In 2009 the war drama The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, including Best Picture, becoming the lowest-grossing movie to ever sweep the Academy Awards. What’s more astonishing is that in the Academy Awards’ 82nd year, Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow became the very first & only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director. Five years later it’s still a feat that somehow has not been repeated. Unfathomably, no woman has even so much as been nominated for Best Director since Bigelow’s win. Bigelow herself struggled for nearly three decades to earn the accolade. With the exception of a couple box office successes like Point Break and (more recently) Zero Dark Thirty, her career is a frustrating succession of near-hits & complete flops. Her Hurt Locker Oscar was the pot of gold at the end of a very troubled rainbow.
If any of Bigelow’s less-successful pictures were destined to hit it big, it was 1987’s vampire-Western Near Dark. Striking the 80s vampire craze instigated by Fright Night & Lost Boys while the iron was hot, Near Dark made a commercial gamble by simultaneously reviving the much-less-hip Western genre, but it was still packed with so much 80s cool that it should have been a huge hit. Not only did Bigelow craft a film with stark imagery that could rival, if not top, anything you’d find in Fright Night or Lost Boys, she also employed synth wizards Tangerine Dream to provide the film with an era-epitomizing soundtrack. Tangerine Dream’s nightmarish score for Near Dark floats moodily in the background, building slowly like a thick fog until its heavy drums interject to match the escalating violence of the movie’s action. There’s so much 80s-specific brutality, sexuality, and pop music aesthetic to the film that it’s difficult to imagine why it flopped in the box office (before later gaining its rightful cult classic status).
Audiences’ reluctance to embrace the film may have to do with the slow, brooding pacing of its first act. Near Dark opens with a teenage cowboy hitting on a female stranger, luring her into his pick-up, and refusing to driver her home as she ominously worries about sunrise. It’s a great reversal of the typical dangers of a woman accepting a ride from a strange man, as the man’s life is eventually threatened by a bloodthirsty vampire coven as a result. It’s an chilling initiation into the world Bigelow establishes here, but it’s one with a slow build. The film doesn’t truly become energized until it follows the ritualistic nightly feedings of the coven as they hunt for meals in small town bars & back alleys. The open Western nighttime sky gives the film an otherworldly look, which is starkly contrasted with scenes like a rather lengthy & violent barroom altercation that’s aggressively relentless in its cramped containment. The vampires in Near Dark are confined to hotel rooms & the backs of trucks during daylight, but at night they’re free to prowl like a pride of lions. In some ways they’re portrayed to be as unfairly persecuted as the monsters of Nightbreed, but with the major difference that they actually murder people regularly & viciously.
Near Dark is not a perfect film. It frankly gets by more on style & mood than it does on content, but it’s so stylistically strong that it can pull off a lack of depth with ease. Just the basic concept of a Kathryn Bigelow vampire-Western with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack is enough to inspire enthusiasm on its own. Performances from the always-disturbing Lance Erikson, Bill Paxton as a perfect 80’s alpha-male/blowhard/murderous monster, and the kid who played the creepy little brother from Teen Witch go a long way as well. The movie’s gore, especially in its burning flesh & gunshot wounds, is surprisingly up to par with its art house visual tendencies and there’s enough police shootouts and vocal posturing to make even the most casual Tarantino fan gush. The film even remains loyal enough to the Western format to conclude with a lone cowboy riding into town on horseback for a final showdown. Bigelow may have not had her first commercial success until Point Break or won her career-defining accolades until The Hurt Locker, but she had already established herself as a formidable creative mind with the cult classic Near Dark, box office numbers be damned.