Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
From the time of Dracula and until the 1980s, the American vampire film tended to imply a certain degree of pomp and grandiosity. The living dead were weathered old aristocrats locked away in the dungeons of a crumbling gothic castle or manor, wiling away infinity with their servants and occasionally preying on hapless local villagers to extend their endless lifespans. Vampires lived on the fringes of civilization, entrenched in the “old world” regardless of the time period of any given story—boogeymen from out of the past who stalked the wilds and rarely interacted with human society.
That changed, as the 1980s dawned and the gothic revival Dracula films of Hammer Film Productions gave way to a new wave of modern American vampire stories. Fright Night brought a yuppie bloodsucker to the affluence of American suburbia, while The Lost Boys set its teenage vampire coven among heavy metal youth culture. These stories took the stuffy old vampire out of the past, inserting the undead into modern settings that the audiences of the day could relate to, but none of them simultaneously manage to demystify the vampire quite so effectively as Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.
Flying in the face of so many previous depictions, there’s very little beauty, romanticism or dignity to these vamps. They’re just a band of scuzzy drifters decked out in the garb of the American biker film, aimlessly trekking through the American West, tearing up dive bars and seeming to possess little if any idea of what they’d like to do with immortality. They have no grandiloquent plans to rule the world or overthrow our institutions—hell, they don’t even know where they’re sleeping tomorrow. They wield their powers carelessly, and inspire pity as much as they do fear—and really, wouldn’t that likely be the outcome, if you made the average person into a vampire? What do you think the locals down at your corner tavern would do with all that power, if they possessed it?
Bigelow’s film set the tone for so many of the more serious-minded and gritty vampire flicks to follow, with a nihilistic streak a mile wide. It’s unclear what keeps these ghouls going, other than the petty pleasures of enforcing their will, not to mention the unspoken fear of a permanent death. The loneliness endemic to the genre is certainly here in full force—the young female vampire longs for a way out of the curse, while the youngest member of the group wants a companion he can relate to. Our protagonist Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), meanwhile, is initially drawn to the lifestyle, but more out of self-preservation and a desire to leave behind his humdrum life than anything else.
Of course, the piteous natures of the vampires in Near Dark doesn’t negate the fact that they also look cool as hell—particularly clan leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen), who at one point is shot in the chest and then casually spits out the bullet into his hand, mildly annoyed by the inconvenience. As anyone who has seen the film knows, though, it truly belongs to Bill Paxton’s Severen, a tousled sex symbol and font of gloriously douchey energy who revels in his untouchability. Paxton’s portrayal of the role mirrors the same overconfidence and machismo he initially displays as space marine Hudson in Aliens, albeit with the mojo to back up that undercurrent of cowardice and fatalism. He’s exactly the sort of person you’d attempt to keep this kind of power away from at all costs, as it only magnifies the very worst things about him. Unrestrained, he’s always a moment away from slicing someone to death with the spurs of his cowboy boots, which is exactly what he does to a particularly unlucky bartender during the film’s classic bar room massacre.
In the end, though, Bigelow seems to argue that these vampires are primarily cowards—leeches who simply move from place to place without any ambition or desire to build or create any kind of lasting testament. They can’t get away with pulling the “we are doomed souls, cursed by our folly” shtick so common to the Anne Rice vampires of the world, because as the film illustrates, all it ultimately takes is a simple blood transfusion to renounce vampirism forever and return to the world of the living. The ghouls of Near Dark, then, possess an unusual degree of choice for the genre, and thus an added weight of responsibility. They remain vampires not because the life of a vampire is necessarily glorious or fulfilling, but because they eventually know nothing else, and are unwilling to face down several lifetimes worth of sin in the journey back to humanity that is always available to them. They fear that journey even more than they fear death.
Near Dark’s western vampire motif would be revisited several more times in the next decade, in films such as From Dusk Till Dawn and John Carpenter’s Vampires, but with more cheap thrills and less gritty, beautiful despondency. The sorrowful limits of immortality are iconically captured in the film’s poster—a dramatically lit image of Bill Paxton’s gore-streaked body, riddled with bullet holes that allow the light to stream through as if pierced by beams from heaven. For such a vampiric asshole, it would be only just.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.