By James Cain
There’s a scene in the fantastic 1984-set film “Pride” where a young gay man – keeping his sexuality a secret film his suburban London family – sits watching the TV with his boorish brother-in-law. On the telly is a government message about AIDS. “Arse Injected Death Sentence” guffaws the idiot, referencing the homophobic myth that AIDS was a gay problem (even if the LGBTQ+ community was hit devastatingly hard by the disease in the 80s).
As “Pride” illustrates, the epidemic saw those diagnosed with the disease ostracised from much of society. Cinema of the 80s and 90s tackled the issue both directly, with films such as “Philadelphia”, “Kids”, and “An Early Frost”, as well as indirectly, with movies like “Return Of the Living Dead”, “The Fly”, and vampire neo-Western “Near Dark”.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore feature, “Near Dark,” tells the story of Caleb, a young Oklahoma stud whose inadvertent flirtation with darkness leads to calamity and horror. Within the first few minutes of the film (it’s worth noting that “Near Dark” moves fast), our hero comes across Mae, a sidewalk siren eating ice cream and waiting for prey. Soon enough, girl bites boy, before boy is kidnapped by girl’s makeshift family of fellow vampires.
Throughout cinema’s history, movies have been informed by real-life horrors. The Great War and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920); the Vietnam War and “Southern Comfort” (1981); 9/11 and “War Of The Worlds” (2005). Each of these films wore their historical influences on their sleeves, and Bigelow’s film is as subtle as a jackhammer with its AIDS epidemic allegory, specifically looking at America’s reaction to one of humanity’s most appalling tragedies.
Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is about as archetypical-American as they come. He’s white, straight and wears a cowboy hat. He drives a Ford pickup and wears a button-down shirt. He rides a horse and is polite. He’s the Southern American ideal, with the cheekbones to back it up.
This is in stark contrast with vampire Mae (Jenny Wright) and her adoptive family of drifters: Confederate veteran Jesse (Lance Henriksen), clan matriarch Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein), snarling sadist Severen (Bill Paxton), and an ancient little boy, Homer (Joshua John Miller). This group of drifters firmly represents outliers and counterculture, from their beat-up vehicles that roam the highways, to their need to avoid sunlight, to the character literally trapped in the wrong body. They’re the antithesis of the 1980s American family: one scene has a vampire enjoying the blood on his hands before cackling “Finger-lickin’ good!” Not even good-ol’ KFC can avoid their plague of evil.
“If “Near Dark” is to be read as an allegory for America’s response to the AIDS crisis (there’s a decent argument to be made for a war-on-drugs theme), one plot avenue might leave some viewers calling bullshit. Without wanting to spoil too much, certain characters are offered a hope that those with HIV or AIDS were (and still are) not.”
Caleb’s loss of country-cred starts early on. Having been freshly-bitten / infected by Mae, he’s yanked into the family’s decrepit camper van (zero glamour with these vampires), and in the process loses his cowboy hat (we weren’t kidding about the lack of subtlety – which one would hope that this had pearls being clutched back in ’87). Before long he’s a mess, being hassled by authority figures and asking for money while barely standing. His one chance to survive the night is to connect with Mae, to exchange fluids in a coitally-rapturous blood donation that combines the fears of infection from both sex and blood transfusions – understandable terrors in the 1980s.
Thankfully, Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red never make their film about judging those living with HIV / AIDS, or the people most at risk. Instead, the film is all about the fear of death lurking around the corner. Like vampires, the villains are terrified of the daylight – powerful by night, these killers are reduced to yelps and panic once the sun begins to awaken, knowing that death might be right around the corner. One character begs in fear not to be taken to a hospital (during the epidemic, there were reports of hospitals turning away AIDS patients). There’s even a very dangerous, bloody medical procedure in a barn.
If “Near Dark” is to be read as an allegory for America’s response to the AIDS crisis (there’s a decent argument to be made for a war-on-drugs theme), one plot avenue might leave some viewers calling bullshit. Without wanting to spoil too much, certain characters are offered a hope that those with HIV or AIDS were (and still are) not. At best, this plot device may act as a painful reminder of the road faced by AIDS patients in the 1980s. At worst, it may feel like a bullshit Hollywood cop-out, particularly for those in the HIV / AIDS community. Also, some may fairly take the film at face value, watching a conservative cautionary-tale about how you should not go looking for fun and adventure in the darkness.
“In a decade that featured a few fangtastic classics, “Near Dark” surely reigns as the greatest vampire film of the 1980s.”
Either way, this is still a damn good vampire film – one of the best ever, in fact. The movie’s sense of Carpenterian libertarianism – the law is useless, only you can protect what’s yours! – beautifully plays up the film at a western, while the gang’s abhorrent behaviour solidifies it as a proper horror flick. “I hate it when they ain’t been shaved!” exclaims Paxton’s Severen after drinking down some poor bastard. The family’s crimes are numerous, with many referenced beyond the film’s events (one major American catastrophe can be chalked up to their misdeeds).
Bigelow ensures that the film, at a lean hour-and-a-half, whips by tremendously fast. Much of the camerawork being handheld adds to the urgency, while Tangerine Dream’s score flips from dreamlike to menacing at the drop of a stetson. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg’s visuals don’t mess around either. From a silhouetted cowboy riding down a street at night, to two lovers kissing in front of a neon sign, to every act of violence in that bar scene, “Near Dark” is utterly gorgeous, and makes you pine for the days when the Academy’s first female Best Director winner reveled in genre fare like this and “Strange Days”.
Sure, “The Lost Boys” has the better soundtrack, and “Fright Night” is epically horny, but do they have such a palpable sense of danger or such rich subtext to mine? In a decade that featured a few fangtastic classics, “Near Dark” surely reigns as the greatest vampire film of the 1980s.