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It’s Kill or Be Killed in the Vampire-Western ‘Near Dark’

Kathryn Bigelow’s genre-bending horror flick asks the question: What if you’re fated to kill, but you’d never hurt a fly?

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today, I’m looking at Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampiric neo-western, currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young man living with his family in small-town Oklahoma. Late one night, he picks up an attractive drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) who bites him on the neck. As daylight begins to break, Caleb begins to feel sick and literally burns up before he is stolen away into a tinfoil-covered RV by the roaming band of ruthless vampires Mae is part of. While his father and sister begin to search for him, Caleb has to decide whether he’ll be able to kill with the rest of the gang or keep his innocence and end up food for everyone else.

Kathryn Bigelow wanted to make a western, but when she and writer Eric Red had trouble finding backing for it, she decided to mix it with another more financially viable genre: vampires. Vampire movies had already been on-trend for most of the 1980s, solidified by hits like Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Thus, Bigelow’s genre-bending horror classic was born. 

Most of Near Dark’s blood-sucking marauders were borrowed from Aliens, the sci-fi epic directed by James Cameron (aka Bigelow’s eventual husband). Lance Henriksen plays Jesse Hooker, the gang’s vicious leader who “fought for the South” in the Civil War, Jenette Goldstein is Diamondback, the group’s terrifying mother figure, and, most iconically, Bill Paxton plays the sexy, sadistic, leather-clad psychopath Severen. An eternally child-like vampire named Homer fills out the creepy cast of killers. With the exception of Mae, who serves as Caleb’s love interest, the gang oozes menace, constantly threatening to murder him unless he learns to kill.

Violent drifters seducing an innocent (or at least a supposed one) to their sinful way of life is a recurring theme in Bigelow’s early work, first seen in her retro biker hangout debut The Loveless and again in her homoerotic surfing bank-robber flick, Point Break. As with most vampire movies, the transformation feels intensely sexual, with Caleb nursing on Mae’s wrist, desperate to sate his thirst without committing harm.

But in the end, it feels as if vampirism isn’t even about feeding on blood for Jesse’s clan, just a means of power through which these psychopaths can inflict violence and cause mayhem. This all culminates in the film’s most memorable scene, as they viciously slaughter the patrons and proprietor of a bar one-by-one. 

Near Dark is a sexy power fantasy full of blood, guts and terror. As Severen says, “It’s finger-lickin’ good!”

To see a list of each of the previous entries, check out the A Very Chingy Halloween list on Letterboxd.