The Existential Dread of NEAR DARK in an Era of Vampire Camp and Comedy
“Howdy. I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don’t mind none.”– Severen
The 1980s are considered a golden age of horror and with good reason. It was a time of excess wealth that predated the 24-hour news cycle that constantly reminds us what a shit show the world is. People had the opportunity to live loudly, vibrantly, and celebratory, and films reflected that. And while the genre has been around since the earliest days of cinema, the advent of cable boxes, affordable VCRs, and home video rental opportunities afforded unprecedented access to multiple generations.
Excluding the earliest popular vampire film of the ‘80s, The Hunger (1983), the subgenre feels like horror-tinted reflections of a thriving decade. Films like Fright Night (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Once Bitten (1985), Vampire’s Kiss (1988), and many more were loaded with camp and comedy. But one movie (that never says the word vampire) was unafraid to highlight the true horror of the decade lingering beneath the surface.
That movie was Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).
Hitting theaters the same year as the beloved The Lost Boys, the vampire-western hybrid feels like the opposite side of the same coin. On paper, both films sound nearly identical: a young man falls for an attractive and mysterious woman who turns out to be part of a cabal of vampires and now he must choose whether or not to join the blood-sucking undead or defeat them. Despite hitting theaters a few months after The Lost Boys, Near Dark was a critically acclaimed financial flop.
It makes perfect sense that audiences made the former a smash-hit and the latter an underseen cult favorite, the same way it makes sense that we romanticize the ‘80s and selectively choose to ignore things like the start of the AIDS epidemic or the war on drugs. Where The Lost Boys favored the bright lights of tourist-infested piers and Ferris wheels of “Santa Carla,” Near Dark was bone-dry, dilapidated, and dangerous.
Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and Severen (Bill Paxton) are the main trio of this sadistic group of nomads joined by 13-year-old Homer (Joshua John Miller), a decades-old vampire trapped in the body of a child. Forever teen Mae (Jenny Wright) plays the vampiric love interest of our human Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and together, this omnium gatherum must work together in order to stay alive while Caleb struggles to accept his new life as a killer.
Considering the films came out right after one another, it’s impossible not to compare them. The Lost Boys is ’80s incarnate: flashy, draped in bisexual lighting, flamboyantly costumed, and hilarious. By comparison, Near Dark is bleak, existential, unabashedly violent, and with a sensibility that may make some viewers extremely uncomfortable.
The vampires of Near Dark are less like David and his glittery mullet vamp boys and more like the Sawyer family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Henry and Otis in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or the Firefly Family of House of 1000 Corpses and especially The Devil’s Rejects.
There’s little appeal to joining this vampire crew for Caleb, save for the love he’s developed for Mae. The decision to live this way is not one that comes easily, and his vulnerability is palpable as he debates morality when faced with his own mortality. If having the one great love of your life comes at the cost of an eternal existence of murder, is it worth it?
The kills aren’t sugar-coated or implied off-screen — they’re brutal and shown right before our eyes. The weight of Caleb’s decision isn’t one to be taken lightly, and Bigelow’s direction makes sure we remember that.
While Mae is empathetic to Caleb’s difficulty adjusting to his new life, the rest of the brood see him as nothing more than another mouth to feed. These vampires are in constant survival mode, outcasts to society, and struggling to make ends meet. Their next meal is never guaranteed, forcing them to resort to manipulative tactics and downright callous methods in order to feed their family. Are they horrible monsters, or is this their way of coping with decades of isolation and murdering for survival? Was Severen always a sociopath or had his mental state deteriorated beyond recognition?
Well, Hooker notes that he fought for the South in the Civil War, so he tells on himself there.
All of the performances in Near Dark are good, but Bill Paxton’s Severen is an icon. In arguably the most memorable scene of the entire film, Paxton chews scenery seasoned with charisma while terrorizing a local dive bar. He’s equal parts cool and relentlessly cruel, but laughing along with him brings a sick and twisted sensation of guilt for enjoying his destruction. We’re not supposed to want to be like Severen, yet Near Dark still revels in the moments where you let that part of your humanity slip and you find yourself on his side.
Everything about this film drips of dread, all the way down to the moments of levity. The life of a Near Dark vampire doesn’t look sexy or powerful; it looks like a trail of blood running across a broken pint glass and a dreadful eternity hiding in rundown motels in one-horse towns.
Near Dark wants you to question your own existence, and it doesn’t care if the outcome is less than ideal. There’s no honorable stake through the heart: there’s a firefight with law enforcement before bursting into flames. Like the sordid underbelly of society we pretend doesn’t exist in favor of a fantasy of immediate gratification, Near Dark dared to rip open the neck of the 1980s and let it bleed.
You can watch Near Dark streaming now on Shudder.
BJ Colangelo is a recovering child beauty queen that fancies herself the lovechild of Chistopher Sarandon in Fright Night and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. She writes about horror, wrestling, sex, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer all over the Internet. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony Colangelo, and a producer on the upcoming Mental Health and Horror: A Documentary.