I don’t remember putting Near Dark into my Netflix queue, and I’m not sure how it bubbled its way to the top so quickly. That’s one of the problems that comes from having a billion different gadgets with internet connectivity built in and 24-hour internet access; a stray idea can pop into your head at any moment, and months later you have to deal with the repercussions. I predict that when the inevitable future comes and we’re all biogenetically wired into the internet, the reality will be a lot less like a William Gibson novel and more like a bunch of people walking around muttering, “Die Hard with a Vengeance? Again? What was I thinking?”
But the premise was kind of intriguing — contemporary vampire western — and it’s gotten a kind of buzz around it going on around the internet: you’ll frequently hear descriptions like “underrated” and “underappreciated” that make it sound like an overlooked gem of a late 80s genre mash-up. So I went in with my mind wide open. I even tried to trick myself into thinking it wasn’t about vampires, so I could let the movie work its are they or aren’t they? intrigue and I’d meet it halfway in time for the big reveal. But they don’t even let it go for five minutes: the first word out of the female lead’s mouth is “BITE?” as she’s staring wide-eyed at the dude’s jugular.
So the thing to know about Near Dark is this: it’s really not good. Now, I’m not really interested in picking on a 22-year-old movie, so the most compelling thing — okay, that’s a total lie. I’m all about making fun of movies, no matter how old, how low-budgeted, or how failed-to-meet-box-office-expectations they are. But there was something about Near Dark that just offended me, and I haven’t quite put my finger on what it is yet.
Part of it is that it manages to do so little with so much: it didn’t have a very big budget, but it did have three of the stars of Aliens: Lance Henrikson, Jenette Goldstein (nearly unrecognizable as Aliens’ “Vasquez”, who’s just too bad), and Bill Paxton. They’re all the most interesting thing about the movie, but by “most” I mean “only” because everyone else is pretty much a cipher. Paxton takes over any scene he’s in (as well as the poster), as he was prone to do back in the late 80s when he was Supporting Actor King of Hollywood. But the movie’s in kind of an unwinnable situation with those guys: every second the camera is on its boring and actually very stupid main characters, you wish you were watching the supporting cast. And every second the camera is on the supporting cast, you wish you were watching them in a better movie. Like, for instance, Aliens.
Part of it is that it screams “1984,” which is especially unfortunate since it was made in 1987. And I guess it doesn’t “scream” it as much as “drone” it, constantly, beginning from the moment the words “Music by TANGERINE DREAM” show up on screen until the very end of the closing credits, when the movie studio people came in and woke up the band after they’d fallen asleep on their keyboards. I don’t mind movies that feel dated — in fact, I actually like it, but only in two cases: when a movie becomes a “timeless classic” that still has enough traces of its origin to give it character (like Aliens again, or even Fright Night); or when a movie is completely a time capsule of a decade and couldn’t exist in any other time (like The Lost Boys, another 1987 vampire movie).
Which is the third thing that bugged me: Near Dark should have been able to capture that timeless feel, since it purports to be a mash-up of two classic genres: westerns and vampire stories. But it doesn’t get either genre right; the only genre it really captures is the sloppily arrogant action movies of the late 80s. The only real nods to “western” are brief, superficial shots that try to capture the look, and don’t even quite get that right: a silhouette of the lead riding a horse away… from a tanker truck explosion. A bandit killing a guy in a saloon using the spur of his boot… even though he’s a vampire. A vampire revealing that he fought in the Civil War… and delivering the line while in a motel room. Everything in the movie doesn’t suggest “western” as much as “white trash.”
The vampire lore doesn’t fare much better. When done right, a vampire story can tap into something primal, the sense of compelling danger. You know that it’s wrong and evil to get pulled into this world, but there’s something enticing — the immortality, the power, or the sex — that draws you forward. Near Dark makes several clumsy nods to that vague idea, proving that they were aware of the appeal of vampire stories but instead wanted to show a movie about a bunch of dumb rednecks who can’t be killed. (Which might have been interesting if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously).
And when I say “who can’t be killed,” that’s a serious overstatement. Which is the fourth irritating thing about the movie: its sloppy and inconsistent treatment of vampires:
- Hero barely gets scratched on the neck in an aborted make-out session with boring love interest, and he’s immediately turned into full-on, has-to-feed-on-blood, can-survive-shotgun-blasts-to-the-stomach vampire. Everything cool about the slow, horrifying process of turning into a creature of the night: ignored.
- Vampires are the most combustible creatures on the planet. A single ray of sunshine sears a flaming hole right through a vampire’s body. Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes a vampire can run for several minutes and just get singed a little bit; other times he instantly bursts into flames and then, of course, explodes.
- This is particularly troublesome in Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas, where the movie is kind of vaguely set, because the sun there rises so quickly it goes from pre-dawn to noon in about 30 seconds.
- To make matters worse, vampires exist in some weird fourth dimension where the rules of time don’t apply: a vampire boy can spend 15 minutes running about 100 yards after a little girl before bursting into flames and exploding, but two adult vampires take twice as long to cover half that distance while in a speeding car. (In a separate scene, a vampire is leaving Waco on a bus going 50 miles an hour, while another vampire is in a van heading south at 30 miles an hour. How long will it be until the viewer gets bored and turns off the movie?)
- But don’t worry too much about the issues vampires face, since all it takes is a complete blood transfusion to completely cure any case of vampirism, and it only takes an hour or so to do it. Worried about the donor? Don’t be — you can apparently give someone a gallon or two of your blood and walk around immediately afterwards.
Those are just the most egregious cases; the entire movie is just slapped together clumsily and sloppily and doesn’t really make much sense or say much of anything original. The second-dullest member of the vampire gang is a little kid — one of the instantly-recognizable but can’t-quite-place-him child stars of the late 80s — who claims to be an old man in a boy’s body. That’s the coolest (arguably the only cool) aspect of Interview With the Vampire, but in Near Dark they just show the kid smoking, and playing cards, and tricking victims by falling off his bike, and then inexplicably falling desperately in love with a twelve-year-old girl. That pretty much sums up the whole movie: take a concept that could potentially be interesting if handled correctly, and then bury it underneath all the excesses of boilerplate 80s action movies. Don’t write dialogue, make clumsy attempts at catch phrases. Don’t go for tone or mood, but for costumes. And set everything up for the big explosion.
Which makes me finally realize what it is that offends me about Near Dark: it reminds me of Transformers 2. I deliberately haven’t seen that movie and will never see it, because I learned my lesson about “harmless, stupid action movies” from the first one. And just like the first one, there are plenty of people trying to defend it by telling everyone that it’s just supposed to be spectacle, and that critics are “overthinking” it. As if it were some kind of anti-intellectual triumph. (And even worse: all the bloggers and hipsters who helped it to the top of the box office by watching it just to make fun of it. Don’t you realize that you’re a part of the problem?!) It’d be easy to just dismiss it as a fad: the ludicrously over-budgeted, CG-heavy, stupid action movie. But it’s not the budget, or the effects, or even Michael Bay that are the problem: it’s the mindset.
It’s entirely possible to make a movie with a modest amount of money and few special effects that still manages to make the audience feel stupider for having watched it. All it takes is some imagination, a few synthesizers, and a total disregard of plot and characterization. And the similarities between Near Dark and Aliens just drive the point home: Aliens is unapologetically a big, loud, arrogant action movie, full of catch phrases and white trash and explosions, and scenes that exist only for the action-movie punchline. But it’s also a great movie, and what makes it a great movie is that it isn’t stupid. We’ve got to stop watching, and even worse, defending sloppy and brainless action movies before studios get the message that you don’t have to pay for a competent screenwriter, you’ll make at least as much money, and the only people who’ll notice are those fancy-pants Sundance-movie-watching elite types.