In filming “Near Dark”, Kathryn Bigelow creates a masterpiece of counter-cinematic art. Counter-cinema in its simplest definition is cinema that through its own cinematic practices, questions and subverts existing cinematic codes and conventions. Counter-cinema usually lies in independent film-making, but sometimes may arise into some semi-mainstream Hollywood films. The later works of Bigelow are much more mainstream, but her use of genre, gender and narrative in her counter-cinematic works (“Near Dark” and “The Loveless”) are identifiable in the more mainstream “Blue Steel” and even “Point Break” and “Strange Days”.
Counter-cinema often attempts to combine genres of film that would, on the surface seem to not go together. In “Near Dark” Bigelow cleverly combines the seemingly unrelated ‘vampire’ sub-genre and the ‘western’ genre. The fact is, these two genres are not as unrelated as we might expect. Both are embodied by a certain mysticism. The tradition of the cowboy as a mythic hero dates back to the western dime novels from the 1860’s. The early days of western cinema were based to a large degree on these novels. Vampires are also seen as mythical beings. The first truly great vampire film was “Nosferatu” of 1922, but the whole mythical ideal of the vampire goes back even further. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was published much before this date. The curious thing about “Near Dark” is that even though the ‘western’ genre and the ‘vampire’ genre have a mythical semblance to them, this film is the most realistic and human vampire film that I have seen. I suspect that this is because the film focuses on both worlds; that of nature which nurtures the farm which Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) comes from, and that of the tight knit family of vampires that Mae (Jenny Wright) comes from. Also, counter to many other works of vampire cinema, nowhere in “Near Dark” is the word ‘vampire’ stated. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term ‘vampire’ in this review. Both worlds seem to offer something that the other wants, though humanity (not being human) seems to be the ultimate goal.
As the film begins, we meet Caleb who appears to be a drifter, sporting ragged western clothing and a cowboy hat. While standing outside a convenience store with his friends, he sees Mae walk out for a breath of air with her ice cream cone. He immediately is stunned by her overwhelming beauty so he goes and begins to talk to her. While taking an evening drive together, Caleb tells Mae that he has never met any other girls like her. “No, you haven’t met any girls like me, she replies”. She says that he has never met any other girls like her because when the light from a star hits earth a billion years later, she will still be here. Caleb is intrigued with Mae’s mysticism, whereas many men would instantly be turned off by the oddness of her presence. But Caleb’s character seems to have restless energy and dogged individualism, just as the traditional cowboy always does in film. He is not the type who would care.
It goes without saying that Caleb gets bit by Mae and is no longer a human being, at least in terms of the usual definition. In one of the film’s most effective scenes Caleb stumbles across an open field in a desperate attempt to get home, just after he has been bitten. His body is beginning to burn in the open sunlight, but he does not know what has happened to him at this point. Sunlight plays an important role in “Near Dark”, as it clearly contrasts the world of the vampires, and Caleb’s world of the farm. The light which nurtures the farm and the fields that Caleb is crossing, is now the biggest threat to his survival. He has crossed over into a world, a world completely incompatible with his previous world. The vast, open fields again symbolize the western genre. Two key typologies to this genre are the open range and civilization. I personally was raised on a ranch, and I find it interesting how people like my parents refer to the ranching lifestyle as civilization. But the large and open landscapes of Oklahoma do not only represent the nurturing world of the farm; it is also a representation of loneliness and isolation on the part of vampires. The vampires in the film, are in a world where they are isolated by their confinement to the night and the need to feed upon human beings’ blood to survive. In this sense, the landscape, which Caleb is crossing is a representation of both his previous life and his new life. Just before he makes it home, a large RV containing the family of vampires races towards him and picks him up. As he is pulled into the side door, Caleb loses his cowboy hat and hence loses a powerful connection to his previous identity.
What follows in the film are continual contrasts between both worlds, the one whose people live at night, and the other whose people live during the day. The only bridge or connection between the two is during the sunsets and the sunrises. There are numerous beautiful scenes where Caleb walks across the frame with a sunset in the background. Theoretically, this is the only place where the two worlds can co-exist. One may also see this motif as a bridge where the two genres of the vampire film and the western meet. The vampire can still survive in the dim light produced by a sunset or a sunrise, and at the same time the image of a sunset is a key visual in the western film.
“Near Dark” is not only about differences; Bigelow draws upon the family unit as an essential similarity between the vampires and the humans. There are strong parallels drawn between Caleb’s family and Mae’s family. Both are headed by distinctive male figures, Caleb’s father and Jesse (Lance Henriksen). Both men maintain a tight bond within their separate families. Even though Jesse is not a father, he is a definite leader who acts as father-figure. He looks out for his own, just as Caleb’s father is looking out for Caleb and his younger sister. Families, to the majority of people are a uniquely human unit. In depicting families in both worlds, we learn that humanity not only exists within the standard perception of the human unit. We must remember that each one of these vampires was at one point a human being. The film seems to be implying that even in the most extreme of transitions (from human to vampire), one cannot completely leave behind the rites that you previously cherished so deeply. Homer (Joshua John Miller), one of the vampires who was ‘turned’ while still a child, is the most blatant depiction of this notion. He appears to be quite disenchanted with his current lifestyle. He is always angry and cynical until he meets Caleb’s sister. Homer seems to fall for her in much the same fashion that Caleb fell for Mae. Again, another parallel with humanity.
Interestingly, in “Near Dark”, there is a way in which a vampire can make the transition back to a human being. Many people have argued that this process in not explained well enough. My only answer is that these people should watch the film again a few times, and they may arrive at some possible answers. The way I view the film, the process of converting the vampire to a human relates back to the whole notion of nature and nurturing that is so apparent in the rest of the film.