Katherine Bigelow reportedly wanted to create an old-fashioned Western movie... mixed with a vampire romance. The result was something that could have been a disaster.
Instead "Near Dark" is a deeply underappreciated little cult movie, which demonstrates that talent and originality in vampire movies isn't quite gone. Bigelow smoothly intertwines eerie otherworldliness with a grimy, gritty Western flavour, and spreads the resulting atmosphere over a clever, tightly-written script and some solid acting from Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright.
Small-town boy Caleb (Pasdar) encounters an ethereal young woman named Mae (Wright) on the street one night. They seem to be shyly hitting it off... until she bites him and leaves.
Before Caleb knows it, the sun literally causes his skin to burn, and he's been yanked into the RV of a gang of vampire drifters -- Mae among them. They're a pretty mean bunch, and even their leader Jessie Hooker (Lance Henriksen) gives him only one week to prove himself. But Caleb refuses to give in to "instinct" by drinking blood and killing his victims, which causes some problems.
Meanwhile, Caleb's father (Tim Thomerson) and the local police are searching for the missing young man -- and when Caleb manages to save the vampires from the cops, they finally accept him. But then one of them develops a crush on Caleb's kid sister Sarah, and Caleb finds himself torn between his strange new life and his family's safety. Even if he can somehow be cured of his vampirism, can he hope to destroy an entire bloodsucker gang out to kill him?
"Near Dark" is one of those cult movies that doesn't have a big enough cult -- it gets overshadowed by other 1980s vampire movies like "Interview with the Vampire" and "The Lost Boys," despite having little in common with them. The vampires in it are dirty, amoral, trashy and casually cruel as only human beings freed from mortality and law can be ("Remember that fire we started in Chicago?") -- which is an all-too-probable result if someone were to become a vampire.
And Bigelow gives the movie a unique atmosphere, setting it in the grimy, dusty small towns of Oklahoma and filling it with blood, guns and nighttime streets -- in fact if it didn't have vampires, you'd think it was a coming-of-age tale about falling in with a bad crowd. But there are also a number of sweet romantic scenes, which are all the more striking because they don't get over-the-top or cheesy.
And there's a quiet, understated visual power to Bigelow's directing style, whether it's Caleb tottering across a field with smoke pouring from his clothes, or an erotic blood-drink against a pumping oil rig on a lightning-filled night. And her script is a pretty solid one as well, with excellent dialogue ranging from the quietly beautiful ("... I'll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to earth...") to macabrely funny ("It's finger-lickin' GOOD!").
Pasdar is intense and gutsy as a nice young country boy who has the misfortune to get turned into a vampire against his will, and Wright is wispily endearing as the only vampire who sympathizes with him. Some of the supporting vampires get kind of 2-D and over-the-top at times, but Henriksen does an outstanding job as their weary, battle-scarred leader, and Joshua John Miller does a good job as a vampire trapped in a little boy's body.
"Near Dark" is a darker, grittier brand of vampire movie, and while it's blessed with solid acting, brilliant direction and snappy script, the unique slant on vampires is one of the best parts.