Two great tastes that taste great together.
Okay, so technically it’s not a Western in the traditional sense, but this week’s feature–Near Dark–is a gritty, Texas high noon showdown between the forces of good and evil that will leave you scraping the dust from your fangs.
It flew under the radar upon release and suffered at the box office, but it was hard to keep this undead tale down. It rose again thanks to DVD rentals and is now considered one of the prime examples of what a vampire film should be–despite its departure from trope and tradition.
And much like the film, the spiritual themes are a little tough to nail down. Join us as we flounder around in the dark and take a big bite. We may not hit the vein, but we might get near.
Name the top ten grossing vampire movies of all time.
If you guessed the Twilight series, well, you, like Hollywood, have a rather loose interpretation of what constitutes a vampire film. Sure, you’re correct–Twilight secured three of the top ten spots–but purists would probably be appalled on a myriad of fronts that the words “Twilight” and “vampire” were even used in the same sentence.
The Blade franchise picks up three more of the spots. Then there’s Van Helsing, Interview With the Vampire, Underworld Evolution and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which is a pretty epic interpretation).
If you wondered how The Lost Boys didn’t make the cut, well, welcome to the club.
Unsurprisingly, one of the best films of that genre–likely one most folks have never even heard of–didn’t make the cut. It’s called Near Dark, and amongst bloodsucking devotees, it is revered as canon in the genre.
And rightly so.
It was one of director Kathryn Bigelow’s earliest films (1987; she also co-wrote the script). She would go on to become the first female to win the Academy Award for Best Director with 2008’s The Hurt Locker. And it has a triple threat of male leads–Lance Heriksen, Adrian Pasdar and the stellar Bill Paxton (still, one of his best roles after all these years).
It’s a simple story–a horrific twist of Carey Grant’s Wrong-Place/Wrong-Time dilemma in North By Northwest–but with an edgy weird Western vibe that is much grittier than many of its then-contemporaries.
It all starts when farmer/wannabe cowboy (and self-styled Casanova) Caleb Colton (Pasdar) tries to wrangle an attractive drifter (Jenny Wright) during a chance, late-night bus stop encounter. Good news for Colton: mysterious beauty Mae wants him–bad. The crazy kids fall in like with each other till morning, when they share their first kiss–before Mae gets a little too mouthy, leaving Caleb with a vampiric hickey just before sunrise.
She splits, leaving a reeling, retching Caleb to enjoy the excruciating transformation into a creature of the night. And the worst side effect of that change? Daylight. Caleb learns that fact the hard way, nearly bursting into flame as he stumbles back to his family ranch. As his Dad (Tim Thomerson) spots him smoking (literally) in the side field, a boarded-up RV rolls up and someone yanks him inside. The good news? Mae is there. The bad news? So are her friends–a nomadic troupe of Texas-tough vampires who take one look at Caleb and see lunch. But Mae intervenes, announcing that Caleb is off limits because she has turned him into one of them. The group’s leader, a no-nonsense Nosferatu named Jesse Hooker (Henriksen) who’s been around since the Civil War, gives Caleb a week to prove himself. One problem: Caleb doesn’t want to be a vampire. He can’t bring himself to feed on victims; instead, having to suckle–infant-like–from Mae’s wrist after she kills. ‘Kinda hard to impress the other true-bloodsuckers like that, especially the baddest of the bunch (and certifiable undead nutbag), Severin (Paxton).
When the other bloodsuckers serve him up a murderous biker bar buffet (including a near decapitation with a spur by the aptly named Severin), Caleb can’t bring himself to kill in order to survive. Mae plays sanguine wet nurse again and the vamps haul it out of the bar, with the looming sun threatening to rise. They make it to a hotel in the nick of time, but soon the cops arrive and a melee ensues. Caleb puts his newly-sun sensitive butt on the line to help Jesse’s gang escape, earning him a little cred.
Of course that soon becomes short-lived. ‘Turns out Caleb’s dad and sister, Sarah, have been trying to find him and end up at the same motel. A child vampire in the group meets Sarah and wants to keep her as his eternal playmate. Caleb objects and as he is going at it with the rest of the group, his dad shows up and confronts Hooker et. al. Dad draws down on Hooker, to no avail, as it seems vampires are really good at eating bullets…literally. Thankfully, when Sarah opens the room door to flee, the bad guys get doused with a heaping dose of sunlight, giving Caleb and his family the chance to escape. Once free, Caleb receives a blood transfusion that eliminates his vampire traits, and now it’s his turn (along with his father’s help) to take the fight to the frights.
In a very odd sense, there’s a little Joseph in Caleb. True, his family didn’t sell him into slavery, but because of his own frailties of the flesh, he finds himself in the employ of a leader (Hooker) who makes Pharaoh look like an altar boy. He has to prove himself (again) like Joseph, and gets a rejoicing embrace once he and his family are reunited. But the bigger message seems to be inspired by the New Testament, not the Old.
In Romans 12:2 Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” His words are often paraphrased, reminding us to “be in the world, but not of the world.” Caleb starts out being more “of the world” as he lets his emotions (primarily lust) cloud his judgement. But once he ends up with the vampires, he fights to not conform to their murderous ways. He has to dwell among them at first, as he simply has no choice. And he realizes that he’ll never be able to change them but instead of giving up and following their lead, he still strives to do what he thinks is right, biding his time until he can be reunited with the ones who really care about him.
We too, sometimes have to walk through that valley as death–spiritually speaking–shadows our every step. We are barraged from all sides with myths and messages that promise every gospel but The Gospel. If we want to save our necks, we have to hold fast to the teachings of the One who saved our souls, regardless of whatever false gods may get planted in front of us. It’s only by turning our eyes upon Jesus that we can make it out of the dark–and live to see the light of day.