary world, while placing them in the marginal position of a criminal underclass, rather than haughty nobility. For Auerbach,

These vagrants cling to their American roots, moving only in aimless circles. Their origin is the Southwest itself: Bigelow fixes them in the western genre, with its rigid polarization of good vs. bad, settlers vs. aliens, the family home vs. the open spaces. Cast in this primary American melodrama, deprived of exotic countries and times, Bigelow’s vampires play melodrama’s traditional villainous role. They are robust and funny, as villains often are, but they cast no shadow on the good. (187)

Caleb’s father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and little sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) manage to catch up with the vampires at still another motel, and even to wrest Caleb away from them, taking him back to the family ranch in Oklahoma. Luckily, Loy is a veterinarian, and so he has the wherewithal to administer a blood transfusion that restores Caleb to humanity—a process the success of which is signaled (of course) when Caleb discovers that he can now withstand sunlight. Later, Caleb attempts to complete the romance plot arc of the film by having Mae undergo the same transfusion procedure, though at first she balks at the idea and runs away, while Sarah is kidnapped by the vampires, who hope to make her Homer’s vampire companion. So Caleb charges off after them on horseback, providing still another scene that links directly to the Western genre.

In addition, the film has one last bit of intertextual cleverness up its sleeve. In the subsequent rescue of Mae and Sarah, Caleb first encounters Severen, who swaggers toward him down the street, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket similar to the one worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in much of James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator, a science fiction horror film that is discussed in detail in Part IX of this project. But the comparison doesn’t end there. Severen is run down by a fuel-bearing tank truck, only to rise again, subsequently to be finally destroyed when he is caught in the explosion of the tanker. In other words, he suffers exactly the same deadly mishaps as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator near the end of the earlier film—though the Terminator actually rises from the flames of the explosion, now a fully mechanical robot with its organic exterior burned away. Apparently, Terminators are even tougher than vampires.[4]

These similarities are almost too close to be unintentional; indeed, that they are intended can be discerned from the fact that Paxton also had a role in The Terminator—as the leader of a gang of street punks who are routed by the Terminator upon its arrival back in its past. This role made Paxton a natural for the role of Severen. Meanwhile, interestingly, Paxton also had an important role in Cameron’s science fiction film Aliens (1986), while Cameron directed the 1988 music video for the song “Reach” by the band Martini Ranch, which featured Paxton as a key member. Paxton stars in that video, which includes cameos by numerous Hollywood pals, including Bigelow, Pasdar, Henrickson, and Goldstein from Near Dark. To complete the “familial” link between Paxton and Cameron, the latter married Bigelow in 1989, thus uniting the two directors for whom Paxton had most prominently worked in the 1980s.

In any case, speaking of familial links, Near Dark ends on a warm note. With all of the other vampires destroyed (mostly by bursting into flames due to exposure to sunlight), Mae is indeed restored to her human state, with the clear implication that she and Caleb will now be a couple, with Loy and Sarah as part of their extended happy family. Mae has, in short, essentially replaced her vampire family with a human family (virtually one-for-one, with the exception of Diamondback), ending the film on a rather conservative and traditional note that reaffirms the importance and value of family as a social structure, even as the film’s vampire family had potentially called that structure into question. If Caleb has established a sort of patriarchal ownership of Mae, who has now been “turned” by him as she had formerly turned him, it is in fact Loy who has established supremacy over them both, remaining the family patriarch. It might, in fact, be no accident that his name is essentially the same as the French word for “law (“loi”), so that he becomes the living embodiment of the patriarchal authority embodied in Jacques Lacan’s “loi du père,” the law of the father.

Nicola Nixon is quite critical of the way in which both Near Dark and the nearly-contemporaneous The Lost Boys both ultimately seem to endorse “wholesome” Reaganite family values, rejecting the dangerous and nonstandard sexuality once embodied by vampires. She even goes so far as to argue that the individualism that was once central to the vampire character was replaced by the group vampires of Near Dark and The Lost Boy because individualist vampires were too-close to the hero-entrepreneurs celebrated in the mythos of Reaganism: “Instead, the blood-sucking vampire has to be reconstructed as a demonized collective, as, connotatively, a sort of evil trade union that is bleeding the good entrepreneurs dry by cutting into their profit margin” (121).

Nixon, in short, would appear to agree with Christopher Sharrett’s designation of Near Dark as being among a number of American horror films from the 1980s and early 1990s that appear to support the “neo-conservative” agenda of Reaganite capitalism. For Sharrett, this agenda (and these films) are informed by a scapegoating of the other in a “sacrificial excess” the basic characteristics of which include

(a) a dominant order that is simultaneously discredited and affirmed, (b) an atmosphere of apparently unfettered sexual expression that offers status to women insofar as they are incorporated into the dominant order, (c) a recognition of a carnivalesque, diverse, chaotic universe that is celebrated at the same time that it is subdued, and (d) a recognition and lionization of the Other only as a preface to its total destruction or incorporation into dominant ideology. (Sharrett 285)

For Sharrett, Near Dark is an irredeemable neoconservative narrative, filled with images of the restoration of normality against the threat offered by the vampires—as when he compares the rescue of Mae by Caleb to the rescue of Natalie Wood’s young Debbie by her uncle Ethan Edward (John Wayne) in John Ford’s 1956 captivity-narrative Western The Searchers (289).[5] Near Dark is, in short, “a reactionary film allegorizing the threat of lumpenized masses of postindustrial civilization to Middle America” (289).

Noting Sharrett’s work, however, Steven Jay Schneider argues that Near Dark might not be as thoroughly pro-capitalist and pro-orthodoxy as it first seems. Indeed, for Schneider, the film is not at all certain that being a member of the thoroughly orthodox Colton clan is really all that preferable to being a member of the outlaw vampire clan. For him, then, the restoration of Caleb to his family (bringing along Mae for good measure) is not a success, but a failure that shows just how difficult it is to escape conformist normality in modern America. In short, Near Dark is not about demonstrating the superiority of the status quo as it is about the difficult of imagining anything else; it is “concerned with exposing the limitations of, and on, a fully-indoctrinated subject’s ability even to conceive or fantasise a sustainable alternative form of life” (73).[6]

Whatever the political implications, Caleb and Mae avoid the dire fate of Bonnie and Clyde at the end of the 1967 film by going “straight” and becoming a conventional heterosexual couple. For Sharrett, the film embraces this “happy” ending and thus embraces capitalist orthodoxy even while trying to seem a bit transgressive, just to seem cool. For Schneider, on the other hand, the film at least leaves open the possibility of reading this ending as an unhappy one, in which the two young people have attempted, but failed, to break free of capitalist orthodoxy.

I would like to suggest that it does both. Unable entirely to break free of the ideological pull of capitalism, Near Dark is thoroughly informed by codings that suggest the value of the traditional family and of law-abiding normality. Yet, like all of the best works of art, the film is never quite completely subdued by the ideology that dominates it, continuing to strain against this ideology by suggesting that there is something attractive about rebellion against capitalist orthodoxy, even if the film itself is unable to present us with any image of successful or desirable rebellion other than the vague hints that it can often be quite nice to be a superhuman immortal like a vampire. Feeling himself becoming a vampire, Caleb asks Mae what they are to do now. “Anything we want,” she replies, “till the end of time.” She’s wrong, of course, but the longing for emancipation from the constraints of bourgeois conventionality in this line identifies the vampire life as a striving for utopia, even if a seriously flawed (and ultimately capitalist) one that requires the exploitation of others in order to provide success for the few.

I would also like to suggest, however, another way that this ending can be taken as less conservative than it seems—by reading the ending as at least partly ironic. Such a reading might be suggested by a comparison of this ending with the ending of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), just a few years later. In that film, Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are a murderous young couple who seek, not so unlike the vampires of Near Dark, to escape the confines of capitalist routine by going on a bloody cross-country crime spree that makes Bonnie and Clyde look like Ozzie and Harriet. By the end of the film, however, they have become a conventional couple, now driving cross-country in their bourgeois camper van (an update of the vampire vans of Near Dark?), accompanied by their happy children. Like the Coltons of Near Dark, they thus end their film as one big happy (and even more conventional) family. In the case of Natural Born Killers, however, the satirical intent is clear and the fact that Mickey and Mallory can fall so easily into the role of the conventional suburbanite middle-class couple suggests that serial killers like they had formerly been are the products of, not the opposites of, mainstream American society. There is no such clear-cut satirical intention in Near Dark, though one could argue that the seeming ease with which outlaw vampires can be converted into law-abiding humans in the film suggests that the line between the two is a thin one indeed. In addition, the self-consciousness of this film, with its links to other films and genres, does, in fact, support such a reading. For example, the murderous Terminators of that film franchise are the direct consequences of the work of the American military industrial complex; if the Terminators of that franchise are linked to the vampires of Near Dark, then the implication would seem to be that these vampires, with their ruthless devotion to getting what they want even if they have to use violence to get it, are following a course that is not all that far out of the American ideological mainstream.

The links between Near Dark and the Western genre have even stronger political potential given the key role played by the Western in American cultural history. As Richard Slotkin as argued, “normal” Americanness has often involved certain visions of activity and virility, with the strong, silent frontiersman who goes forth conquering whatever obstacles nature thrusts in his path serving as a key prototype. For Slotkin, “nature” in this case has also often included “savage” humans such as Native Americans, with the American national identity being forged in “savage wars” against such foes, the U.S. thus emerging as that nation which defeats such foes and thus makes the world safe for decent, civilized, God-fearing Americans. Slotkin notes that this dynamic is particular central to the Western as a genre and that this genre has frequently featured ultra-masculine heroes, with towering, hyper-masculine stars such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper (or even minor stars, such as Ronald Reagan) functioning as veritable national allegories of American manliness, strength, resourcefulness, independence, and overall capability.

The savage war motif, as detailed by Slotkin, has served as justification for a variety of imperial and quasi-imperial adventures, most centrally involving the wresting of control of the North American continent from its previous inhabitants, but also including more recent otherwise unjustifiable events such as the war in Vietnam or the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq—the latter of which was narrated to the American people with typical Western swagger by Texan president George W. Bush. Indeed, the self vs. other structure of the savage war motif is clearly one of great relevance to the horror genre as a whole and to the humans vs. vampires structure of Near Dark. The violence that informs this savage war motif, according to Slotkin, is central to the American national mythology, which pictures the United States as a nation defined by success in conflict. In particular, Slotkin concludes, “since the Western offers itself as a myth of American origins, it implies that its violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced” (352).

To the extent that Near Dark draws upon and participates in the logic of the Western as a genre, then the film would indeed seem to be endorsing a very conventional and conservative version of Americanism. Again, however, there is ample room to read the film’s engagement with the Western genre as ironic, so that the film might be seen to subvert many of the conventions of the genre and thus to challenge much of the ideology upon which the genre is based. However maternal she might be and however reinscribed within patriarchy she might be, Me, while a vampire, is stronger and more capable than Caleb in almost every way. The scene in which she wins the tug of war over Caleb’s phallic lasso could not be more suggestive in either a Freudian sense or in the sense of subverting Western iconography, in which the person wielding the lasso is expected to exert dominance. Then, when Caleb makes his rapey come-on to Mae, she essentially rapes (or at least penetrates, without his consent) him. Until the very end, when things are reversed (in what may well be a mock happy ending) Mae is stronger than Caleb in essentially every way, placing him in a conventionally feminine position of dependence on her strength and power for his survival.

Near Death innovatively combines the vampire subgenre of horror with the Western to give us a fresh perspective on the familiar tropes of both genres. It also produces an effective combination of recognizable vampire lore with new contexts that give this lore new meanings within the context of Reaganite America, even as the exact implications of these new meanings are open to interpretation. It is certainly the case that the ending of the film appears to be a recuperative one in which the superiority of conventional patriarchal-capitalist values over the outlaw values of the film’s vampire gang, but one can also read this ending as an ironic one that reverses the apparent meaning, while calling into question whether the film’s conventional human family is really superior to (or even different from) its outlaw vampire family.

WORKS CITED

Jones, Sara Gwenllian. “Vampires, Indians and the Queer Fantastic: Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. 57–71. The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow, Hollywood Transgressor. Eds. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Nixon, Nicola. “When Hollywood Sucks, or, Hungry Girls, Lost Boys, and Vampirism in the Age of Reagan.” Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 115–28.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Near Dark.Chicago Reader (n.d.). https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/near-dark/Film?oid=1048303. Accessed November 26, 2018.

Schneider, Steven Jay. “‘Suck … don’t suck’: Framing Ideology in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.” The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow, Hollywood Transgressor. Eds. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. 72–90.

Sharrett, Christopher. “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture.” The Dread of Difference. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 281–304.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.

NOTES


[1] Bigelow and her co-writer, Eric Red, reportedly started out hoping to make a Western, but turned it into a vampire film for purposes of marketability, the Western at that time being at a low commercial ebb. They nevertheless maintained many Western elements. For more on Near Dark and the Western, see Sara Gwenllian Jones.

[2] At one point, Mae reveals to Caleb that she had been turned by Homer only four years earlier, when she was still in high school.

[3] One is even tempted to wonder if Jesse Hooker might in fact somehow be Jesse James, though there is no real indication of this in the film.

[4] For some other suggested links between The Terminator and Near Dark, see Schneider.

[5] The comparison is an interesting one and helps us to see the extent to which various Western motifs are integrated into Near Dark. However, Sharrett’s analysis surely does not do justice to the complexities of Ford’s film or of the character of Ethan Edwards, who (like Jesse) “fought for the South.” But Edwards is a morally complex and sometimes brutally racist figure who is at first willing to kill Debbie in order to rid her of the moral contamination of having lived among Indians, though he is redeemed by a late change of heart. Comparing Near Dark with The Searchers thus suggests that, given the complexity of the opposition between Edwards and the Indians he so despises, the relationship between Bigelow’s Caleb and the vampires might be more complex than a simple polar opposition as well.

[6] Schneider’s thinking here is very similar to that of Jameson, who, in Archaeologies of the Future, argues that the contemporary inability to imagine utopian alternatives to the capitalist order is so sweeping that “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively (xiii).