September 28, 2003
The year 1987 was kind to horror film lovers, producing a double-shot of vampire thrillers: The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The former’s MTV-friendly soundtrack, coupled with then heartthrobs Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland, resulted in the latter’s box office demise, sending this darker, gorier film into video rental purgatory for many years.
However, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western struck a chord with the few who saw it and over the years, the movie developed a gradually intensifying cult following. This devotion has finally paid off – Anchor Bay, champions of resurrecting uncelebrated horror films, has produced a wonderful two-disc set that this film and its fans deserve.
Caleb (Pasdar) is a young man living in a small, southwestern town where the cultural highlight of the evening is hanging out in front of the local convenience store. Until the night he sets his eyes on Mae (Wright), a beautiful gal who bewitches Caleb with her ethereal air of mystery. Before he knows what’s happening, she gives him more than ‘just a little touch,” causing him to change in ways he doesn’t understand.
Mae introduces Caleb to her “family,” a rough and tumble, tight-knit group of vampires that take a hardline stance with the young man: he either learns how to feed for survival or he dies. Caleb and Mae fall in love and his dependency upon her strength begins to threaten the tenuous stability of Jesse’s mercurial brood.
Near Dark is an excellent hybrid of genres. It starts off as a Romeo and Juliet romance of star-crossed lovers from the wrong side of the tracks in a western setting. The film then quickly mutates into a Bonnie and Clyde action-fest for vampires. It is a credit to the screenplay that all of these elements blend seamlessly into a cohesive whole that works.
What sets Near Dark apart from The Lost Boys – and other vampire movies – is not just the variety of genres mixed together, but also a reworking of the traditional rules of the vampire film. The word ‘vampire’ is never mentioned once; methods of killing (stake through the heart, holy water) or maiming (crosses, holy water) vampires are not utilized; and the personal motivations of why these vampires do what they do are explored. Mae and her “family” live on the fringes of society. They kill to survive; they are acting on what Bigelow identifies in her audio commentary as, “pure, animal instinct.” But some, like Severen (Paxton), kill because they also enjoy the thrill of killing, of having power over others.
Near Dark examines this perspective and several others, which culminates in a gruesome roadhouse massacre, each vampire showcasing their own particular style.
For a 15 year old movie, Near Dark looks and sounds remarkable. The image is somewhat gritty (which actually lends itself to the film’s atmosphere), but this is due to grainy film stock used as a result of budgetary constraints, not because of a substandard transfer. After watching it for years on a washed out panned and scanned VHS tape, this new transfer – restoring the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio – is a revelation. Anchor Bay has also included a crystal clear DTS audio track. Since the film’s modest budget did not afford it surround sound, most of the audio is reserved to the front three speakers. Regardless, major points to the folks at Anchor Bay for the attempt.
The first disc features a lacklustre audio commentary by the film’s director and co-screenwriter, Kathryn Bigelow. While she makes some nice observations and is rightly proud of the film, her comments are few and far between on the track. It would’ve been nice to see her team-up with the film’s other screenwriter, Eric Red and/or some of the cast.
The second disc contains the rest of the supplemental material, which includes two trailers for Near Dark, a deleted scene with commentary from Bigelow, storyboards for five sequences in the film, still galleries, and the most important extra for fans: a 47-minute documentary, entitled “Living in Darkness,” created especially for the DVD.
Bigelow and most of the cast participate in this documentary, and talk candidly and enthusiastically about the film’s origins, how the cast came together, the process of making the movie and their thoughts on it now. Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen, in particular, share some fascinating (and often hilarious) anecdotes of their experiences making Near Dark. It is obvious that this project was a labour of love for everyone involved. The one glaring omission from the returning cast is Jenny Wright (although the talent bios suggest that she wasn’t crazy about acting). Adrian Pasdar even makes an empassioned plea for Wright to contact him. It’s an oddly poignant moment that is touching.
For longtime fans of Near Dark – your wait is over and you’re bein richly rewarded. For others who are looking to take leave of the usual vampire fare – this movie is well worth more than a casual look.