‘Near Dark’ Is the Acid-Soaked Vampire Western You Need to See


The Big Picture

  • Near Dark
    subverts vampire lore, portraying vampires as rural nomads and working-class outcasts rather than traditional blood-sucking fiends.
  • The film introduces ethical dilemmas within the vampire community, exploring the possibility of agency and morality in their blood-thirsty urges.
  • Near Dark
    embraces a post-punk aesthetic, dressing the central vampires in leather, flannel, and ripped jeans, while also highlighting the disillusionment of small-town America and the destructive nature of corporate exploitation.

Much like the central monsters throughout the film, director Kathryn Bigelow’s acid-soaked vampire Western Near Dark seems to be hiding in plain sight, waiting for horror fans to feast upon the 1987 cult classic. Although the film has developed a cult following in the decades since its release in a manner similar to Bigelow’s action masterpiece Point Break and hard-to-find sci-fi fable Strange Days, Near Dark remains one of the most haunting and hallucinogenic films in the vampire subgenre. Rather than portraying the central monsters as devilishly proper Transylvanians with capes and fangs, Bigelow renders the vampire as a rural nomadic figure more akin to one of Immortan Joe’s road warrior minions in Mad Max: Fury Road than a traditional blood-sucking fiend. Through Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red’s singular conception of the vampires as undead Southern Gothic punks, Near Dark both humanizes the monstrous by making the vampiric plight more grounded in a lived-in reality and renders normative humanness as a destructive force through the film’s depiction of small-town life.

Near Dark

A small-town farmer’s son reluctantly joins a traveling group of vampires after he is bitten by a beautiful drifter.

Release Date
October 2, 1987

94 minutes

Main Genre

‘Near Dark’ Subverts Vampire Lore in Fascinating Ways

Bill Paxton as a vampire in Near Dark
Image via De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Rather than drawing out the suspense of a victim succumbing to a vampire’s bite in the manner of traditional monster movies, Near Dark boldly opens with the protagonist Caleb Colton transforming into a vampire after being seduced and bitten by Jenny Wright’s Mae. Immediately following the bite, the rising sun begins to burn his flesh as he flees from the vampires for safety in the midst of his transformation; nevertheless, the vampires chase down Caleb in their camper to bring him into their fold and save him from the sun. In the span of less than 10 minutes of screen time, Bigelow succinctly establishes the subversive vampiric lore that will characterize the film’s tight narrative. Rather than depicting the central vampires as wealthy aristocrats like Dracula or grotesque isolated figures like Nosferatu, Near Dark renders the vampire as a working-class community of outcasts on the fringes of normative society. By upending the traditional classist notions of this particular type of monster, Bigelow imbues the vampire with the textures of sociopolitical critique that would rise to the forefront in her later works like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, commenting on the growing class divide in the midst of the Reagan era through her centralization of blue-collar characters.

In addition to the subversive sociocultural themes that pervade Near Dark’s depiction of vampires, Bigelow also introduces ethical dilemmas within the vampire community when Caleb refuses to feast on victims for his own survival. While the history of vampire stories in literature and film formulates the figure as a ravenous consumer of blood, Near Dark poses the possibility that vampires may exercise agency over their blood-thirsty urges, establishing a system of morality within the vampire community. Through this introduction of ethics, Bigelow allows the film to illustrate a spectrum of vampires based upon their behavioral patterns, engaging the audience’s emotional responses to the characters on the principles of narrative empathy or moral decay. Perhaps the most oppositional figures in the film in terms of ethical boundaries are Mae, who is the most deeply human and complexly empathetic character in the film, and Severen, an unhinged villainous vampire brilliantly portrayed by Bill Paxton. Although Mae delivers the initial bite that transforms Caleb at the beginning of the film, she almost immediately takes on the role of protecting Caleb from continued harm at the hands of the other vampires. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Mae even allows Caleb to consume blood from her wrist to allow him to maintain his convictions against murder, granting life in the place of death as a direct “blood donor” in the process. On the other hand, Severen spends the majority of the film openly plotting against Caleb and threatening anyone who stands in the way of the band of vampires. From intimidating and eventually killing bar patrons to attempting to murder Caleb and his family, Severen acts as an agent of annihilative chaos, serving as the unpredictable henchman and furious force of violence for the group. Without spoiling the film’s revisionist conclusion, Bigelow manages to find worthy conclusions for each individual in the vampiric gang in accordance with their moral compasses.


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‘Near Dark’ Gives Its Vampires a Gnarly Post-Punk Aesthetic

Lance Henriksen in Near Dark
Image via De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Beyond the nuanced conception of the vampire, Near Dark extends its alternative take on the monster in terms of dressing the central figures. Rather than rendering the vampires as traditional Gothic creatures cooped up in castles, Bigelow and her costume designers Joseph Porro and Leslie Weir allow the vampires to embody a post-punk aesthetic, full of leather and old flannels and ripped jeans. Although this post-punk zombie vibe is prevalent in other revisionist monster films, including the acclaimed vampire film The Lost Boys from the same year, Near Dark transcends its contemporaries in terms of textured realism, as each character expresses traits of their pre-vampiric selves within their costuming. For example, Lance Henriksen’s vampire gang leader Jesse Hooker wears a long leather overcoat with a distressed grey ensemble underneath, evoking the Civil War-era in which he was transformed. Even as his ensemble has been updated with modern accessories like contemporary work boots and a muddy Henley work shirt, Jesse projects the prowess of a classic cowboy fading across time in manner similar to his Oklahoma surroundings.

Perhaps the most memorable revision that Bigelow and her crew make concerning the vampire subgenre is setting the film in a purgatorial small town in Oklahoma, which oozes with an atmosphere of communal dread and particularly American disillusionment. By placing pivotal sequences at rural dive bars full of working-class customers and landlocked oil rigs surrounded by transport trucks, Near Dark paints the mundane lives of the townspeople as a life-draining experience of corporate vampirism, as oil companies exploit their local resources for capitalistic gain. Through the subtle signifiers of the wide plains of Oklahoma being used for industry profits at the expense of the local workers, Bigelow reveals that the true villainy lies in humankind’s destruction of nature through corporate exploitation, subverting the tropes of vampire cinema in conjunction with the signifiers of the American Western. While it is essential to acknowledge the violence that many of the film’s vampires subject onto the citizens of the unnamed small town, it is also important to note how many of the vampires are either products of the same oppressive system or propagators of the villainous practices of humanity critiqued throughout the film.

While more could be said about the synth-driven soundscape created by the legendary electronic band Tangerine Dream as well as the hope-tinged climax and conclusion, Near Dark deserves to be seen with fresh eyes, as the film remain as narratively inventive and thematically rich as it was upon its release. Even after more than three decades, Near Dark remains one of Bigelow’s greatest achievements and the best vampire film you may have never seen.

Near Dark is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel in the U.S.

Watch It On Criterion


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