With the recently announced October release schedule still in the back of many a cinephile’s mind, one would be hard pressed to find a film to add to that list of classics, that would make it any better a selection of releases for that respective month. However, with her name firmly in the headlines following an Oscar winning war film, and another equally anticipated war film with even more controversy than that, Kathryn Bigelow may have something to say about that.
Before hitting the big screen with Oscars to follow with The Hurt Locker or making headlines with her death-of-Bin-Laden-focused feature Zero Dark Thirty, she was something of a genre staple. Be it the gritty cop drama known as Strange Days, the Willem Dafoe-starring biker film The Loveless, or the iconic Keanu Reeves joint Point Break, Bigelow is and has always been one of the film world’s most interesting filmmakers. So what better way to give the director her Criterion stamp of approval than by doing so for her genre defining classic, the Western disguised as a vampire film known as Near Dark.
Starring a mind-blowing cast including the likes of genre icon Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenny Wright, Near Dark‘s premise is relatively simplistic, as are most narratives of the genre. A man has a run-in with a group of vampires, one that would fight right at home on one of TV’s various Podunk-set reality shows, only to join them with the hopes of wooing a beautiful and mysterious young woman. Led by the great cast, and some top notch genre-filmmaking from a top-of-her-game Bigelow, Near Dark is not only one of the director’s best films, but is also one of the greatest vampire films ever committed to celluloid.
Part of a rush of late ‘˜80s vamp features, if there is one thing that allows this film to stand above the rest as one of the genre’s absolute greatest, its ability to get to the inherent core of what makes the idea of vampires so damn eluding. Throughout their history, the vampire has been a terrifying creature that speaks to many things, primarily that of sexuality. Be it the use of vampirism in narrative to stand place for sexually transmitted diseases, or the inherent sexuality brought into one’s mind by the act of blood sucking, Bigelow’s film is entirely bred upon the idea of the id. Be it Paxton’s character using every primal instinct that he has to make his way through drunk-filled bar, or the family’s leader and his red blooded lust for everything carnal, Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red use the raw and rough setting of late ’80s American Southwest to its absolute best, making this one of the most exemplary pieces of cinematic vampiric lore. Oh, and how dare this writer forget to mention that the entire film is built upon one man’s lust for a beautiful blonde. You’ll find yourself hard pressed to not follow suit once this film rolls.
Performance wise, the film is fantastic. Paxton is as kinetic and entertaining as they come, giving as great a performance as he’s ever given. The couple in question, Caleb and Mae (Adrian Pasdar and Wright respectively), are a great pairing, adding a great deal of emotional depth to an otherwise hyper-campy neon-punk bit of Western Gothicism. Henriksen is as great as ever, taking on the role of the patriarch in the family, a role that frankly, he was born to play. With a menacing smirk on his face as much as an angry scowl, the viewer is never at ease when his hot headed head honcho is in the frame, let alone when he’s anywhere near the proceedings.
However, all would be for naught if it weren’t for Bigelow’s expert filmmaking. Taking on the world of horror filmmaking like a bull in a china shop, the director has no issue tossing the viewer into the middle of a sex scene or the middle of a brutally gruesome gun fight, as it is all in a day’s work for one of the film world’s foremost action filmmakers. Grinding her teeth on action features, Bigelow is a master when the action gets ramped up, pairing the gorgeous cinematography (often soaked in a neon-tinged hue during the night sequence and a Western-like earthiness come the daytime shots) with some well shot and choreographed action, the film shines when Bigelow allows herself full reign over every single action set piece. Featuring top notch gore, fantastic real effects work, and as charismatic filmmaking as she gets performances from her actors, Bigelow proves herself, with this film and those that would ultimately follow it, as one of the greatest action filmmakers that we have today.
Tossing Western style tropes, brutal action sequences, rockabilly-infused vampires and a pulsating ‘˜80s score all into a blender, director Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire masterpiece Near Dark may not be the highest of high-brow horror features, but it is in this grit and the grime that the real beauty of this film comes out of. Mixing great performances, as sexualized a vampire tale as you’ll see, and some gorgeous filmmaking, Near Dark is both genre defining, and genuinely a fantastic feature that is more than deserving of its day in the Criterion sunlight. As much as its characters may try to hold back from it.