Long before the teen angst pangs of Twilight or the fever heat of True Blood, director Kathryn Bigelow had an inkling of what a southern-fried vampire romance could be. Near Dark delivered on her vision of hillbilly vamps, an eighties cult classic that’s hard to believe is coming up on its thirtieth anniversary. The cinephiles at TIFF have dug out an archival print, so this Friday, July 21st, Bigelow’s blood-sucking hicks will rise again.
Near Dark was Bigelow’s solo directing debut, with a story she cowrote. It stars a young Adrian Pasdar (Heroes, Agents of Shield) as small town cowpoke Caleb and Jenny Wright as Mae, a mysterious girl more sinister than she seems. But it’s the secondary cast, largely borrowed from her future husband James Cameron’s hit Aliens, that really steals the show. Lance Henriksen is Jesse, the evil patriarch of a clan of roving vampires including Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Joshua John Miller (the creepy kid from River’s Edge). Countrified and crackling with malevolence, these aren’t your typical vamps at all. Even today, after all the blood that’s been sucked and spilled for ravenous audiences, Jesse’s brood connect with a contemporary kick. They’re vicious, unapologetic creatures of the night, reveling in their capacity for violence.
Mae takes a shine to Caleb, so she turns him instead of killing him. But Caleb’s just not the killing kind. Jesse gives Caleb one week to get his vampire act together and drain someone proper, or they’ll snuff him out and move on. So they rove across derelict southwestern highways, killing wantonly and nudging Caleb over to the dark side. Meanwhile Caleb’s father and young sister are searching for him, thinking he’s been kidnapped or sucked into a cult.
It’s quick-paced and narratively spare, with flashes of cinematic poetry. Adam Greenberg’s lensing captures indelible moments, like the vamps coming over the ridge of a nighttime hill, limned in white amid the wiry brush, or Caleb desperately running through the fields toward home, his skin blackened and smoking in the dawn twilight. Bigelow mounts some explosive action set-pieces, while she leaves room for a blood at first sight romance to believably grow.
Near Dark manages to be both grisly and affecting, and it’s a supremely confident first outing for the Oscar-winning director.
Get your fang on with Near Dark this Friday, July 21st, 6:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.