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A "Near" Perfect Horror Film
Director: Katheryn Bigelow
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henrikson, Jenette Goldstein, Joshua Miller, Tim Thomerson, Marcie Leeds
Near Dark is one of the most unconventional vampire films I've ever seen. On the one hand, its villains are a group of blood suckers who do burn up once exposed to the sun, and who do make you one of them when they bite you on the neck. On the other hand, there are no shots of razor sharp teeth or people with glowing demon eyes. There are no scenes of people changing into bats or jumping preternaturally in the air. In fact, there is not even an instance where the word “vampire” is used anywhere in the film.
The movie steers so far from the conventions of a normal vampire film that, had screenwriters Eric Red and Katheryn Bigelow stripped the villains of all their supernatural powers, they would still have a fascinating tale of an innocent young cowboy (Adrian Pasdar's Caleb) who falls in with the wrong crowd (which includes Lance Henrikson's Jesse, who's the leader of the group, and Bill Paxton's Severen, who's the most psychotic), is taught to live their hedonistic ways until his father (Tim Thomerson) intervenes and puts him back on the straight and narrow.
It's not an implausible premise at all, and believe it or not, the supernatural elements manage to give the material a little extra weight. Not to mention it allows director Katheryn Bigelow to stage some of the most sensational set-pieces of any vampire or action film in movie history. The now classic scene where the vampires invade a secluded bar is good enough all by itself to justify seeing the film.
She's aided considerably by cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who nicely instills an atmosphere of menace over every single frame, and pulls off one of the most iconic shots of any film during the 80's (it shows the vampires on a mist shrouded hill looking down at a bar below).
And while the hero of the story may seem underdeveloped at first, actor Adrian Pasdar manages to make him a sympathetic and compelling individual, even when the screenplay leaves you more than a little eager to learn a little something about the guy.
And kudos to screenwriters Bigelow and Red for frequently cutting away from Caleb and his exploits with the vampires to Caleb's worrying family back at home. Without those scenes, the movie would not be nearly as engaging as it is, and Thomerson and young Marcie Leeds as Caleb's little sister Sarah are strong enough to make their scenes work.
Of course, the best performances are turned in by the vampires, who make for a scary yet charismatic bunch. Henrikson is as quietly menacing as ever as the leader Jesse, while Paxton turns in a feverishly evil performance as Severen, and is at his all-time best during the massacre at the bar.
Jenette Goldstein and Joshua Miller make the most of their side characters, and Jenny Wright does just fine as the most sympathetic vampire of the group Mae (who is also the one responsible for Caleb becoming involved with her and the others in the first place).
If there is a fault to the film, it's that the film just isn't as scary as you would hope it to be. It plays out more like an action film than anything, and while the many shoot-outs and chase scenes are exciting and well-staged, you just can't help but feel like the filmmakers could have put a little more effort into making the film more frightening and nightmarish.
It is my only complaint with what is otherwise a terrifically entertaining and original vampire film.
Final Grade: *** 1/2 (out of ****)