The bar door blows open, and a ragged crew sails in. They’re grubby enough to fit the locale: a roadside bar with rough walls and a corrugated roof, the kind of place haunted by pool sharks and truckers and avoided by everyone else. The tabletops look sticky. One in the group declares the place to be “shit-kicker heaven” as he walks in. He throws a cigarette on the sawdust floor as he says it. Like that lit ember among so many wood shavings, he’s suddenly in control, a force of nature that will obliterate everything it comes into contact with. He picks a fight with one of the patrons, the kind of ordinary fight in bars the world over—fueled by arrogance, spilled drinks, and bruised pride. But the motivating force behind it is an alien malevolence, a thirst for violence that cannot be understood or reasoned with. The regulars can’t help but stare, unmoored from their evening by an invading crew uncanny in their sudden command of a dive they’ve never been in before. The brash newcomer jumps up onto the bar, spurs jangling, and proceeds to pace its length. He kicks abandoned shot glasses off the bartop one by one, like a vengeful cat. He isn’t interested in drinking alcohol. He, like the other ragged beings he walked in with, is out for blood. They’re vampires.
The bar scene is a distillation of Near Dark’s insulated, personal horror, because it places mythic monsters in an ordinary setting, with no hope of escape for the individuals within these smoke-stained walls. The bar’s denizens are tough: sunburned, weatherbeaten, perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. But it won’t be enough. Their self-sufficiency is no match for the strength and malice of the unsavory characters who just walked in. The monsters are petty, invading personal boundaries and provoking fights over spilled bad liquor, walking into a space and claiming it for themselves simply because they want it. Most of the patrons won’t get out alive.
There’s no sheriff in town, only this crew of black hats with a thirst for blood.
Near Dark bites into the myth of American individualism and exceptionalism in Western movies by throwing vampires into the mix. The undead’s predatory habits become a stand-in for settler colonialism, drawing a line from modern-day horror to the specter of the past that enabled it. It’s a horror Western, a vampire movie that’s just as interested in the mythology of the American West as it is in blood. Its characters live in 1987 Oklahoma, a place that traces its lineage back to notions of Manifest Destiny, to land rushes and shrinking reservations, broken treaties and the Trail of Tears. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her co-writer Eric Red do not explicitly mention the state’s history in dialogue, but Bigelow draws on the imagery of the American mythos that was cemented by mid-century Westerns. She undermines those films’ imagery of rugged individualism by placing her film in an unglamorous, contemporary setting. There’s no John Wayne here, framed by Monument Valley. There are no vistas of any kind—only dark, lonely highways and run-down bars, their flaws drawn out by the burning light of the sun and the sinister glow of the moon.
The film’s central character, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), looks the part of the stereotypical American cowboy: jeans, hat, gloves, with a pickup truck and a lasso he knows how to use. He wears the independent confidence of a movie cowboy, too. He moves with the grace of someone accustomed to hard work. When he approaches a horse—or a woman—he thinks he’s in command. The script gives him lines that are simple, declarative sentences. Coming out of an older man, they might be evidence of experience, of a rough life lived hard; coming out of a character as young as Caleb, they sound like the unearned assuredness of youth. The clothes and manners don’t make the man. Caleb might appear to be a cowboy straight from Western mythology, but he hasn’t earned that title. Nor is it his destiny, just waiting for him to reach out and take it. Caleb will have to earn his spurs.
When Caleb meets Mae (Jenny Wright) at a gas station, he feels he’s in control; he’s the one with the truck and the knowledge of the surrounding fields, and he’s charmed by her wide-eyed appearance. The two spend the night circling each other. He’s confident, and she’s twitchy, which he interprets as shyness. When she realizes that the sun is coming up and panics, asking him to take her home, he takes advantage of her fear to stop the truck and demand a kiss. But Mae isn’t a damsel. She’s the drifter who’s come to town to upend Caleb’s life. She gives him the kiss he asks for, then floats over to his jawline. Her bite breaks skin, and his blood runs from her mouth as she sprints for the horizon, trying to beat the rising sun home. Before long, it will be Caleb who’s been picked up by Mae. The cowboy becomes the damsel, a helpless human trapped in a camper van with blacked-out windows and surrounded by hostile vampires.
Kathryn Bigelow’s camera roams the roads behind the vampires’ camper, lighting the vehicle’s white sides with a glow that echoes the image of canvas-topped wagons sailing across the plains. The van’s movement is erratic, its appearance dingy; the vampires have coated its windows with black spray paint and foil in a piecemeal attempt to block out the sun. The vampires themselves are more like a gang of greasy nomads than the debonair Draculas who cinematically predate them. Jesse (Lance Henriksen) sports a rat-tail braid and a scarred face; his partner Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) wears her bleached hair in a cloud around her head, the dark roots turning her coif into a peroxide halo. A grubby boy named Homer (Joshua John Miller) and a feral biker in leather and spurs named Severen (Bill Paxton) round out the crew. They’re collectively furious with Caleb for knowing about their existence, and with Mae for adding to their number; he’s just another hungry mouth to feed. They give Mae a week to teach Caleb how to survive in his new nocturnal existence, otherwise they’ll rip him apart.
Bigelow’s vampires are fiercely free, roaming the back roads in their stolen cars, uncaring of anyone else they encounter. Their Prairie Schooner camper recalls the myth of Manifest Destiny, of settlers moving across the land to their next resting place, taking anything that looks good and competing to stay ahead of the other settlers who might want a bite themselves. Bigelow’s vampires might be aimless in their direction—they’re not headed west any more than they’re headed north or east or south—but they move with a purpose, always to get ahead of the sun, and always in search of another meal. They’ll take whatever they want, however they want it, draining their victims dry before moving on to the next town. They’re alone on the road and they like it that way, setting fire to their vehicles when they’re done with them, resorting to any tricks they can to attract humans unwary enough to pick up a hitchhiker.
Caleb’s the perfect mark. He’s self-assured and young enough that he’s unable to conceive of a world outside his own skull. Mae jolts him out of the rhythms of his life when he first sees her. She glides into the greenish glow of the gas station light one night, licking an ice cream cone, and he can’t stay away. He thinks she’s like every other drifter passing through, and yet he can’t take his eyes off her. When he tells her that she’s not like any of the other girls he’s met, it’s a line; he says it as though he’s rehearsed it, or repeated it to any girl who would hear. But Mae isn’t fully listening. She’s fidgety, distracted by things in the night that he can’t see. And she’s heard that line before. When he repeats the line again, she confirms it for him: “You’ve never met a girl like me before…because I’ll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to Earth.” She sounds so lonely, and so enamored of her self-image as an eternal lone survivor at the same time.
In this respect, she and Caleb are a match for each other. Bigelow often frames Caleb as the solitary cowboy figure he sees himself as, silhouetted against the sun and the moon and the steam rising from wet pavement in the dark of night. He holds himself with the easy looseness of a man who grew up handling large animals. He’s comfortable lassoing and riding a horse, the image of self-sufficiency alone against the sky. Mae’s bite shatters that illusion, leaving Caleb sickly and doubled over, unable to care for himself, hungry for blood and unwilling to kill in order to get it.
Near Dark marries individualism with vampirism, a natural fit for the Western setting. Other vampire movies—Dracula (1931), Nosferatu (1922), Vampyr (1932), and their celluloid descendants—treat vampirism as a symptom of something that is Other. The vampire might be alluring or debonair, but they’re marked as foreign invaders, monsters from beyond the shores of civilized society. There’s a thread of xenophobia through most of these stories—watch out, or the foreign monster will invade your soil and steal your women and drain your resources dry. This fear of the Other is a fear of anyone outside an imaginary line; draw the line tightly enough, and it constricts into a sort of individualism, a fear of all others that spawns an unwillingness to trust anyone else. Reversed, the vampire becomes the ultimate individualist, subsisting entirely off the lives of other people as a parasite, and unwilling to approach those others on their own terms or in their own humanity.
Near Dark treats the vampire as home-grown, as endemic as prairie grass. The distinctly European version of the monster subverts the distinctly American myth of the West, one myth drinking the other’s lifeblood until it’s transformed into a shadow of itself. Bigelow’s vampires aren’t invaders; they’ve always been here. Rot starts at the heart and works its way slowly outward. Jesse is old enough to have fought in the Civil War—“we lost,” he tells Caleb. He’d been willing to fight for a way of life built on the practice of chattel slavery, another kind of vampirism. We never learn when Jesse was born, or how he got out of the war and into his wandering, but we don’t need to, because Bigelow draws a line from Jesse’s fierce individualism (it’s not difficult to imagine the character making a states’ rights argument) to Jesse’s willingness to subsist off the lifeblood of the human beings unlucky enough to meet him.
Yet while Jesse might be the leader of the group, Severen is its rancid heart, all leather and boots and aggression. He moves like a panther. He has the confidence of someone who knows he’s invincible, and the willingness to hurt anyone he needs to in order to get what he wants. Mostly, he wants blood and violence. People aren’t people to him; they’re food and sport, something to be hunted. He tolerates the other vampires, and he even gifts Caleb one of his spurs as a sign of respect after Caleb helps the group escape from the law, but he treats everyone else like they’re cattle. Bill Paxton throws his entire body into the performance, and his charisma renders Severen’s actions doubly repulsive: first, because he’s killing people, and second, because he’s enjoying it.
Severen is the driving force behind the crew’s invasion of the bar; Jesse’s content to block the door to prevent any of the denizens from escaping. Severen grabs Caleb by the collar and seats him in front of the bartender; ostensibly, he’s supposed to be teaching Caleb how to hunt, but the vampire’s enjoying himself, knocking over drinks and being rude to the patrons’ faces. He provokes one into a fight over a spilled drink, and then proceeds to murder the rest one by one. He’s laughing as he does it. This is a game to him, an opportunity to revel in his own physical prowess, and in the humans’ inability to resist it.
Bigelow’s camera remains glued to the vampire as he prowls the bar, blood on his mouth and spurs. His predatory nature is both magnetic and repellent; it’s easy to understand why Caleb would be drawn into the group, and why he would want to leave, and why he’d feel incapable of doing so. Severen is a double myth come to life: the vampire, willing to murder to keep himself alive, and the settler, colonizing the bar and claiming its territory for his own. Severen-as-settler puts the lie of Manifest Destiny to the test: American mythmaking is founded on the idea that expansion westward was the birthright of the settlers who did it. Those in power told themselves it was a moral good because it was a sort of homecoming—an opportunity for individuals to claim their own land, to support themselves and their families, and to stand on their own two feet. Never mind the people who were displaced, stolen from, and murdered to get there.
Caleb’s inability to hunt for himself runs counter to the vampire ethos. He’s only half vampire; he has a taste for blood, but can’t bring himself to end another life in order to get it. Mae offers him her blood in order to keep him alive, cutting open her own arm so that Caleb can drink. He’s thirsty enough to nearly drain Mae dry. Bigelow illustrates the nature of Caleb and Mae’s relationship—and the film’s relationship with Westerns, and mythic cowboys’ relationship with their land—in a single shot that places the two lovers in the middle of an oil field. Mae stands with her feet firmly planted on the ground. Caleb kneels in front of her, greedily sucking the blood from her veins, and behind them a cluster of oil derricks pump the earth’s lifeblood out of the ground. The image brings to mind gushing blood, black oil spewing into the air, the Oklahoma oil boom that enriched the Osage Nation on whose land the oil was found, and the white Americans who attached themselves like parasites to the Osage in an attempt to drain the Nation dry of their wealth. The shot juxtaposes American settlers with the terror of gothic vampires: the settler, usually depicted as someone claiming a birthright, becomes an invading force, a ravenous Other as hungry for resources as Caleb, and as implacable as Mae’s stance. Caleb is Mae’s parasite, more familiar than vampire, desperate for another taste of blood and unwilling to do what he needs to do in order to survive. He’s no longer self-sufficient or confident. He’s terrified.
Caleb has a rope tying him to the human world, though the line is frayed by his disappearance. His father, Loy (Tim Thomerson), and sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds), saw him taken by the camper van; they spend the rest of the film’s runtime looking for him. Father and daughter search as a unit, speaking with members of the public, unwilling to take the police’s unwillingness to help as a solution. Loy and Sarah’s attempts to find Caleb without the help of the police might appear at first glance to be an individualist choice, but the two aren’t working alone. They approach others at gas stations and rest stops with photos and flyers, leaning on the community for help. Caleb’s family is surrounded by other people at all times. Bigelow undermines the myth of cowboy individualism by aligning it with the band of vampires roaming the highways. But she brings the myth crashing down when Loy—an actual cowboy, a veterinarian—searches for Caleb not by riding out alone on horseback to find him solo, but by working with his daughter to track down any sign that Caleb’s been seen alive by another person.
Caleb, for his part, is torn between the vampire world he’s been dragged into and the human world he hasn’t fully left behind. He’s forced to grapple with the tension between his notions of what Western self-sufficiency should look like—hat, boots, and the ability to handle himself—and the reality of what that identity, taken to its extreme, actually means. When he first meets Mae, he dangles her fear of the rising sun over her head to get her to kiss him: a crude manipulation, but an effective one. Severen manipulates the patrons in the bar with a more practiced hand. He’s working on their fear, too—the fear of being unable to take care of themselves, the inability to prove their own masculinity. He gets a rise out of each one by invading their personal space, by insulting their manhood, by insinuating that they can’t take care of themselves. Caleb could become Severen in time, if he would only let go of his inhibitions against killing and embrace the vampires’ ability to take what they want, whenever they want. The image of a lone gunslinger looks a lot less romantic when the camera pulls back to reveal a trail of corpses in his wake.
Caleb isn’t able to kill. Nor has he hardened himself off from thinking about the good of his community; he hasn’t adopted the vampires’ attitudes toward other people. When Severen begins provoking others into fighting him, Caleb’s first instinct is to leave. His next is to help. He lets the lone survivor of the bar massacre escape. And when the cops finally catch up with the vampires, Caleb helps the vampires escape that shootout, too. The cops’ bullets tear holes in the sides of the flimsy house where the crew holed up. The daylight knifes its way through the holes in tight lines, more deadly than the bullets that let it in. The vampires’ skin smokes and blisters with each new bullet hole—and each new accompanying ray of light—in the wall. Bigelow’s camera frames each of the crew alone and at tight angles; they might be trapped in the house together, but each one fights individually. Instead of fighting, however, Caleb ducks under a blanket, dashes out toward the camper, and drives it through the wall of the bungalow. His instincts are to preserve the group. The rays of sunlight shatter the illusion that the crew is self-sufficient: the vampires are unable to work together, trapped as they are by their circumstances and the consequences of their extreme individualism. Hard truth in the harder light of day.
Caleb rejects vampirism, and, in so doing, rejects their illusions of lone self-sufficiency in exchange for lasting community. The other people they’ve come across, the ones murdered for their blood, were all family members and friends to someone else; Caleb registers this fully when the crew comes across his family, and their appearance is enough to shake him of any remaining desire to stay on the road with the vampires he’s fallen in with. They take what they want and they claim to live free, but their freedom has backed them into dark corners and lonely highways, forever on the margins and far away from daylight. Their freedom to roam is bought with the lives of the innocents they murder every night.
Bigelow is unsentimental about Caleb’s decision to leave. He simply does it, returning home with his father and sister; he exchanges the lonely freedom of the road for a familiar dinner table and the land he’s always lived on. Caleb’s father’s blood, willingly given as a transfusion, reverses the effects of Mae’s bite. Caleb doesn’t need to take anyone else’s blood anymore; he’s been affirmed and accepted back into his own family. The illusion of self-sufficiency that Caleb projected even before he left home is gone.
When the vampires come calling again, Caleb rides out to protect his family. He isn’t doing it for himself. He’s not defending a claim, he isn’t trying to beat back nature, and he isn’t struggling toward some mythic Manifest Destiny. He explicitly rejects those things, because they’re everything the vampire crew stands for. Caleb’s still a boy, and Severen is the man Caleb could have become, but the two are opposites now. They face off across a stretch of wet and shining blacktop: gunslingers transposed from a dusty Western shantytown to a contemporary shipping hub, surrounded by big rigs. When Severen demands his spur back from Caleb, he retracts his gratitude for Caleb’s earlier help because Caleb won’t follow in his footsteps. Severen’s admiration is conditional and his goodwill can be revoked, a peace treaty written on water and subject to the vampire’s whims.
In response, Caleb runs him over with an oil tanker. He won’t make peace with the vampire, because he knows the vampire’s version of peace is only one that satisfies his thirst for blood. Severen is destroyed in the explosion; the only thing left on the ground is his remaining spur. Caleb picks it up; he’s earned his spurs without even trying.