When Ana Lily Amirpour recently released her lushly sensualist horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, her cinematic passion was matched in its cathartic potency only by its free-wheeling desire to devour all influences. Obviously, Jim Jarmusch was the cipher through which her film’s identity was largely cracked, but in her sun-deprived cinematic wasteland, another female filmmaker was a key stepping stone: Kathryn Bigelow, a women who has since made a pit-stop in can’t-be-this-good action cinema before taking a well-deserved break to produce two of the finest naturalist war thrillers ever made. She went on to make more composed films, in other words, and probably better ones too, but her underdog outlaw passion in the world of film never burned as brightly as it did in her first big break: the 1987 film Near Dark, nothing less than a full-on vampire-western-romance-horror (a mouthful, but it should sound familiar to fans of Amirpour’s debut). It takes a lot for a film to invent a genre. That it comes within an inch of perfecting it on its first try is not only testament to Bigelow’s fully-formed craft, but of her restless, travelling spirit.
Although Bigelow’s film is more carnivorous than Amirpour’s,and it isn’t as lush, both films share a ruggedly spare quality matched to a deceptive brand of off-kilter, perverse innocence. Both dance around horror, and Bigelow most certainly lets the blood run crimson more than once, but they are united in a genuinely soulful take on youthful melancholy. Horror, for both films, is defined by the charm of life as an outsider longing to take on a society that just wants to steal the magic of youth, to replace the mystique of the night with something decidedly more sinister and menacing. Bigelow’s story about a young man (Adrian Pasdar) and the young vampiress (Jenny Wright) he flings and swings with for a night leads to the man’s inevitable turning into the undead. But the story takes his vampire tragedy more as cause-for-existence than end-goal. Bigelow follows the tragedy and tries to see the two youthful onlookers off safe together, but she knows the harshness of the world, found both in human society and in the traveling band of undead loners they know call a family, headed up by who else but the stonewall-of-a-face known as Lance Henriksen. Like Amirpour, Bigelow exposes a deep empathy with the youth, dancing around their vampire status as a metaphor for the social-outsider qualities of Middle American youth.
Bigelow’s film takes on a dusky existentialism that sees one foot always back in the crypt, unsure of whether it wants to burst forth into the daylight of the world or reserve itself to the outsider’s dreamy nightmare of life in the grave. She hits hard as a framer of images, but critics are too wont to reduce her to her more savage, violent qualities in an attempt to filter a female director only through the lens of her “masculine” qualities. The same masculine qualities we always mistake for “strength” when we champion women such as Bigelow for being “strong”, rather than actually tackling empathy and romance as strengths in their own way. What is surprising in Near Dark is her deeply romantic take on life-on-the-fringes, savoring the moments of everyday joy as she transforms the vampire family into a genuine family, as corrupted and corruptible as your family or mine. They attain an almost naturalist brand of carnivalesque roguishness that would have fit well in a work of the American New Wave, essaying the motley crew with genuine pathos as they struggle just to get by one more night. We get the safe treatment for our young lovers, learning each others’ lives in a transgressive outsider’s tale as Bigelow finds concern for them in every nook and cranny of her flexible framing.
But Bigelow never loses sight of the fundamental trauma and weight of the material; Near Dark is a horror film, after all, and there’s a brutal, almost impressionist quality to the lingering dread that hangs over the frame. Adam Greenberg, who worked on The Terminator three years prior, lenses the film with the same anti-heroic, apocalyptic quality he lent that wonderful feature, but wider influences abound this time. Michael Mann’s urban mood-scape is a neighborly presence, and at points we even catch a whiff of Terrence Malick, if he had decided to use his distinct lateral framing devices and elegiac tracking shots to find blood in all the wrong places. Still, that same tormented, empty Americana Malick loved to provide a visual soundtrack to is entirely at home in Near Dark, which captures a majesty we don’t normally see in horror films of any kind. There’s a dreamy quality to the images of this last-gasp-for-the-outsiders tale that exists in the mind like a parade of overlapping, half-remembered impressions rather than a reality
These images, these impressions, coaxed on by the ethereal, coldly alien loss that only a Tangerine Dream soundtrack can layer onto a film, drift on in the night. They are the sort of images a wandering soul on a long lost stretch of Americana might create, troubled, bemused, and beckoned forth by the call of the barren wild, the great wide empty, the half-lost mirages a helpless stretch of road can conjure in the magic and terror of a lonely moonlight. More immediate horror films have come and gone since, but Near Dark is always there waiting and wandering, getting lost in the nomadic, nebulous wilds of the American imagination and in the hypnotic hearts of youth everywhere. To this day, it’s trying to find itself, and perhaps because it feels incomplete, it carves out its own endless stretch in the viewer’s imagination to always haunt, and to always trouble.