I have to give Near Dark a very mixed review. There are things about it that impressed me, and things about it that are decidedly lame.
Early on, the lame side was much more prominent. I was shaking my head wondering what critics (it scored 90% on the Rotten Tomatoes site) saw in this dog.
For one thing, it got off on the wrong foot with me because it manifests a current horror movie cliché. I mentioned in my essay on Fido that for some reason zombie movies are almost always black comedies. Well, there’s at least as strong a trend in recent decades for vampire movies to be romances, for the vampire—you know, that cold, clammy dead guy who lives in a coffin, hangs out with rats, spends much of his time as a bat, and murders people and/or changes them into the same kind of hideous monster he is—to be some sort of irresistibly seductive figure of raw sexuality.
I say that having seen few if any of the movies in question, but I take it The Lost Boys, Interview With the Vampire, and the recent Twilight movies would all fall under that description of “erotic” vampire movies. Near Dark, from 1987, was early in this trend.
And I just find that whole premise silly. What’s so overpoweringly sexy about a malevolent corpse?
Not only does this film hit that note early, it does so in a particularly trite way. A young cowboy type guy in rural Oklahoma picks up a girl and gives her a ride in his truck, not knowing she’s a vampire. There follows several minutes of hackneyed, teen romance, date movie dialogue, woodenly delivered.
Anyway, the storyline is that these two fall for each other. Vampire Girl is part of a group of five such vampires who roam around every night murdering people and drinking their blood. But evidently there’s also the option of “turning” someone by biting them and not killing them, and bringing them into the lifestyle so they’ll be vampires too. She decides she wants to do that with this guy rather than kill him.
The rest of them aren’t too keen on that; they’d much rather just kill him like usual. So that’s one conflict in the movie. He’s having to prove himself and she’s trying to defend him, while they look for an excuse to kill him.
There’s also the matter of his commitment to this new life. He’s ambivalent about it, as he really likes the girl, but isn’t sold on the lifestyle. At one point there’s an implication that it’s not really up to him anyway, that due to the initial bite, there’s some supernatural force that keeps him from being able to break from them.
Or maybe it’s just that he’s so in love with her. It really is that kind of “how far would you go for the love of your life?” movie.
Meanwhile his father and little sister are trying to find him, with some minimal help from law enforcement.
The vampires have certain supernatural powers. They cannot be killed by stabbing or gunshots to the torso (though no one tries things like decapitation or blowing their brains out with a shotgun). They have superhuman strength. So in a fight, they can pick someone up and hurl him across the room.
I don’t know about stakes through the heart or garlic or anything like that, but they are definitely vulnerable to the sun. They wear special goggles if they have to look out the window in daytime, and if they have to be outside entirely, they drape a blanket over themselves to make sure they’re more covered than a Muslim woman, because otherwise their skin quickly burns a deep red and even catches fire.
Also, and maybe this is giving away too much, but it turns out to be surprisingly easy to “cure” the vampirism if someone decides to retire from the life and go back to being a regular person.
The movie has serious plausibility issues. I don’t just mean because there are vampires in it. Any science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. movie is going to have elements like that where you just have to suspend disbelief. But the idea is to change that one set of things, and then show in what other ways reality would be different as a consequence. Instead, in this movie people do and say things that are nonsensical even relative to the parallel reality where vampires and such exist.
The whole love story thing itself is insane, if you think about it for even a moment. And I say that being very much a romantic. I’m all about love being unconditional, and making great sacrifices for the love of your life, and all that. I don’t just automatically roll my eyes at that stuff. There’s precious little that I could find out about the great love of my life that would make me change my mind and lose my feelings for her.
But among that precious little would be, oh I don’t know, maybe finding out she’s a supernatural undead monster who commits mass murder every night. This ain’t exactly finding out that the love of your life Daryl Hannah is a mermaid.
Really that should be a deal breaker. Especially since these people have no history, know nothing about each other, have no grounding for a strong emotional connection beyond the barest “love at first sight” attraction.
Not to mention, she’s not even that hot. She’s a decent looking young woman, but hardly a standout. I mean, sure, one could certainly forgive her the whole bloodsucking fiend/mass murder thing if it were Scarlett Johansson we were talking about, say, but I’m not buying it here.
There’s also the issue of too many people taking this stuff too much in stride. Like, “Son, I think there’s something not right about those people. When you get shot, you don’t just spit the bullet out and hand it back to the person.” Like it’s this subtle thing that’s just a little suspicious.
Then during the times he’s broken up from her, there’s this sense that life just returns to normal. Like there he is with his family eating cereal or whatever, and the whole vampire thing is some mostly forgotten wrong turn awhile back, comparable to if he’d dated some girl with a drug problem briefly.
No, see, you people have just had utterly bizarre, unbelievable experiences, you responded in a way that indicates that the guy is at least seriously mentally ill, and this band of murderous vampires is still roaming the area and not real pleased with you right now. You don’t just settle back into your former life. Norman Rockwell has left the building and he ain’t coming back.
But let’s talk about this marauding band of vampires. They kill a lot of people. Evidently they have to kill multiple people a night to get enough blood to satisfy themselves. And many of the murders are quite spectacular—wiping out whole houses or businesses full of people and such and then burning them down.
That’s night after night, year after year.
Wouldn’t you think someone would notice? Wouldn’t this kind of thing make the papers? I can’t believe there’d be this massive quantity of unsolved murders without having everyone talking about it and scared to death.
Plus that’s just this handful of vampires. It’s never stated explicitly that they’re the only ones in the world, but that certainly seems unlikely. Think of the body count if there are lots of these vampires stalking the night. Sooner or later you’d have to think the thousands or millions of blood drained corpses inexplicably murdered would draw some sort of attention.
Related to that, these people (using the term loosely) have to commit so many crimes so constantly that I’m convinced they’d get caught pretty quick, superhuman strength or not. Because even though they have certain advantages of being impervious to bullets and such, they also have huge disadvantages—most notably being unable to survive sunlight. They’re not as vulnerable as if they had to sleep in a coffin all day like poor Dracula, but they’re pretty darn vulnerable.
Vampire Girl tells her new lover early in the movie that she’ll be alive in a billion years. Fat chance. Just because you recover almost instantaneously from stab wounds and gunshot wounds, and just because drinking blood prevents you from aging, doesn’t make you immortal. I think the lifestyle these folks lead makes their hold on life exceedingly precarious. I’d say the over/under on life expectancy of people having to do what they have to do to survive is closer to a month than a billion years.
There are other things to trash about this film, such as the clichés of people missing a chance to kill somebody because they’re busy giving speeches and being overly dramatic, or the hero prevailing against impossible odds and supernatural foes through action movie derring do. But I said this was deserving of a mixed review rather than a wholly negative assessment, so what is right with it?
Let’s start with not so much a positive, but at least a lessening of a negative.
The deeper it got into the movie, the more I adjusted to the style, and the less I was bothered by the clichéd dialogue (a character actually says “See you in Hell!”) and the psychological implausibility of some of what the characters do. I found myself somewhat more willing to accept the movie on its own terms, more drawn in by the story. Even some of the love story material—though still the weakest element of the film—became at least OK to me.
The atmospherics of the movie are solid throughout. It’s a lot of dark, ominous, empty, Western landscapes. But not dark in the sense that the movie plays that game of not letting you see clearly what’s going on. If anything it’s consistently lighter than it really should be in the dead of night. In any case, it’s quite good at sustaining the right mood for its subject matter.
Furthermore, the action scenes, even when not believable, are compelling. Very smooth filmmaking that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
What I was most impressed by about the film is the vampire characters themselves. Aside from the one’s romantic interest in a mortal, they’re consistently creepy in an attention-grabbing way.
I especially found the little kid effectively disturbing. (I believe the implication is that these things don’t age, so he was 11 or whatever when he was turned into a vampire, and always will appear to be that age.) Handled poorly, sadism and murder from a character who looks like he should be in 5th grade would be so ridiculous as to be unintentionally funny, but in this film it’s as scary and sadly incongruous as it should be.
But they each have their own distinct personality and characteristics, and the intensity of the movie picks up whenever they’re on screen.
That leads me to the most powerful scene in the movie, which is their murderous rampage in a bar. This is a scene of bloody mayhem that certainly has the potential to be ridiculous, or just juvenile and gross, but for me it hits all the right emotional notes to get under your skin. It’s like the violent scenes in Funny Games (the original, not the American remake, which I haven’t seen) in putting you face to face with the creepiest malevolence.
As a viewer, you’ve already been told the lifestyle of these creatures, but it’s vastly more effective when you’re shown. They do not just kill people as a regrettable necessary evil in order to stay alive. They have zero ambivalence about it (with the exception of the main character, who’s half in and half out because he’s still struggling with whether he wants to be a vampire, and to a much lesser extent his girlfriend), like the purest psychopaths. They take sadistic glee in tormenting their victims before dispatching them.
And then from the other perspective, you feel what it’s like to be the people in the bar, realizing with terror that you’ll be gruesomely murdered shortly by a band of serial killers who have you trapped. It’s not just women screaming in horror movie fashion and generic people running around frantically and such. It feels more real.
Slasher movies and violent crime movies don’t always hit me significantly emotionally with their blood and guts. In fact, more often they don’t. But this violent scene in the bar is fascinating and effective in showing the nature and human consequences of this particular type of evil.
With misgivings, I’m going to give Near Dark a thumbs up, mostly on the principle that a movie that has some real roll-your-eyes weak points, and some powerful, skillfully done elements that stick in your memory, is to be preferred over a movie that’s consistently OK across the board, with nothing all that good or bad you can put your finger on.