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Synopsis: Handsome young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) works as a hand on the ranch owned by his father. One night he is in town for a drink when he flirts with beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright), who stands alone on a sidewalk, seductively licking an ice cream cone. Falling for her, Caleb says, "Sure haven't met any girls like you." Mae answers, "No, you sure haven't." Driving Mae home (she insists she has to be back before sunrise), Caleb pulls over and demands a kiss. He gets one, along with a vein-piercing bite on the neck. Although the word "vampire" is never heard in the film, Mae is one of the undead and has now turned Caleb into one as well. Having run away from Mae, Caleb tries to cross the fields toward his ranch on foot, but the emerging sunlight burns his flesh. A van with blacked-out windows speeds across the field and Caleb is abducted. He has involuntarily joined up with a band of grungy outlaw vampires consisting of Mae; an older couple, the grizzled Jessie Hooker (Lance Henriksen) and the perpetually-angry peroxide blonde "Diamondback" (Jenette Goldstein); Severen (Bill Paxton), a younger man with a crazed temper; and Homer (Joshua Miller), who appears to be a 12-year-old but is actually over 100 years old. The roving bloodsuckers are a twisted family unit who brutally kill to survive; they give Caleb a week to adjust to their lifestyle and learn to kill and drink blood. Meanwhile, Caleb's father follows a bloody trail to find and reclaim his son.
Near Dark (1987) remains one of the most highly-regarded horror films of the 1980s and even though it has been followed in recent years by such popular books, films and TV episodes as the Twilight and True Blood series, it also remains one of the most convincing and brutal modern takes on vampire lore. The script was co-written by 35-year-old Kathryn Bigelow with Eric Red, who had penned the grim cult thriller The Hitcher (1986) the year before. Near Dark was independently produced on a lean $6 million budget with Bigelow, a former painter and a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate Film School, attached to direct her first solo feature. When casting the film, Bigelow's friend James Cameron (they were later married from 1989 to 1991) suggested she use the ensemble of actors he had assembled for his recently completed science fiction/action sequel Aliens (1986); actors Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein had all appeared in the film.
In an article appearing in the March 1988 issue of the genre magazine Cinemafantastique, Dann Gire quotes Bigelow, who unambiguously calls the film a "vampire-western." She elaborated, "In an effort to sort of modernize the material, to update it and make it contemporary, we got rid of all the gothic aspects of the vampire mythology - the teeth, the bats, holy water, crosses, mirrors, all of that. We just kept the most salient aspects - they burn up in sunshine, they must drink blood to live, they live forever, bullets don't hurt them, and they're very strong. Then we set them in the mid-west and used aspects of a western - shootouts, showdowns at high noon, only in this case it's high midnight." Director of photography Adam Greenberg created deep, velvety blacks for the night scenes and dangerously lit, hazy vistas for scenes set at sunrise. Greenberg was another Cameron alumnus, having shot that director's breakout film The Terminator (1984).
Of the black humor in Near Dark, Bigelow said, "Humor is very important when you're dealing with violence. I like the sense of watching something horrific and having fun with it and not quite understanding why you're having fun with it. I think that's interesting." Bigelow also felt that the humor was a key to audience identification with the characters: "...I wanted this group to be likeable, even though what they do to sustain themselves is horrific. I wanted them to be presented as romantic figures, quite seductive." The film ran into trouble with the MPAA ratings board, who initially wanted to slap Near Dark with an X-rating for violence. Bigelow made a few small cuts, in particular to a lengthy, notoriously tense scene in which the clan methodically wipes out every human in a biker bar.
Part of the film's story hinges on a plot device that was difficult for many longtime horror aficionados to swallow: The concept that a vampire can be saved if given a blood transfusion from a mortal donor. Bigelow addressed this controversy by pointing out that the premise came from no less an authority than Bram Stoker. "It was called 'bloodletting' in Stoker's Dracula," she said. "The whole notion of being able to reclaim a victim that way interested me."
Near Dark was given only a spotty release and almost zero publicity upon its release in October, 1987. The distributing studio, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), was going through a bankruptcy process and this was their final release. In addition, the glossy and more mainstream-friendly take on modern vampirism, Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys (1987), had been released in July to big box-office; consequently the much darker Bigelow take on the subject quickly sank without a trace.
Critical reaction to Near Dark at the time of release was mixed. In the Washington Post, Hal Hinson offered high praise, writing that the film "...is pop allusive in the same way that George Miller's Mad Max movies are, and it has the same postmodern knowingness about genre conventions that the Coen brothers displayed in Blood Simple  and Raising Arizona . Here Bigelow has cross-bred vampire legends, westerns and biker movies to arrive at a combination that's both outrageous and poetic; it has extravagant, bloody thrills plus something else - something that comes close to genuine emotion." Meanwhile, Caryn James of the New York Times accused Bigelow of using "too-studied compositions" and employing "the scattershot school of film making" because she "...searches desperately for a style, and tosses into the pot touches of film-noir lust, some cornpone family sentiment, blue-colored nights, overexposed days, orange suns that race across the screen, and enough blood and violence so Near Dark can be sold as a horror film but not enough to risk its R rating."
Following Near Dark, director Bigelow helmed a number of thrillers (Blue Steel , Point Break , Strange Days , K-19: The Widowmaker ) and along with the enormous acclaim for her work on The Hurt Locker (2008), she became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
Producer: Steven-Charles Jaffe
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Art Direction: Dian Perryman
Music: Tangerine Dream
Film Editing: Howard E. Smith
Cast: Adrian Pasdar (Caleb Colton), Jenny Wright (Mae), Lance Henriksen (Jesse Hooker), Bill Paxton (Severen), Jenette Goldstein (Diamondback), Tim Thomerson (Loy Colton), Joshua Miller (Homer), Marcie Leeds (Sarah Colton), Kenny Call (Deputy Sheriff), Ed Corbett (Ticket Seller)
by John M. Miller