Out of the Crypt: Horror Revisited: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Near Dark’

Hey, I’m Justin, and this is Out of the Crypt. With Hayden Panettiere returning to the Scream franchise, it’s safe to say horror is having a very good week. In this column, I’ll highlight a different director while showing some love to the movies that did not make them famous. You might call them B-sides or you might call them unwatchable, but either way, these unsung horrors deserve our adoration and our remakes. 

There is something so soothing about a vampire movie, like a nice lavender bubble bath or a box of sauvignon blanc you won at drag queen bingo. Anyway, yeah, vampire movies give me the warm and fuzzies. Let’s do this.

This week I’m dishing on 1987’s realistic creeper NEAR DARK. Directed by the first woman to ever win an Oscar for directing – yup – Kathryn Bigelow! Bigelow’s more notable credits include Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit, and The Hurt Locker, which won her the Academy Award. NEAR DARK is her first solo directing effort, as she shared the director chair with Monty Montgomery for 1981’s The Loveless. She also wrote the screenplay.

NEAR DARK is a self-described horror western. Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) saunters about, our aimless cowboy. He falls for the lovely Mae (Jenny Wright) as she eats an ice cream cone. Because he is instantly in love, he does what any self-respecting cowboy would do and takes Mae to meet his horse. It’s getting late so she pleads with Caleb to take her home. She is very firm in that she has to get home before dawn, because no one ever told vampire movies they had to be subtle about their rules.

“Get me home,” she begs. “Maybe I will,” retorts Caleb, “but you’re gonna have to kiss me first.” Real classy, Caleb. As they go to embrace, Mae bites his neck and runs off. Caleb is… sort of upset by this, but I like to think I would have a more extreme reaction if someone bit me. But then again… would I? Or would I be like, “so sorry was my neck doing something to upset you, kind person?”

An RV races down the road and abducts a bloody Caleb. The windows are covered and one has to wonder if this RV full of vampires inspired Joss Whedon’s RV in season five of Buffy. Hmmmmmm. Our motley crew of vampires includes leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) and sexy Severen (Bill Paxton) who gives major Christian Slater vibes a la Heathers. They decide to take Caleb on for a one-week trial. Nothing about this movie seeks to romanticize vampirism. Instead, we are presented with a gritty interpretation of outsiders working within the small confines of their chosen family. Society doesn’t want them, but they have to make their way in this world somehow. It’s tragic. It’s real. They’re displaced in a way that resonates even today with so much government invasion into the personal lives of its citizens.

Caleb tries to go home and no one stops him nor gives him a heads up that’s becoming a vamp. He wanders helplessly around a bus station, just a couple of dollars short of his fare. A cop accuses him of taking drugs, because we are in Reagan Times and anyone struggling must be a drug addict. It’s a fun cameo by Troy Evans, who also plays a cop in Halloween 5. Caleb finds his way back to Mae. She bites her wrist and then has Caleb feed off of her. Meanwhile, his family wants to find him and bring him home. Vampire films fit easily into a queer metaphor, but NEAR DARK seems to be likening bloodlust with getting involved in a gang. The vampires serve as a critique of non-normative culture, of fringe people who go against the moral majority.

“Feel what’s in you,” says Fae. “That’s what scares me,” responds Caleb. He teeters on the edge of embracing his destiny of bloodlust and darkness. Our vampire friends go to a dive bar to do some feasting, and it’s a pretty great scene. While The Lost Boys is more stylized with its chic pier and snazzy vests, NEAR DARK serves as a constant reminder that there is nothing glamorous about the vamp life. The world they occupy is grainy and coated in dirt, not unlike space as George Lucas envisioned it.

“The last sound that you hear on your way to hell is gonna be your guts snapping like a bullwhip,” threatens Jesse. Sadly, the vampires do not triumph. Caleb’s dad is able to give him a blood transfusion with his farm equipment to help his son “get clean.” Caleb then performs the same transfusion on his lovely Mae. This resolution confirms that the film was a metaphor for addiction, which I find to be – thirty-five years later – really tiresome. Come on, were the vampires really doing anything that wrong? Sure they did some murders to stay alive, but they were hunters! I don’t see why their lifestyle had to be dragged through the conservative mud.

Those who live on the fringe, those who don’t conform to the norm, they should be the heroes of our stories, not plot devices to reinforce confused notions of right and wrong. Still, I enjoyed everything about Bigelow’s trip down vampire lane, except for the implications of its ending. If the movie were remade today, it might be a coming-of-age story about Caleb learning who he really is through his vampire transformation. The vampires would only kill as much as they needed to survive, and they would each run a specialty Etsy shop, because everyone has the right to craft.

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Justin McDevitt

Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.