August is an odd time be writing about vampires. With the intense heat and humidity of the brutal South Carolina summer beating down upon us, it doesn’t feel like vampire weather. But the crisp autumnal nights of October are closer than we realize, even if they seem impossible right now.
That said, the Southern vampire is a particular niche of Southern gothic horror. All the mystery and romance of “moonlight and magnolias” is enhanced with these mysterious, romantic creatures stalking about crumbling old plantation houses in the night. I’ve been reading Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire (the film version of which I reviewed last fall), and the titular vampire and narrator, Louis, is from Louisiana. The exotic setting of New Orleans plays a prominent role in the first half of the book, and provides the perfect backdrop for Louis, Lestat, and Claudia’s lethal nocturnal escapades.
This week’s film, 1987’s Near Dark, isn’t exactly about Southern vampires, but Midwestern vampires. That doesn’t exactly fit into the mold of the seductive, mysterious vampire, but that’s one of the film’s strengths: these vampires are crazy Nebraskan (or Oklahoman?) low-lives, terrorizing the prairie in a aluminum-foil-covered panel van.
The story revolves around a relationship between Caleb and a strange girl named Mae. Mae, of course, turns out to be a vampire, and ends up biting Caleb in his truck amid a frenzied, pre-dawn make-out session. This bite transforms Caleb into a creature of the night, and as he runs—his body smoking in the harsh daylight—Mae’s cabal of white trash vampires snag Caleb, driving off with him.
The nomadic vampire coven consists of Mae; the insane Severen; the leader, Jesse; Jesse’s girlfriend, Diamondback; and a child vampire, Homer. The group regard Caleb warily, and scold Mae for being so reckless as to bite him, but Caleb slowly earns their trust, even as he refuses to kill to survive (instead, he drinks blood from Mae’s wrist).
Caleb nearly loses the group’s trust, however, when they psychotically slaughter an entire bar. Caleb allows one man to get away, threatening the vampires’ exposure. The group throttle it through the night to find shelter in a dilapidated bungalow, only for the survivor to return with the authorities.
A shoot-out ensues, and as the law’s bullets rip through the thin walls of the bungalow, sunlight begins pouring into the room. In a last desperate attempt to save his new friends, Caleb dons a flimsy curtain and dives from the window, allowing the other vampires to escape to their van.
Having regained their trust, Caleb and the vampires hole up in a slightly-less sketchy motel, where he chances to run into his sister and father. Caleb escapes with his family, and begs his father to perform a blood transfusion. Free of the vampiric blood, Caleb returns to being a human, and sets out to defend his family against his erstwhile posse.
Sure enough, the vampires return. Mae is still in love with Caleb (and vice-versa), but is torn between him and the ad hoc family she knows. Homer wants Caleb’s younger sister, the feisty Sarah, so he can finally have a vampiric companion his own “age” and size. Severen just wants to unleash his psychotic rage on Caleb and his family.
Explosions and gun fights ensue; in the end, all the bad vampires are destroyed, and Mae gets a blood transfusion. Presumably, she and Caleb live happily after as mortals.
Near Dark is a surprisingly poignant vampire film. The scenes of young love between Mae and Caleb are genuine, and Caleb’s sister’s love for her brother is sweet. Sarah is a little girl, but has a tough, independent streak, like a good prairie girl should. When Homer invites her to watch color television with her in the gang’s hotel room, she says something along the lines of, “I do whatever I want.”
The vampire gang is also quite frightening, not so much because they’re vampires, but because of how insanely they go about their killings. It really would be like if white trash or common street thugs gained vampiric strength and abilities: a lot of mindless violence, but amplified in the face of no real challenge to their power. Severen in particular is a scary character, and would be completely unhinged without Jesse’s mediating influence—and Jesse is no saint, either!
The film also presents a good depiction of the extremely rural Midwest in the late 1980s. There are a lot of dive bars, country music, pick-up trucks, yokels, and the like. Caleb’s father and sister live a settled, hardworking, simple life on the farm, which contrasts with the wild, exciting, dangerous, nomadic lifestyle of the vampires. Caleb is torn between these two worlds, and ushered into the latter by a reckless romantic relationship.
There’s also a redemption arc for Mae, who leaves behind that reckless life of nomadic vampirism to join Caleb and his family in living wholesomely. And, of course, a dangerous criminal and homicidal element is destroyed in the process, with the vampires dying in explosions or via sunlight.
All in all, I can recommend this movie. It’s a horror movie that isn’t exactly scary, but it’s suspenseful and a bit unsettling. Because the antagonists are so real—just low-lives who happen to be vampires—it makes the movie far more compelling. Yeah, they’re vampires, but the horror seems more real—take away their vampirism, and they’d still be an intimidating, violent lot.
Good stuff—check it out, and make sure you’re home before dark.