Kathryn Bigelow’s synth-scored vampire Western Near Dark is, like most 80s horror entries, a strictly style-over-substance affair. A coven of road-weary vampires comb through the quiet roads of the American Southwest for bloody, late night meals, only finding conflict in their internal squabbles over who should be allowed to join them for the hunt. The movie is most memorable for its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, the unhinged alpha male performance from Bill “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” Paxton, and the dive bars, oil rigs, and desolate motels that define its setting. Still, there’s a surprisingly potent moment of tinkered-with gender politics at the film’s beginning that lingers in its atmosphere, informing the surface pleasures that follow. If it weren’t for the opening sequence, the film would play like a romantic tragedy about two star-crossed lovers from irreconcilable worlds, like a vampiric Romeo & Juliet. Instead, it’s a thematically powerful genre film. Near Dark‘s opening is the strongest sequence in a movie that wouldn’t be half as good without it.
A group of tough guy townies greet each other with the masculine ritual of friendly, pantomimed violence, a kind of literal ribbing. As group, they ogle a female stranger who emerges, alone, outside a nearby dive bar. After arguing over which of the young, wannabe cowboys has dibs on approaching her, she’s flirted with by a farmer’s son, who’ll later prove to be our de facto protagonist. Licking ice cream like a child and being stalked like prey by young, sexed-up Western men, we immediately fear for this woman’s well-being. The townie talks her into his pick-up truck, which he uses to drive her to a nearby, isolated horse stable, despite her protests that she wants to go home before dawn. Flirtatiously lassoing her and hiding the truck keys in his pocket, the man is essentially holding this stranger hostage for “a kiss.” He’s in control of the scene and the never-ending history of sexual violence perpetrated against women by a “boys will be boys” rape culture prompt us to expect her to suffer a vicious attack in this moment of blatant vulnerability. Then, when the two strangers do kiss, the gendered power dynamics of their exchange shift. The woman’s vampiric fangs are exposed and it’s the man that’s made vulnerable, an provocative reversal of the dynamic the audience expects.
It’s difficult to say, exactly, how this opening affects the rest of Near Dark. After the strange couple exchanges their initial kiss, the woman shifting into the dominant position for leverage & sinking her vampire teeth into her victim’s neck, their power dynamics essentially remain fixed. The man, now a vampire himself, remains dependent on the woman who turned him, sometimes literally crawling towards her to be hand-fed blood. It’s tempting to read the film as a kind of allegory for sexual trauma after the violence of their initial exchange. The man limps away into the light of dawn and immediately starts smoldering in his contact with sunlight, like a sexual assault survivor left alone the morning after an attack. The trauma of being turned has caused him to fall out with friends & family, with no one to turn to for help except the uneasy camaraderie of fellow vampires. Like with many victims of violence, he’s also dependent on & forgiving of the women who turned him, remaining emotionally attached to his abuser. The strength of the film’s opening sequence is evident in the way its echo touches every exchange that follows, even though it’s only a few brief minutes in a much larger picture.
It’s unlikely that any of those direct, concrete metaphors about sexual assault trauma or domestic abuse were intended to carry on throughout Near Dark‘s runtime. What makes the gender reversal of the violence in its opening sequence so powerful is that it’s handled delicately, without a strict 1:1 metaphor in its vampiric disruption of gendered power dynamics. The breathing room that decision to leave its meaning ambiguous allows is essential to making the film’s following scenes, which are more focused on 80s stylishness, carry much more significance in a cultural, gender politics context. Bigelow appeared as an actor in the 1983 feminist D.I.Y. punk masterpiece Born in Flames. She’s the only female Oscar winner in the Best Director category, with no women even being nominated since her win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Still, when I think of what her work in the Hollywood system signifies in a feminist context, I always think to the beginning of Near Dark. The way the physical language of the film’s opening scene evokes the power dynamics of a highly gendered social interaction between strangers and then flips the exchange on its head to shift power & vulnerability is tense, arresting stuff. What’s even more impressive, though, is how the inversion of that expectation then lingers in the film’s otherwise flashy atmosphere, turning what should be a fairly standard vampire romance into something much more socially & intellectually evocative.