****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A-
starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton
screenplay by Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
by Walter Chaw There is an element of the delirious in Kathryn Bigelow's superb, genre-bending nomadic vampire fable Near Dark--an element of the hopelessly erotic, the melancholic, the breathless. Like the best vampire myths, it recognizes that the root of the monster lies in sexual consumption and addiction, in the interplay between nostalgia for the freedom of youth and the pricklier remembrance of the confused fever dreams of adolescence. (Hence the recurrence in modern myth of a Methuselah beast trapped in the soft body of a child.)
And like the best of horror films, Near Dark offers a subtext filthy with the bogeys lurking beneath the cultural beds of its time, anchored here by AIDS and the epidemic of casual drug use. Compare 1987's Near Dark to the insights offered by its temporal brothers: the sexual leprosy of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) and the crumbling pleasure-domes of Marek Kanievska's difficult Less Than Zero (1987) and Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989). There are even uncomfortably poignant echoes in Near Dark of actress Jenny Wright's purported battles with illness, paralleling Less Than Zero's similar irony of casting Robert Downey, Jr. as an unquenchable cokehead.
Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is an Oklahoma boy who falls in love with an ice cream-licking lovely named Mae (Wright) one forlorn southwestern night. After coercing a kiss that devolves into a nip, Caleb discovers that he can bear neither the sun nor solid foods, and is eventually abducted by a small group of marauding biker punks led by the centuries-old Jesse (Lance Henriksen), his "wife" Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), their "son" Homer (Joshua John Miller), and the psychotic Severen (Bill Paxton). The only time "bloodsuckers" are ever mentioned is in the picture's opening scene, at that referring to a mosquito; if not for a few genuinely effective scenes of bloodletting, Near Dark would serve perfectly as a cautionary drug tale of a small-town boy pulled into a nocturnal cycle of angry fixes and naked lunches.
There are two pivotal scenes in Near Dark: the first occurs in a bus station in the middle of nowhere when a plain-clothes policeman confronts Caleb for being strung-out and wayward; the second occurs in a field of oil derricks, pumping in their inexorable, insectile way as Caleb feeds from an open vein in Mae's slender forearm. Shot with a painterly genius for night lighting (all muted greens and blues) by Adam Greenberg and scored with an insistent throbbing by Eighties synth group Tangerine Dream (who provided a similarly effective score for Steve DeJarnatt's criminally underseen Miracle Mile), this pair of moments makes up the backbone and the soul of the film: the one serving up the drug theme, the other that feeling of consumptive eroticism. Binding it together is the excitement of new love, the illicitness of knowledge (what does the corrosiveness of sunlight suggest, after all, than a Miltonian right reason dispelling carnal night?), and finally that restless fantasy of life as an immortal sexual beast--Shiva of an eternal night of highways and byways.
Near Dark remains Kathryn Bigelow's best film, suffused with style and anarchy that has an unerring feel for the irregular pulse of a very particular place and time. It's a western in the Southern Gothic tradition in many ways, locating the fulcrum of an era in flux and unmoored from the traditions of a bowing generation by the riptides of criminality and the mortal consequences of love. More, Near Dark is an elegy for the pubescent years as they're consumed by the death of a dream of empowerment and escape--this bloody, kinetic vampire action flick rejects the romance of juvenile immortality for the rewards of ephemeral maturity. Near Dark is an anthem for lost youth and the possibilities of horror to instruct as metaphor even as it functions as genre. It is one of the hallmark films of a lost decade.
Anchor Bay's 2-disc DVD release of Near Dark is not only gorgeous in every technical aspect, but something that gives a great deal of comfort and hope to cinephiles everywhere: we're in good hands when people who recognize the artistry and importance of this little film are given the means and the opportunity to produce something definitive. Though it's extremely easy to cast aspersions at our disposable culture, it should be just as easy to lavish praise on a company like Anchor Bay that consistently offers reasons for the informed aficionado and archivist to celebrate.
Beginning with the packaging itself, Near Dark is comprised of a handsome hardbound and slightly chromatic slipcover that houses a triple-gatefold containing both DVDs and a small booklet that I greedily devoured, given Anchor Bay's history of informative inserts. (Alas, the brief text concerning a rumour of Near Dark'sprint being lost and a few somewhat lame tidbits disappointed the fanatic in me.) Disc One is the film in an absolutely stunning 1.85:1, THX-approved anamorphic video transfer whose wonderfully aged and warm palette showcases Greenberg's dazzling lighting schemes. The magic hour has never looked more magical, while black levels, vital in a film that has all of five minutes in daylight, are above reproach. A distortion-free 5.1 audio mix in Dolby Digital and DTS configurations demonstrates a little weakness in its centre channel (which can be compensated for to some extent through equalizing), but for source material of this age, the sound demonstrates a remarkable fidelity. A hotel shoot-out makes good use of surrounds, and the Tangerine Dream score rumbles out of the 0.1 track like a Barry White purr.
Aside from a THX Optimizer test, the first disc features a commentary track from director Bigelow that begins promisingly enough with a tidbit about the six-month growing process of a stunt mosquito to insure its lack of contaminants but quickly devolves into long silences, plot regurgitation, and a mock-philosophical musing on the film. Subtexts and chronological location are never mentioned (Near Dark suffered a quick box office demise after being released just a couple of months after The Lost Boys--a fact addressed in the second disc's documentary), nor, really, are there any anecdotes to be found here regarding behind-the-scenes hijinks. As a long-time devotee of this film, Bigelow's lack of real insight is a profound letdown to me.
Disc Two provides an obsequious retrospective titled "Living in Darkness" and starring each of the principle players (save an AWOL Wright). Bigelow's interview segments are, regrettably, rehashes of her uninformative commentary track while most of the other snapshots are essentially variations of mutual back-patting and unleavened praise. I tend to agree with the filmmakers' satisfaction with their final product, but forty-seven minutes of movie clips and "she was great, I was happy" is a little much. Adrian Pasdar contributes the doc's best moment when he nails the drug references in the picture; Henriksen's reveal of his character's imagined back-story conversion comes a close second.
Although its second half is an improvement, with minor insights are offered by the actors concerning their initial involvements and privations in the picture (the best coming in Paxton's recollection of lassoing Aliens-buddy Henriksen), there's still not much in the making-of that is terribly informative. A deleted scene with commentary is a somewhat superfluous gimmick shot demonstrating vampiric night vision point-of-view, and five animated and scored storyboards are well executed but probably superfluous--though a DVD-ROM option offers a nifty Near Dark screensaver and the complete (and very cinematic) screenplay by Bigelow and Eric Red.
Anchor Bay's handsome presentation of Near Dark rounds out with two very cool trailers (the best scored by John Parr's dirty roadhouse anthem "Naughty Naughty"), gorgeously rendered animated menus, poster (my favourite being the lurid Italian version), still, and behind-the-scenes galleries (featuring some very nice shots of Ms. Wright), and last but never least, Anchor Bay's typically involved and exhaustively informative Talent Bios that, by themselves, would be worth the price of the package. Mark Wickum is one of the most gifted copywriters in the business. Originally published: August 27, 2002.
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