This is my second-favorite vampire movie of all time, right behind Dracula*. It tends to be a wee bit polarizing -- those who like their vampire sagas replete with a hefty dose of mythology and simple black-and-white morality are going to be disappointed, as are those who want a complete explanation and set of answers about the bad guys -- but I'll watch this a hundred times before I have to sit through the forays into the genre made by John Carpenter or Francis Ford Coppola** again.
We start off in the late '80s, in Oklahoma. Farm boy Caleb heads down to town one night and sees a hottie walking out of the local store. Naturally, since he's a stud (and played by the future Nathan Petrelli, Adrian Pasdar), he puts the moves on her, and she's more than willing to accept a ride from him. Caleb and Mae drive around, visiting all the local sites, which includes, well, a horse (this is Oklahoma, after all). The horse is scared of Mae, thus giving us our first clue that something's not quite right about her. When she realizes just how late it's gotten, she asks him to drive her home, but he insists on claiming a kiss from her before doing so.
Warning: do not taunt Hottie Fun Vampire.
Mae gives in to that kiss (and it's actually a hell of a kiss, for someone in a rush to get home before burning up), and then bites Caleb on the neck. While he's feeling confused, she runs the last mile home. Caleb attempts to follow, but starts feeling sick, so he tries running back to his farm. As he gets close to the farm (and his father and little sister Sarah see him starting to trail smoke as the sun comes up), an RV with blackened windows drives up, and someone grabs Caleb into the RV just a hundred feet or so from his home.
We now get to meet Jesse Hunter and his crew. They'll be awfully familiar to fans of Aliens, as Jesse himself -- a scarred, tough-talking guy -- is played by the always fun Lance "Bishop" Henriksen. His main squeeze, the equally tough-as-nails Diamondback, is played by Jenette "Vasquez" Goldstein. And utter psychopath and redneck Severen is played by Bill "Hudson" Paxton, in one of his defining roles. The final member of the vampire "family" is the creepy "kid" Homer, played by Joshua John Miller (Jason Patric's little brother -- what is it about that family and '80s vampire movies?).
Most of Jesse's clan wants to kill Caleb then and there (and frankly, after the "I'll take you home if you kiss me" bit, so do I). But Mae, being possibly a little touched, seems to have fallen for him, and tells them that since she hasn't drunk his blood, just bitten him, she's turned him. Jesse is frustrated, but agrees to give Caleb a chance. He does not actually say, "Good night, Caleb. Sleep well. I'll probably kill you in the evening." But you know he's thinking it.
During the next day (and pretty much during every daylight interlude thereafter), Caleb's pa (who, aside from being a farmer, also has some veterinary skills) and his sister go searching for Caleb, showing his photo around, and doing a much better job than the local cops, who don't consider kidnapping a particularly big offense.
That night, Caleb, still feeling sick, tells Mae that he needs to go home, and she lets him try. He can't afford a bus ticket, and his "illness" makes him unable to hold down the Clark bar he buys from a vending machine***. A cop sees him and assumes that he's strung out on drugs, so he helps him catch a bus. Alas, Caleb gets too sick, and has to get off the bus and head back to Mae, who lets him feed off of her to gain strength. He's finally starting to realize what he's becoming, but he still doesn't like the idea of killing.
The next night, Caleb tries calling home, but his dad and Sarah have gone on the road searching for him, and this was filmed before cell phones became a handy plot device. Mae explains that the clan has to hunt, and as she talks, we see the hunters in action. Homer pretends to be a victim of a hit-and-run accident, killing his rescuer; Severen lets himself get picked up hitchhiking by two party girls (one of whom is played by Theresa Randle); and Diamondback and Jesse let themselves get carjacked, giving themselves nice easy access to two victims.
Mae and Caleb catch a ride with a nice trucker who tells Caleb all sorts of information about driving a truck (including the fact that if you mess up the brakes, the rear of the truck can crash into the cab). He's too nice a guy for Caleb to kill, and Caleb eventually has him pull over so he can throw up. While Caleb is being sick, Mae drains the driver, and Caleb feeds off of her. Severen is ready to kill Caleb for not showing he's got what it takes, but Mae begs for one more chance for her lover.
That next night is the highlight of the movie, and describing it won't even begin to capture the feel of the scene. Our group of vamps walks into a bar that Severen dismisses as "shitkicker heaven," and stirs up trouble. Severen starts a fight with a local (and drags Caleb into it), and Jesse and Diamondback put the moves on the waitress before slashing her throat. As Jesse bars the door, Severen snaps the neck of a biker and feeds on him ("I hate it when they ain't been shaved!"). The bartender, by this point, has loaded his shotgun, and he blows a hole in Caleb, to no avail. Severen hops on the bar and shows the bartender exactly what spurs are for. Homer shoots the guy Caleb had fought earlier, and the last guy, finally, makes a run through the window.
The vamps tell Caleb to go after him while they torch the bar and hide the evidence, but after Caleb catches up to him, his potential victim reminds him too much of himself, and he lets him go. As it's getting near dawn, the vamps decide to hole up in a motel instead of chasing him. They promise to deal with Caleb the next night.
However, our victim has gone to the cops, and they're able to track down the clan at the motel during daylight. In a gunfight that Robert Rodriguez swiped more than a few From Dusk 'Till Dawn visuals from, we see the room get shot up, and beams of sunlight nearly kill much of the clan. Caleb grabs a blanket and makes a run for the truck, and although he's on fire by the time he gets there, he's able to rescue the rest of the vamps, and the clan decides that this is enough to get him back in their good graces (Severen even gives him one of his spurs! It's like Mean Joe Green throwing his jersey to that kid!). They make it to yet another motel in safety.
But this motel is also the one that Caleb's dad and sister are staying at. In fact, while Caleb and Mae take a romantic walk near dawn, Homer spots Sarah at a Coke machine and convinces her to go back to his room to watch TV. Jesse and Diamondback realize that the littlle girl has to have a parent around, so they send Severen to retrieve him. Caleb gets back only seconds before Severen and Caleb's pa return, and all hell breaks loose, as Caleb pleas for their lives, everyone spends lots of time yelling, and eventually Caleb's dad puts a bullet in Jesse (to no avail). In the chaos, they lose track of time, and as it's now past dawn, the humans are able to escape, and Caleb manages to go with them, hiding from the sun in the covered pick-up truck.
Pa puts his veterinary skills to good use, and cures Caleb with a blood transfusion. Yeah, it's arguably weak science, but given how little we're told of the mythology in this film (other than sunlight, almost no other aspects of it appear), we'll let it ride.
That night, however, Mae goes back to the farm, and is shocked when she realizes that Caleb's human again. Even as she runs away, Caleb goes inside to discover that the vamps kidnapped Sarah! His tires have been slashed, but he hops on his horse to follow.
The first vamp he meets is Severen, who beats the crap out of him for a while until Caleb can flag down a passing fuel truck. Severen shoots the driver, but Caleb, applying the knowledge he got from Mae's victim the other night, drives the truck into Severen. The vamp's far from dead, however, and he climbs onto the engine and starts ripping out pieces of it. Fortunately, Caleb, also remembered how to screw up the breaks to jackknife the truck, and as he leaps and rolls from the vehicle, we see the truck explode, frying Severen.
The remaining vamps confront Caleb, and are about to kill him when Sarah escapes from Homer and Mae prevents Jesse from shooting the siblings. A chase ensues as the pre-dawn light hits the sky, and Sarah is recaptured. But it's getting too late for the vamps, and as dawn breaks, Mae grabs Sarah and leaps from the car. Homer chases them, with all the vamps starting to burn up in the sunlight. Caleb tosses a jacket over Mae even as Homer explodes from the heat. Jesse and Diamondback realize that their car isn't protected enough from the sunlight, so the doomed lovers grab hands and do their damnedest to chase down Caleb, Mae, and Sarah before exploding, but they burn up before they can make it.
We cut to the barn, where Mae wakes up with a start, realizing that she's in daylight, and okay. She and Caleb kiss, and we cut to end credits.
Near Dark has almost everything I want in a vampire movie, starting with a willingness to ignore the mythology itself. In fact, we never hear the word "vampire" or even see fangs****. Other than increased strength and resilience, we don't see any powers being used at all, and no mention is made of religious symbols or any of the other post-Dracula stuff. Why do they exist? We have no idea, and that's how it should be.
The entire cast here is wonderful, but two folks, in particular, stand out. Bill Paxton plays one of the best psychopaths I can recall on the big screen, lighting up the screen with every line he utters. Severen is the polar opposite of his Hudson character from Aliens, but these two late-'80s characters helped define Paxton as a go-to character actor. His performance, however, isn't a tenth as creepy as Joshua John Miller's take on Homer. He brings a mixture of loneliness and creepiness to the role of someone turned to a vamp as a child that's as disturbing as anything in this movie.
Director Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most under-appreciated directors of her generation, and she wisely knows that letting the characters define themselves by their actions is infinitely better than boring us with exposition and backstory. We get a mood of true menace and violence throughout this movie, and the pacing is perfect. Like many '80s films, Near Dark is cursed with a hopelessly dated Tangerine Dream score*****, but we get appropriate songs (including The Cramps' cover of "Fever" during the Shitkicker Heaven scene) to set the mood throughout the movie as well. F/X are minimal -- a few packets of blood, some burning flesh -- but this is a movie about a mood, not about gore. Bigelow has created a masterpiece, and it's one that any vampire fan should own.
*Although there have been many films named Dracula, always assume that I mean the film directed by Tod Browning when I refer to that title.
**I'm referring, of course, to Captain Eo. But his Dracula stinks, too.
***Which makes me a vampire, I guess. Can't stand frickin' Clark bars.
****We also never get any scenes that are actually set near dark. Everything takes place at night or shortly after dawn.
*****Yes, I know some of you like them. And they're fine for a movie like, say, Legend. But films like Near Dark and Thief, amongst others, would benefit greatly from a new score.