A young man and a young woman are running through a deserted industrial area. The sky is a sheet of black, lit only by dim yellow orbs hanging overhead. The woman stops, and raises her hand.
‘Look. The night. It’s so bright it’ll blind you.’
The young man is Caleb, a cowboy who’s come into town looking for some fun. The young woman, Mae, is a pretty girl he flirts with on the street. Before he knows what’s happening, she has taken him through a door he never knew existed into a world he never imagined. A world where the night is so bright it’ll blind you. A whole new kind of experience.
Kathryn Bigelow’s early films are about people walking through that door. Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break all deal with characters who find themselves embracing an ecstatic experience of the world, a kind of experience that is equally exhilarating and terrifying. In Near Dark, Caleb’s world is turned inside out when Mae bites him on the neck. Without even understanding what’s happening, he’s soon travelling with a family of vampires who roam the American Southwest, hunting for prey.
Caleb tries to escape, but finds it isn’t easy to get away. He’s horrified by what he sees, but there’s a part of him that’s drawn to these people who “keep odd hours.” Even though they’re a hundred and eighty degrees from the family he lives with back on the farm, there are strong bonds that hold this clan together. Whether hunting, stealing or hiding, they work as a team, and when the chips are down they back each other up. Jesse and Diamondback are the imposing father and mother figures. Severen is the wild older “son” who enjoys toying with his prey. Mae is more passive, and seems troubled by the life she leads. Homer is the angry, lonely boy who has lived more than enough to become a man, but will always be trapped in the body of a child.
Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red splice two genres together, creating a dark, dynamic fantasy landscape. The western is purely American, and speaks of a clear cut, black and white morality. The horror film hails from the dark corners of Northern Europe, and dares us to step into a terrifying, irrational world. The monsters may die in the final reel, but they live on in our imagination. The tension between these two genres comes across in images that resonate in powerful, inexplicable ways. The shootout at the outlaws’ hideaway becomes a startling, hallucinatory sequence where our hero braves the burning sunlight to stage a daring rescue, and saves his newfound “family”. A barroom confrontation becomes a bloody slaughter, while the jukebox reels out pop tunes in the background. Even a conventional love scene is twisted into something strange and unnerving. Not having tasted blood since his transformation, Caleb is weak and pale. Mae opens a vein in her wrist and offers it to him in order to bring him back to life. He drinks deeply, and feeling miraculously rejuvenated, he kisses her passionately, traces of blood still smeared across his lips.
All this probably sounds like a far cry from the classic westerns of John Ford, but actually Bigelow is a direct descendant of that American master. In fact, among living filmmakers, she is probably the one whose perspective is closest to Ford’s. They are both deeply, unapologetically American, while at the same time obsessively examining the violence and the arrogance that are inextricably woven into this country’s fabric. They’re both poets, relying on a sound, an image, a gesture to express themselves where others would speak to us in words. And they both deal with individuals who find themselves in conflict with their community. The comparison may be easier to see in films like K-19, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which deal with stubborn outsiders who collide with rigid institutions, but the similarities are very much there in Near Dark. It’s a story about a young man who has to choose between the seductive, dangerous outlaw “family” and returning to the safety and comfort of his own family.
In the end, it’s easy for Caleb to choose because his young sister, Sarah, is in danger. But it’s actually the vampires’ humanity that brings about her release and their own destruction. Mae wrests Sarah from the grasp of her younger “brother” Homer. At a crucial moment, Diamondback urges Caleb and Sarah to run. As the sun rises, Homer chases desperately after Sarah, not as a vampire chasing his prey, but as a child who is losing his only friend. He frantically calls her name as his body is engulfed in flames. Jesse and Diamondback clasp hands, knowing it’s all over, calmly accepting their fate.
Caleb frees Mae of her curse, and the two lovers are united. In Bigelow’s early films, her innocent heroes usually walk away a little wiser and not too much worse for wear. But in her later work she has focussed on characters who are more complex, and the moral issues aren’t so clear cut. From The Weight of Water on, Bigelow’s protagonists aren’t just struggling with their fate, they’re struggling with themselves. There are no more happy endings.