One night, Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a young man in a small town, meets an attractive young drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright). Just before sunrise, she bites him on the neck and runs off. The rising sun causes Caleb’s flesh to smoke and burn. Mae arrives with a group of roaming vampires in an RV and takes him away. The most psychotic of the vampires, Severen (Bill Paxton), wants to kill Caleb but Mae reveals that she has already turned him. Their charismatic leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) reluctantly agrees to allow Caleb to remain with them for a week, to see if he can learn to hunt and gain the group’s trust. Caleb is unwilling to kill to feed, which alienates him from the others. To protect him, Mae kills for him and then has him drink from her wrist.
Jesse’s group enters a bar and kills the occupants. They set the bar on fire and flee the scene. After Caleb endangers himself to help them escape their motel room during a daylight police raid, Jesse and the others are temporarily mollified, with Caleb asking Jesse how old he was and told he “fought for the South”, making him about 150 years old (Severen later suggests he and Jesse started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). Caleb’s father (Tim Thomerson) searches for Jesse’s group. A child vampire in the group, Homer (Joshua John Miller) meets Caleb’s sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) and wants to turn her into his companion, but Caleb objects. While the group argues, Caleb’s father arrives and holds them at gunpoint, demanding that Sarah be released. Jesse taunts him into shooting but regurgitates the bullet before wrestling the gun away. In the confusion, Sarah opens a door, letting in the sunlight and forcing the vampires back. Burning, Caleb escapes with his family.
Caleb suggests they try giving him a blood transfusion to attempt to cure him. The transfusion successfully reverses Caleb’s transformation. That night, the vampires search for Caleb and Sarah. Mae distracts Caleb by trying to persuade him to return to her while the others kidnap his sister. Caleb discovers the kidnapping and his tires slashed but gives chase on horseback. When the horse shies and throws him, he is confronted by Severen. Caleb commandeers a tractor-trailer and runs Severen over. The injured vampire suddenly appears on the hood of the truck and manages to rip apart the wiring in the engine. Caleb jackknifes the vehicle and jumps out as the truck explodes, killing Severen. Seeking revenge, Jesse and his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) pursue him but are forced to flee in their car as dawn breaks.
Not wanting Sarah to become another childlike monster, Mae breaks out of the back of the car with Sarah. Mae’s flesh begins to smoke as she is burned by the sun but she carries Sarah into Caleb’s arms, taking refuge under his jacket. Homer attempts to follow, but as he runs he dies from exposure to the sun. Jesse and Diamondback, their sunproofing ruined, also begin to burn. They attempt to run Caleb and Sarah over but fail, dying as the car blows up. Mae awakens later, her burns now healed. She too has been given a transfusion and is cured. She and Caleb comfort each other in a reassuring hug as the film ends.
The script was co-written by 35-year-old Kathryn Bigelow with Eric Red, who had penned the grim cult thriller The Hitcher (1986) the year before. Near Dark was independently produced on a lean $6 million budget with Bigelow, a former painter and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate Film School, attached to direct her first solo feature. When casting the film, Bigelow’s friend James Cameron (they were later married from 1989 to 1991) suggested she use the ensemble of actors he had assembled for his recently completed science fiction/action sequel Aliens (1986); actors Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein had all appeared in the film. Originally conceived as a Western, they moved it into modern times and incorporated the vampire motif to better place it into the more viable horror market. What they created was a hybrid film that is as much a tone poem to the darkness and beauty of the American Mid- and Southwest as it is a peek into familial dynamics.
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Kathryn Bigelow (Director)
The production notes for the film describe it as a “romantic thriller”, and the film itself avoids the use of the word “vampire”. Were you afraid, perhaps of failing to fulfill the expectations of a hard-core horror audience?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well, the “romantic” part is obvious because at the heart of the film is a love story, rather than a device. Also, I feel it functions more as a thriller than as a horror picture, it’s an action picture with a race against time, a race against the odds. I sort of see it as a Vampire Western, a hybrid of genres. I think the horror element of it is fundamental, but I think because it’s less formulaic it also functions on other levels, has other resonances. That’s why I stripped away all the Gothic trappings teeth, bats, Holy Water, transformations, silver bullets etc. in order to blur the genres. What was interesting for us was to re-invent the mythology, to try other avenues that hadn’t been explored.
Also, the film absolutely defies you not to take the characters as real people, there isn’t a degree of fantasy and fiction which suddenly takes over, so they become like characters out of a movie. So while they should seem like people you pass by in the shadows of dark nights, we also wanted to show that they’re just a nocturnal tribe, a nuclear family even, which is trying to sustain itself: they have their camper van with the children’s bicycle strapped on the back, and they have this whole lifestyle worked out for themselves. A problem only arises when Mae meets Caleb, when she is forced to decide whether this boy is a potential victim or a potential mate; that’s the engine for the whole story, because it’s that decision which ultimately places the vampire “family” under threat.
As nocturnal nomads who drift around the sun-parched Mid-West, the pack of vampires is similar in some ways to the wandering bikers in your first film, The Loveless (1981).
Kathryn Bigelow Yes, they’re modern-day outlaws, fringe elements of society which work in a very anarchistic way – they have their own rules and it’s very tribal. I find that idea very appealing.
Given your background in painting, it’s not surprising that some people found the meticulous attention to texture, landscape and the look of the picture in The Loveless a little static. What’s most striking about Near Dark, therefore, is the complete change of pace.
Kathryn Bigelow: The Loveless was meant to be a psychological biker movie – more analytical and intellectual – whereas Near Dark has more of an adrenalized drive and visceral impact to it. There’s a definite rhythm to the way the story unfolds, it was always meant to be a fast-paced picture, a bit of a rollercoaster ride that this kid (Caleb) takes through a nightmare world he could never have imagined. The Loveless didn’t have the narrative concerns of Near Dark, it was more to do with posturing and iconography. I’m very visually oriented, but because of that I put all my emphasis on character and story, because the visuals kind of take care of themselves. And the visuals have got to be subordinate to the narrative. If an image is beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, you just don’t use it – you throw it out in order to push the story forward. I’ve tried to reprioritize my approach along those lines. Nevertheless, I respond to everything in a kind of visual context, so I have to consciously concentrate on the characters and story, and the visuals not so much.
The night scenes in the film have a very distinctive feel to them. It must have been a great help to have Adam Greenberg, who photographed The Terminator, as your cinematographer
Kathryn Bigelow: Yes it was. What I was looking for a night that was very, very seductive, so that at a certain point the audience would want to share Caleb’s ride. I wanted to play on that idea of the night as something which is fascinating, very mysterious and forbidden, and yet at the same time very captivating. So we worked very hard to create velvet blacks and a seductive, haunting nocturnal experience, a night world that you would want to enter. The film works in three acts: with the night at first your enemy, then your friend and then your enemy again.
Each member of the vampire family seems to have come to terms with their “condition” in a different way?
Kathryn Bigelow: Yes, they all have an interesting individual purchase on that. Jessie, who is the oldest (he fought in the Civil War, remember), is wise; he has a vision, an overview of how they fit into society. He’s the only one who sees things in context, and he is resigned to his fate. Severin, on the other hand, is hysterically, manically excited about who and what he is, and every minute of his life is a kind of celebration of what it means to be who he is. Severin is very dangerous and uncontrollable; he makes a ritual out of it and is very playful. Mae, though, is in complete conflict about what she is, and unlike the others she’s never really comes to terms with that sense of necessity, that need to kill in order to stay alive. When we were making the film, we kept trying to think up histories for each of the characters: at what point each of them had been turned, and a lot of other background information. And with Jessie, we kept having this image of a Civil War battlefield at dawn, with fog rolling in, bodies everywhere, writhing and moaning, in a half dead half-alive state, with shadows crossing their faces … and slowly, Jessie rises up.
The relationship between Caleb and Mae seems to be charged with an eroticism which goes beyond mere sexual desire, an ambiguous craving which might be summed up by the phrase “blood lust”.
Kathryn Bigelow: Yes I got that from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. In the scene in which Mae opens up her own wrists so that Caleb can drink her blood, I wanted to emphasize that subliminal undercurrent of eroticism, the idea of “feeding” as a metaphor for the sexual act. But also, in that scene, there’s the idea that it’s a nurturing process, a transferring of life’s essence.
I think maybe people will be surprised by the film’s “happy ending”, though the blood transfusion device is a simple and effective one.
Kathryn Bigelow: It is an unusual ending, because you have a character who cares (Mae), and who is rewarded – normally she would have saved Caleb and then paid the price with her own life. And the transfusion device is lifted straight from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a great piece of writing, in which the victims are drained almost to the point of death, their blood replaced and their innocence reclaimed. That’s what I thought was interesting, the opportunity for Mae to be reclaimed – that she would be able to come back to the land of the living form the world of the un-dead. That was what fascinated me, the idea of an innocence lost, the gaining of a knowledge from which there is, normally, no return. And then the idea of her returning to the world that she thought she had lost, with her knowledge of that other, forbidden world intact.
Jenette Goldstein (Diamondback)
Can you relay any memories about working on the greatest vampire film of all time: Near Dark?
Jenette Goldstein: Kathryn Bigelow was really good friends with James, as this was before they had gotten married. He was able to get her in touch with Bill and Lance and me. He thought it’d be perfect as we already had this bond. But all three of us had separately accepted roles without talking to each other. We had even been going out with each other socially, because it was kind of embarrassing to try and describe the script. “Oh…it’s kind of about these vampires, and it’s sort of a Western, too…it’s really good!” So none of us mentioned it until one day when – and I can’t remember who said it first—but one of us was like “I’m doing this movie called Near Dark” and we couldn’t believe we were all in it together.
“Near Dark” where you able to take the bonds you made with Lance and Bill, working on the previous film, into it?
Jenette Goldstein: Absolutely! that was the brilliance of the casting that Kathryn Bigelow did on Near Dark bringing me, Lance and Bill together again. After the 12 weeks we worked on during Aliens we continued to hang out with each other, so the relationship there – where we became a family, driving each other crazy (she laughs) – fed into this film.
I’ll tell you a secret about Near Dark; everything was on location and it was 8 weeks of night shoots. The only day scene was the Winnebago interior on a sound-stage and it was the last two days of filming – by that point we couldn’t stand each other after being stuck in truck stops.
Josh, the young boy, is banging something – he’s 12 and Bill Paxton goes “just fuckin’ stop doing that or I’ll put it down your goddamn throat!” The scene was perfect to finish shooting on because it was like a normal family road trip.
Steven-Charles Jaffe (Producer)
Near Dark is now a vampire classic. Do you feel that it set a standard for that genre?
Steven-Charles Jaffe: Absolutely. Alan Ball, who created True Blood, actually credited Near Dark with inspiring him. When I read Eric Red and director Kathryn Bigelow’s script, I thought, “Wow, a non-Gothic vampire Western set in modern times—that is really cool.” I think a lot of filmmakers have been inspired by it, or borrowed from it. If we had made Near Dark today, it would have been a different story! It probably would have been a television series.
I can totally see it as a series. It would be great to have the set piece in which the vampires invade the bar as its own episode.
Steven-Charles Jaffe: Oh, that was so much fun. We built that set in the middle of a ranch in Valencia, California. Once it had been constructed, Kathryn and I went out there with the art department and a whole bunch of booze, and I said, “We should smash all these bottles on the floor and the walls, so when the actors walk in here, it will smell like a real bar.” So we had a bottle-breaking frenzy that went on for maybe an hour, and had so much fun doing it. After that, the place really smelled like an actual bar.
Jenny Wright (Mae)
Are you surprised by the affection your fans have for you now?
Jenny Wright: I can’t believe anyone even thinks about me or remembers me. When I was asked to do conventions, I was shocked. I said, “Me? Why me?” I knew Near Dark had a following, but I didn’t know it had anything to do with me. But I’ve watched it since to try to understand what people find so special in it, and I think I get it, I can relate.
What do you think is so special about your work in that film?
Jenny Wright: Mae is incredibly vulnerable, and I can relate to that now; she’s lost and lonely in a world she can’t change, she wants someone she can love and hold and at the end, she sacrifices herself for the greater of the two forces in her life. But she ends up living, of course, and I’ve never had a problem with that ending. I know some people do. I thought that was exactly how it should end. Mae deserved that happy ending, and if she had died, it would have been pointless. There’s that dual thing going on with the movie. There’s little blood, but it has that rough edge; it’s a road movie with this kind of classic love affair going on within it. And I found Kathryn to be a great director of actors. Some people I know who’ve worked with her claim otherwise they think she’s a better visual director but she was so caring for each character that she let us make choices and just run with them. You know, I was so into my own shit when Near Dark came out and the distribution was so poor, I never felt satisfied. But recently, the Directors Guild celebrated her for changing the face of film, and I got to present her with the award. Bill Paxton was there. It made me feel satisfied… it was like my own little Academy Award or something, and it gave me a kind of closure on the film.
Lance Henriksen (Jesse Hooker)
How do you feel that the movie “Near Dark” has become such a cult classic, how was it working on film with then little known director Kathryn Bigelow?
Lance Henriksen: She was a matriarchal equal and she treated us like we were all a bunch of artists working together. She was painter and had that painters eyes, they way she formed shots and what she wanted to see. We had a great DP on that project. The only reason why that movie didn’t get as big of splash as “The Lost Boys” did was because it had a much bigger budget for their ad campaign. Our first ad, and I hate saying it but its the truth, was the size of a business card. But we loved working on that film. She was cool and has always been cool.
That’s one of those cult films where the size of the cult might not be that substantial, but the members of the cult are downright rabid.
Lance Henriksen: Yeah, people liked that movie. You know, being in a cult film… We as actors have nothing to do with it. That’s the audience doing that. But we all loved doing it. The minute we finished that film, I remember Billy and I standing in the middle of the road, and it was literally the very last shot of the movie, and we both had the feeling right away that we should do the prequel right away. Like, we should start it right now. And we would’ve. If they’d said, “Let’s go, let’s do it.” We would’ve gone. But they never did.
Oh, man, that would’ve been great.
Lance Henriksen: Yeah. We had the whole story. Billy and I sat for hours after hours talking about it, about what could be in it and that kind of stuff. It was great.
Eric Red (Story/Script Writer)
Was NEAR DARK your first collaboration with (director) Kathryn Bigelow?
Eric Red: It was actually our second. The first was UNDERTOW and then we wrote this one right after it in a couple of months.
How was that working together on those scripts?
Eric Red: It was fun, it was fast! We’d write 5 pages a day. I’d write 5 and she’d write 5. We’d sit by the typewriter and toss idea back and forth. It was very efficient and a lot of fun. The fun with NEAR DARK was imagining what vampires would be like if they existed. It just automatically led – … the vampire Western aspect was the concept at the beginning. You know, once you’re in the mid-West, the idea of the sun coming up and going down when there’s nowhere to go and no where to hide immediately lent itself. In thinking about vampires, if they were to be in contemporary society, they’d keep a pretty damn low profile because they’re very vulnerable, as well as being very powerful. All that stuff with the American outlaw on the run kind of came out of that.
Tell me about your second feature, Near Dark.
Eric Red: Near Dark was a breakthrough for me. That film gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. First of all, I had a phenomenal cast. And I think I realized for the first time that I could do this, make films. This was a language that fascinated me, compelled me. I was interested in making a Western. And I knew that that was going to be difficult. And so I set about making it as a hybrid, a kind of horror/Western.
Eric Red: Exactly. And so that strategy worked. It’s not really a Western, but it is a Western.
Near Dark presented a unique fusion of genres which hadn’t really been seen before at that time. What are your thoughts on the current representation of the vampire myth in popular culture, and do you think there’s still an opportunity to tell new stories within that world?
Eric Red: The whole approach with Near Dark was to imagine what vampires would be like if they really existed, and that sense of reality and verisimilitude is missing from current vampire films, so there’s no suspension of disbelief. The western elements of that film organically evolved from the approach, but now the cross genre vampire stuff seems generic. For me, the vampire genre is oversaturated, but then the other day I read this terrific historical vampire novel by Jasper Kent called Twelve and couldn’t put it down, so what can I tell you
Joshua John Miller (Homer)
In 1987, you played a sadistic child vampire in Near Dark.
Joshua John Miller: One of my favorite roles. I remember Kathryn Bigelow was both graceful and powerful. She made sure the cast felt like a family, even off camera. She made sure we always ate our meals together, and she took me to Melrose Avenue to pick out my costume.
A kid wearing a William S. Burroughs T-Shirt is so dark and appropriate for your character. Did you have any issues playing a vampire?
Joshua John Miller: Not really. You know, my father played the priest in The Exorcist, so growing up and seeing your father get possessed a lot… it didn’t feel unnatural for me to play a vampire.
Gordon Smith (Special Effects Make Up)
Any stories on your time on Near Dark?
Gordon Smith: Near Dark was probably the only other picture on which my experience was similar to Oliver. Kathryn Bigelow knew Oliver and she wanted the feeling that I was creating on his pictures. I kind of had my own category when I worked at that time. People called me a special make up effects artist, but it was a little more than that. My major job in those days was problem solving for both the camera and the artist. It involved everything from costumes to set dressing. Everything that went in front of the camera, I was the last person to work on in. It’s hard to explain.
Were you almost like a production designer or art director then?
Gordon Smith: Yeah a bit, but a little more hands on. I dealt with dirt. On our first two international pictures we were considered for Academy Awards and we were like, “what are they talking about?” All we did was dirt. In those days, people didn’t do dirt. Everyone was John Wayne. Everyone’s pants were creased and their hair was combed like they were going to do a cover shoot for Sixteen magazine regardless of subject matter. So coming out of the theatre and being naïve, all I was doing was trying to design the movies to look as realistic as possible and doing whatever it took to accomplish that. And my responsibility was figuring out how to accomplish those illusions. Then gradually we became a special effects shop and focused on designing illusions. Near Dark is a perfect example. It was before the computer world and we had to figure out how to make people smoke and burst into flames. Today if I walked into a meeting and said, “I’ll do that live and make that actor who you’re paying $1 million to burst into flames,” they’d probably physically throw me out of the room. Those are things that you just do in post today. But then we actually did it.
What I always admired about the design of Near Dark was how it ditches so many of the traditional vampire tropes. Was that discussed between you and Kathryn Bigelow from the beginning?
Gordon Smith: Well, it was a critical part of the whole point of view and purpose of the film. It was to take all of the disbelief crap away so that the audience could have some honest empathy with the characters. Today they all seem to have a superpower to get them out of every situation. Our vampires were just as vulnerable as we were. We had to create our own parameters of what was dangerous and what wasn’t. How harsh light could be, that sort of thing. We tried to treat them like real people. Having a cast like that was spectacular and ideal because the camera department and the cast and Kathryn we all…you know, when I watch the film now it’s almost anticlimactic. That’s nothing compared to the experience we had shooting the film. Because we were shooting those scenes right there in front of the camera and unfortunately when you shoot it you only get to see it in bits of pieces instead of the whole scenes we got to see play out on the set. Those actors LOVED doing that movie and I loved doing it with them. Like I said, my background is in the theatre and one of the great pleasures that I’ve had in my career is getting to be in the room with so many incredible actors and watching them work. It’s been a great honor. I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the best actors in the world and it’s so rewarding.
“Tangerine Dream did the soundtrack, and I was really pleased with what they came up with. I went to Berlin and spent several weeks there with them, working on the soundtrack, and I just think there was a provocative, haunting, mercurial quality that just permeated everything that they did, and gave it a patina, gave the film a patina that really transformed it.” – Kathryn Bigelow
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Producer: Steven-Charles Jaffe
Screenplay: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Art Direction: Dian Perryman
Music: Tangerine Dream
Adrian Pasdar as Caleb Colton
Jenny Wright as Mae
Lance Henriksen as Jesse Hooker
Bill Paxton as Severen
Jenette Goldstein as Diamondback
Joshua John Miller as Homer
Marcie Leeds as Sarah Colton
Tim Thomerson as Loy Colton
Troy Evans as Plainclothes Police Officer
Roger Aaron Brown as Cajun Truck Driver