American Independent Gothic: Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

Posted by John Berra on January 03, 2011 in Dr John Berra, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

Greetings to all readers of The Gothic Imagination, I will be your Guest Blogger for January 2011. As much of my previous research has focussed on American independent cinema, these blog entries will provide a travelogue of what I will term American Independent Gothic, thereby examining the manner in which filmmakers operating outside of the Hollywood studio system have filtered elements of the Gothic through their respective regional visions of the United States. This means that each post will focus on a different film that is located in a certain geographical – or even psychological – region, from the dusty highways of the mid-West, to the bustling cities, to the trauma of the fractured mind. In keeping with other instances of the Gothic in national cinemas, some of these films fit relatively neatly into the horror genre, both conforming to and subverting traditional textual and inter-textual elements. However, others are less easy to define and serve to emphasise the existence of the Gothic in the everyday through an observational approach towards character and environment that is characteristic of independently produced American cinema.

This short but sinister tour of American Independent Gothic begins with Kathryn Bigelow’s mid-West located Near Dark, which is very much a horror film, although it shares social concerns with less genre-based independent pictures of the time period. Near Dark was developed independently during the vampire cycle of the mid-to-late-1980s, a resurgence of the genre that was as sudden as it was short-lived; such studio productions as Fright Night (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987) easily achieved commercial dominance over independently financed offerings like Vamp (1986) and Vampire’s Kiss (1988), but the popular phenomenon of Twilight (2008) was two decades away and even these big-budget entries fell short of blockbuster status. Near Dark stands out from the pack due to the manner in which it is largely faithful to vampire lore, while disregarding as many conventions as it accepts, managing to merge the horror film with the western in a shrewd piece of genre-splicing that seems entirely natural under Bigelow’s stylish direction. While it has not exactly launched a fully-fledged sub-genre, Near Dark has certainly had its imitators – most notably Anthony Hickox’s barely-released Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990) and Robert Rodriguez’s splatter-happy From Dusk ‘til Dawn (1996) – but these subsequent films have emphasised the disparity of their elements rather than marshalling them into a tonally consistent whole. The sparse arrangement of the Gothic elements of Near Dark are in-keeping with the mid-West landscape in which the action takes place; long, empty stretches of desert road, anonymous highways, deserted bus depots, low-rent motel rooms and grimly industrial railroad yards  not only make ideal hunting grounds and hiding places for a band of blood-thirsty ‘outlaws’ but also ground the supernatural within the context of the daily grind of addiction, regardless of whether the sun is setting or rising.
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As with most tales of vampirism, Near Dark revolves around an innocent who is led astray due to sexual desire. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young man living in a small Oklahoma town which offers little do beyond driving around and drinking beer. While joking with two friends, Caleb spots Mae (Jenny Wright), an attractive young drifter, and tries to romance her. Although she enjoys Caleb’s company, Mae becomes concerned that she will not make it home before sunrise, and runs off after biting her Caleb on the neck. When his truck stalls, Caleb starts to walk home, only for his flesh to begin to burn in the morning sun; just as he reaches the family farm, a motor home appears and Caleb is abducted. It becomes apparent that Mae is one of a ‘family’ of vampires, and that her bite has ‘turned’ Caleb, forcing him to adjust to a nocturnal lifestyle. The head of the group is Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), a veteran of the Civil War who reluctantly allows Caleb one week in which make a kill and prove himself worthy of traveling with his band of blood-fuelled outlaws. The rest of the group is comprised of Jessie’s loyal companion Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the trigger-happy Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller), who was turned when he was just child. As the kind-hearted country boy struggles to win their trust due to his reluctance to feed on humans, his father (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister (Marcie Leeds) travel the state trying to find him; although they eventually succeed in taking him home, Jesse and his crew are not able to forgive Caleb’s betrayal and retrace their tracks, leading to a showdown on main street that takes place in the light of the moon rather than under the sunny glare of high noon.

Most retrospective pieces about Near Dark make almost obligatory mention of the fact this independent feature died a swift death at the box office – grossing $3.5 million against a $5 million budget – while the Warner Brothers production The Lost Boys comparatively cleaned up with a gross of $32 million; Near Dark is regarded as the more serious ‘vampire film’ of the two, advertising its unique brand of Western-Gothic with the tagline ‘Pray for sunlight’, while The Lost Boys was more comic in tone with a poster that stated, ‘Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.’ However, both are still products of the same social-political climate. In their 2004 text, The Gothic, Punter and Byron argue that, ‘Such popular vampire films as The Lost Boys and Near Dark, for example, in spite of offering the attractions of a more anarchic world, are ultimately completely complicit with the Reaganite values of the era in which they were produced. Demonic vampire communities function as a metaphor for the contemporary dysfunctional family and are set against, and vanquished by, the good human families.’ Jesse in Near Dark is a classic family patriarch, while Diamondback behaves in a motherly manner, with Severen and Homer fulfilling the familial roles of older and younger offspring. Severen seems happy to be a free agent, but the others obviously yearn for companionship, hence Jesse and Diamondback’s union and Mae’s attraction to Caleb; the addition of Caleb to the ‘family’ infuriates Homer who is jealous of Mae’s burgeoning relationship, leading the ‘grandfather’ in a child’s body to develop a fixation on ‘turning’ Caleb’s younger sister so that he can also have a ‘life’ partner. This set of relations is obviously incestuous, with Jesse’s gang being banded together out of necessity and only spending short periods apart when splitting up to search for food. Caleb’s family is cast in a much healthier light; his father is practical and resourceful, not easily rattled by strange circumstances, but sensitive to the needs of his children and accepting of their mistakes, while his sister seems older than her years, perhaps because of the absence of a maternal figure at the Colton ranch.

ND1Such characterisation is conveyed in a minimalist manner. When asked by Caleb how old he is, Jesse simply replies, ‘I fought for the South. We lost’, while Severen asks Jesse if he recalls a fire that they had started in Chicago while torching a motor home, referring to the great blaze of 1871. This minimalism is extended to Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red’s appropriation of the Gothic, with the term ‘vampire’ never being uttered at any point in the film and such staples as bats, crucifixes, holy water and stakes through the heart also avoided in favour of the threat of the sunlight which is applied with car crash severity rather than any dark romanticism. Although this pared-down approach to vampire lore reaches its visceral peak with the gruesome group feeding frenzy in a roadhouse bar, it is more strikingly realised in the Caleb and Mae romance, a potentially fatalistic attraction between two screen archetypes; Caleb is James Dean via Marlboro County, a straight-forward modern cowboy who lassoes his potential love interest and ropes her in for a kiss, while Mae is mid-Eighties junkie chic with her pale complexion and elegantly wasted observations like, ‘Listen to the night, it’s deafening.’ It’s the kind of budding mid-west romance that would not be out of place in a Terrence Malick movie, but Bigelow is operating in genre territory and mixes young love with dilapidated decadence; the scene in which a starving Caleb feeds on Mae’s blood by dirty railway tracks is at once seductive and squalid, an atmospheric image of addiction accompanied by a typically exotic Tangerine Dream score that starts with a kiss and ends with a needle in the arm, or teeth in the neck. ‘What are you on?’ asks the police detective who takes Caleb aside at a bus station. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you’, replies the newly addicted young man. The police detective provides Caleb with the extra three dollars he needs for a bus ticket, but as with most people with bad habits, he finds he is unable to go home and – at least partially – surrenders to his plight.
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In terms of its appropriation of the Gothic to the landscape of the American mid-West, Near Dark is notable for the manner in which it makes the supernatural largely ordinary, finding the drudgery in fantasy and a sense of repetition in acts which are initially exhilarating but ultimately merely a necessary means for physical survival. Bigelow and Red provide Jesse and his gang with sufficient background shading that there is a sense of tragedy from seeing beings that have witnessed so many major events in American history reduced to traveling around a region that consists of culturally bereft towns; they are reduced to the lowest level of living in terms of accommodation (motels), transportation (common motor homes and station wagons) and food supply (the hard-drinking hillbillies that they dine on in the aforementioned bar scene). In this respect, Near Dark anticipates Gus Van Sant’s junkie odyssey Drugstore Cowboy (1989) in realistically presenting the existence of addicts on the road. Both Jesse’s gang and the chemically dependent crew of Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) in the later film are limited by the amount of road they can cover before they need their next fix and are forced to hole-up in cheap motels between scores. As such, the vampirism of Jesse’s gang has a geographic pattern; when checking into a motel, Jesse tells the clerk, ‘I get through here about once every fifty years. Make me a reservation.’ While many representations of the Gothic in American independent cinema are subterranean, often taking the form of social environments, the Gothic in Near Dark takes place above ground with vampires hiding in plain sight in a mid-West where everyone is just passing through with nothing to aspire to.

Next stop on the American Independent Gothic tour: New York City

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