The Reversal of Gendered Violence at the Start of Near Dark (1987)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Near Dark (1987)

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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.

-Brandon Ledet