There's usually a sexual charge to the horror in any vampire movie--and in "Near Dark," (citywide) the sex and the heat are wickedly potent.
The movie shows us an almost ethereally scary Southwestern landscape populated with an assorted of Peckinpah-style peckerwoods, unwitting victims, maniacs and bloodsuckers: vampires bent through a bloody modern prism. But at the center of this carnage is an obsessive romance.
Basically, writer-director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red are telling a love-on-the-run story about a good boy who falls in love with a girl vampire and is pulled into her nightmare world. Bigelow and Red set the story in a landscape that we recognize--mostly from highway jaunts or '70s road movies: a lunar-looking desert filled with truck stops, bus stations, motels and flat roads, dry empty-looking towns, cities that seem to have been swallowed up by the night.
In the film, an Oklahoma kid, Caleb (Jason Gedrick) becomes entranced with a thin, mysterious blonde with half-dead eyes named Mae (Jenny Wright). He picks her up on the street after nightfall, and when he tries to seduce her, she drinks his blood, pulls him into her maniacal family--and plunges him into a landscape of endless night. After that vampire's kiss, he shares her fate: if sunlight touches them, their skin will burn.
The general structure of "Near Dark" resembles Red's earlier vacantly sadistic horror fable "The Hitcher," and the story is similar as well: a male protagonist pulled into a vortex of terror by amoral drifters on the desert roads, cut off progressively from family and the law, taught to become a killer. But co-writer Bigelow gets a scary poetry out of these landscapes--and though the film is erratic, it has force and passion.
It works on your nerves--not necessarily through its big shock scenes, but through the atmosphere it creates: the sense of dread, no exit, lives plunging out of control, the secret mad pull of murder and outlawry.
"The Hitcher" was a dumbly manipulative script and film--and Robert Harmon directed it in a lucid, methodical Spielberg-Hitchcock style that only emphasized the leaps of logic and thin characters. But in "Near Dark," Red has either refined his basic notions or Bigelow has helped transform them into something purer, tighter. There are still disgusting elements here--shock tactics inserted for the gullible, the vampire family's barroom holocaust. And there are lapses of logic: including one scene that depends on the fastest sunrise in recorded history. The sadistic humor--which will offend many--wars with an intense romanticism.
But Bigelow packs the film with intense imagery, haunting shots: a night world of chaotic emptiness. The vampire family--well played, by Wright, Lance Henriksen and Joshua Miller of "River's Edge," more broadly played by others--have the same psychopath's code as any group of traveling thieves. But these perverse nomads are arranged as a near parody of the usual TV sitcom family: feisty wife, stolid husband, sexy sister, wild brother, wisecracking child.
There's a ghastly humor in all this, and Bigelow brings it out without overindulging it. Faced with a nearly repulsive subject, she makes the blood flow inside it, stream out over the cuts. "Near Dark" (MPAA-rated: R for sex and violence) is probably too violent for any but hard-core horror audiences. But unlike "The Hitcher," it isn't illogically violent or artificially horrific. Bigelow's visual style--rudimentary in her earlier film, "The Loveless"--is often sensational here. She's made a film whose pop nihilism and occasional wild beauty can raise a few honest shivers.
'NEAR DARK' A Warner Brothers release of a Feldman/Meeker production. Producer Steven-Charles Jaffe. Director Kathryn Bigelow. Script Eric Red, Bigelow. Executive producers Edward S. Feldman, Charles R. Meeker. Camera Adam Greenberg. Production design Stephen Altman. Editor Howard Smith. Music Tangerine Dream. With Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Joshua Miller.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (younger than 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).