Near Dark is a vampire Western. The first hour shows a farmhand’s seduction by, and ‘nitiation into, a roving, nocturnal gang of shit-kickers who happen to be bloodsuckers. The movie’s last third shows his escape from the group. Full of gore and fiery explosions, the movie succeeds as an atmospheric mash-up but leaves you feeling a bit cheated.
Effective horror films plunge you into darkness and keep you there. Just because they end satisfactorily does not necessarily mean the evil you see is contained. Near Dark is modern. It dispenses with almost all of the old-fashioned trappings of vampire lore. There aren’t any capes, castles, or coffins; no counts, countesses, crucifixes, or cloves of garlic. No sex, either. The romanticism is gone. Here, vampirism as rich metaphor is de-fanged. The monstrosity of the bloodsucker’s death-life is all you get. Where Near Dark begins to stumble is in its treatment of the farmhand, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar). We like him but his transformation into (and from being) a vampire doesn’t really change him.
Caleb is much too sweet, and stays that way after he falls in with the pitiless, surrogate family of vamps (memorably played by Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, and Joshua Miller). Once bitten, he remains averse to feeding off of innocent people and stays true to the girl who turned him. (They couple when he sucks her wrist.) Basically, he never lets himself become a vampire-by-definition (i.e., a creature of the night who dispassionately kills in order to survive), and gets off the hook easily (SPOILER: his dad gives him a blood transfusion, which is dumb because the blood would be food, not an antidote). Throughout the movie, which de-romanticizes the vampire (as much as any film I’ve seen), Caleb is virtually incorruptible. That is the film’s first big flaw.
The second big fail is the last act. After Caleb saves the vampires in a shootout and finds his real family again, the vampires get back at him for…what? Leaving them? Knowing who they are? Reunited with Caleb, his real family doesn’t care to sic the authorities on the vampires, much less hunt them down on their own. Still, the movie plants a false motive for Caleb to have a showdown with the vampires when they kidnap his younger sister (one of the boy vamps wants her as his eternal companion) but spare Caleb and his dad. From this plot point on, Near Dark undermines itself. By baiting Caleb and being generally careless, the vampires cease to pose a serious threat. They take chances that feel out of character for them. As night-runners who’ve been night-running for YEARS, always careful to avoid sunlight and detection, they would not put themselves in jeopardy the way they do in the last act. They just wouldn’t. But Near Dark makes good triumph over evil, anyway. It’s a convenient finish.
If you have not seen Near Dark, you should. Adam Greenberg’s cinematography and Stephen (son of Robert) Altman’s set designs create a stark Edward Hopper-like vibe. You believe you’re in the wasteland of the American Midwest: The wide open plains that dim into the horizon are sometimes bombed with light, and by night the squat roadside establishments and small main streets cluster with shadow. The makeup is wonderful. Even if it’s not particularly fun or thrilling, Tangerine Dream’s electronic score is appropriately moody. The scene in the bar is a small masterpiece of tension, Kathryn Bigelow’s best bit of directing to date. All of these elements make the movie something. What that something is is…not a classic (the storytelling flags), but a cross-genre exercise that any scholar of horror should check out.