Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Final Girl Film Club - Near Dark

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Cody and Priscilla live by night with Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark.

Near Dark opens with a mosquito feasting on the film's lead character, Caleb Colton, as the sun goes down. He quickly smashes it into a sanguine mess, but the mosquito isn't the only thing that sucks his blood over the course of this night.

Caleb is a discontent Oklahoma boy who'd rather be a thousand miles away from his podunk town, but since he's stuck there he spends his time doing the usual; drinking and scoping out chicks. During a night out on the town, Caleb spots a young country girl named Mae standing outside an ice cream shop. He approaches her and introduces himself.

The way their first interaction takes place is extremely endearing. There's something very innocent about the way they look at each other and exchange those first lines. Sure, he wanted some humpin' and she wanted some blood, but there's more to it and it makes the viewer want to know more. It's intriguing when you're watching the movie for the first time.

Caleb and Mae spend the night hanging out together, and as they do she exhibits some strange, and yet strangely attractive, behavior, standing out in the dark countryside and noting how the night can be blinding and deafening, pointing out a star in the sky and saying she'll still be around when the light leaving that star at that moment reaches the Earth in a billion years. She's not from Caleb's town, and she assures him that she's not like any other girl he's known before. That is very true. Before they part company, Mae sinks her teeth into his neck... And then, with his blood on her mouth, runs off into the blueness of a pre-dawn morning. As the sun rises, Caleb stumbles back toward his home, the sunlight burning his flesh, causing it to smoke.

All the mystery and urgency surrounding those scenes with Caleb and Mae is very attention-grabbing. We're not sure what's going on, though we have suspicions, but we don't really know until she bites him. And when she does, we feel bad for him because she runs away, making it look like he won't ever see her again after she gave him that "present".

While tending to their farm animals, Caleb's veterinarian father Loy and his little sister Sarah witness as a clearly ill Caleb is abducted within yards of their home by a group of people in a speeding RV.

Mae is a vampire, as Caleb soon learns, and she travels the country with a group of fellow vampires who aren't the sophisticated Europeans of legend, these folks dress in Western-style desert-dweller garb, trenchcoats and leather, and are distinctly from the American South. The leader of the gang is a man named Jesse Hooker. His lady love is called Diamondback. His right hand man is the edgy maniac Severen. There's a little boy with the group whose name is Homer, but despite the fact that he looks to be around 12 years old, he's referred to as "old man" and is in fact the vampire who turned Mae.

The gang's first intention is to kill Caleb, but that plan changes when Mae informs them that he's been bit but not bled, and by now he has turned. He's one of them, he needs to be given a chance to properly join their ranks. This is a tight knit group that most of them have been in for a long time, there's reference to Jesse serving in the Civil War ("We lost.") and possibly causing The Great Chicago Fire with Severen in 1871. Caleb is really going to have to prove himself if he's going to be accepted.

Problem is, Caleb doesn't want to fit in with them. Now that he's been given the chance to be far away from his Oklahoma town, all he wants to do is go back home. Although he gets ill fighting the urge to feed on human blood, he's revolted by the idea of it, he refuses to kill. Mae tells him that the secret is to not think about what you're doing, just act on instinct, but Caleb won't give in.

Caleb keeps trying to go home or to get in touch with his dad and sister, who are out looking for him at the same time. I like those parts and kept wishing he'd make it when I first watched it. It's clear that the three of them are really close, and it's really sad when his dad and Sarah witness his abduction.

While the rest of the gang gives him a hard time, Caleb's relationship with Mae progresses and deepens. She wants him to stick around forever, telling him they can do "anything we want, 'til the end of time"... But living until the end of time requires killing people regularly.

During its first half, Near Dark is a very moody and dreamlike character study. We watch Caleb and Mae's relationship develop, we see the trouble he has transitioning into this new lifestyle and see how the vampires operate, which is much more like your average serial killer than supernatural creatures.

Unlike a lot of other vampire movies, this one doesn't have different/special makeup for the characters when they're in vampire mode, and that bothers me a little. They make them look sick, dirty and nasty, and that's how you know they're "creatures". I guess you could say it's more visceral than making them look like monsters, though.

Then the second half is packed with larger setpieces and action sequences. The most popular of these is a roughly ten minute long scene set in a dusty country bar, where the gang takes Caleb in an attempt to make sure he kills his first victim instead of continuing to make Mae do the dirty work and then feed off of her wrist.

It's a great scene and the vampires wipe out several people during it, but the pacing feels way off to me. Each victim in the bar seems to just stand around and wait for their turn to be killed. They're in shock, but it seems to go beyond that. Maybe the dreamlike element is being carried over into the not-quite-realistic way in which they act... I mean, who's going to stop and look up in the middle of a massacre just because the woman who slit the waitress's throat tells you "There's a fly on the ceiling"?

I feel like the bar sequence wants to be more than it is. And even though I like the score, I think the music is partly to blame here. It's anti-climactic and devoid of suspense, so it makes the scene feel dull and longer than it is.

The one thing I love about the scene is also my favorite kill; the awesome way in which Severen slashes the bartender's throat with his boot spurs.

Another fantastic sequence is one in which there's a vampiric twist on the old "trapped outlaws have a gunfight with the cops" scene, when the gang finds themselves in a cabin surrounded by lawmen. As bullets fly, they blow holes in the side of the cabin, through which stream rays of sunlight. The effect the sun has on these vampires is shown in a very cool way, as their skin bursts into flames whenever it comes in contact with a stray ray... This effect isn't always consistent, however.

The burning effect is good, but I like the smoking one better. I find the scene when Caleb is trying to make it home before his abduction one of the most effective ones and I love how it looks combined with the dusty, open field look of the country/Western scenes. The "big city" scenes are wet and more clustered.

For Caleb, the final straw comes when the vampires put his father and sister in danger after the two groups realize they're staying at the same motel.

Sarah was going to be Homer's dinner, but it's love at first sight for him. He becomes infatuated as soon as he sees her standing at the motel soda machine by herself after dark. Which is seriously troubling since he is a lot older than her. But his obsession saves her at one time... and almost gets her killed later on.

Every time I watch the movie I go "what was a little girl doing outside a strange place by herself late at night?". But then she reveals that she may look like a sweet little girl, but is actually a handful, thinking and acting like she's the boss of herself. I feel for poor Mr. Colton.

Caleb and Mae escape back into his world, but the outlaw vampires don't intend to just let them go on with their lives. This isn't going to end until one side or the other is wiped out completely.

Near Dark got sort of a raw deal upon its initial release in October of 1987. Although it was in theatres just in time to give audiences some Halloween thrills, it didn't fare so well at the box office because it had the misfortune of being released just as its distributor was going bankrupt, greatly limiting how much marketing could be done for it. It was also overshadowed by another 1987 entry in the vampire sub-genre, The Lost Boys.

While audiences ate up the MTV-fueled, goth rock, Coreys-starring Lost Boys, Near Dark may well have faded into obscurity... Were it not saved by its quality, gaining new life and a solid fan following once discovered on home video. The Lost Boys still endures as the more popular of the two, but Near Dark has not been forgotten.

Near Dark is a great movie, but if it's to be compared to The Lost Boys, it'll lose every time. I don't think they should even be compared, even though they're both vampire movies that came out at the same time. It's just a very different approach and atmosphere.

The film has gained more notoriety over the years due to the fact that it was the solo feature directing debut of Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to raise adrenaline levels with Point Break and win the Academy's heart and nab some Oscars with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

Bigelow really wanted to make a Western, but that genre wasn't so hot at this point, Young Guns wouldn't be out for almost another year after Near Dark, so she and co-writer Eric Red - who was fresh off the success of The Hitcher - took the tone and style of a Western and, much like John Carpenter has often done with his films, moved it into the modern age. At the same time, they mixed in a genre that was very hot in the '80s, horror.

And thus, they had a modern vampire Western on their hands, a recipe for awesomeness as far as I'm concerned.

I love the look and mood of the film, I think it's pretty interesting.

The Western inspiration is clear throughout, but really shines through in the climactic confrontations, especially when Caleb rides a horse on the way to a showdown with Severen in the middle of town.

The showdown scene is Western meets big city to me, the combination of the film's different settings. It has the look from the "big city" scenes (wet) and the openness of the Western scenes. Well, there's also the horse and cowboy hat and spurs... so the Western element does win overall!

Bigelow did a great job directing the film, and though this is a smaller movie than what she would go on to make, it's clear here that she has an eye for action and a predilection for it. The script she wrote with Eric Red is a terrific update on vampires, a very realistic take on the bloodsucking creatures despite the otherworldly feeling the film often has. The otherworldliness of certain scenes is enhanced by the awesome score provided by Tangerine Dream.

I agree that the writing and directing are great, and so is the cinematography by Adam Greenberg.

The cast is fantastic all around, led by the coupling of Adrian Pasdar as the lost and moralistic Caleb and Jenny Wright, who is appropriately ethereal as Mae. Most of actors portraying the vampire gang were brought over directly from the previous year's Aliens. Bigelow had both professional and personal relationships with that film's writer/director James Cameron, and from his movie she cast Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton. In Near Dark, they're Jesse, Diamondback, and Severen. In Aliens, they were Bishop, Vasquez, and Hudson. Homer is played by the always odd child actor Joshua Miller, with the amazing Tim Thomerson of the Trancers and Dollman series as Caleb's father Loy.

I really like the cast. Jenny Wright had that quirky vibe about her. Her eyes are very expressive and there's something special about her. Bill Paxton is always perfect as the douche. Joshua Miller really acts like an older man... a distant, creepy and very intense older man at times.

The most nagging problem I have with the film is in how it resolves the vampire issue. A curing procedure is found that has always felt a little too convenient too me, and I doubt the person who performs it would have the resources to accomplish such a feat. But I'm able to let this slide for the most part.

Same here. I don't like the cure they came up with, but I can get past it because I love the happy ending.

Near Dark came and went when it was first released, but it has since gathered a sizable fanbase, which it is certainly deserving of. It's a very well made, well written, well performed genre mash-up horror movie, and an extremely cool one.

It almost feels more like a horror/drama to me. For some reason I tend not to pick it when in the mood for a vampire movie, and that's not because I don't like it. I do like and enjoy watching it a lot. Maybe it's because of the character development that is deeper than we usually see when it comes to vampire horror. Still, it's a great movie that feels a bit underrated even today.

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