It wasn’t anywhere near dark when I watched this, but mid-afternoon, sandwiched between a sad (if temporary) farewell to the woman I love and a bleak, apocalyptic evening of the board game Mountains of Madness. The former was more moving than Near Dark, and the latter more scary, but I still found plenty to admire in this late-80s vampire sleeper.
At first it seemed so bare-bones, so by-the-book as vampire stories go, that I considered ejecting it and going with something else. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because early on our hero, a young Oklahoma pretty boy named Caleb, has just been vampirized and is wracked with blood hunger, and he is accosted by a plainclothes cop for looking like a vagrant and spitting out a candy bar into a trash can. “What are you on?” says the cop, and while Caleb cracks wise back (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you”), it sounded like the key to the whole movie for me. I don’t know why I’ve never spent much time thinking about the connection between vampire stories and the kinds of stories Hollywood tells about drug abuse, but it’s blindingly obvious now. This movie never says the word “vampire” that I recall, and you have to change very little about it to alter it from a story about a kid who gets accidentally hooked on blood and hangs out with a bunch of bloodsuckers who want him to join them in killing innocent people to a story about a kid who gets accidentally hooked on (insert whatever you like: smack? PCP? meth?) and hangs out with a bunch of psychos who want him to join them in killing innocent people. There are even two rehab scenes, which I don’t recall ever seeing in any vampire story before, where vampires are “cured” of their blood addiction (and other supernatural strengths and vulnerabilities) through transfusions.
Taken in this light, the spartan nature of the story makes more sense; it’s everything common to the overlap between these two readings, and very little else. Lots of elements which at the time weren’t especially common to vampire stories contribute to this, including the rural setting invaded by the disreputable transients; the trashy, unglamorous nature of the vampires; and the frequent scenes of vampires feeding one another their blood. When Alan Ball and company set out to adapt the Sookie Stackhouse novels about families of vampires in the Bible Belt, they must have watched this movie a few times. In addition to the blood-sharing, we get such familiar True Blood-isms as vampires blackening and blistering in the sunlight (rather than disintegrating immediately), exploding when killed, dating themselves back to the Civil War, and of course taking pleasure in terrorizing rednecks before killing them. The spectacle of Caleb running through daylight under a blanket also put me in mind of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems strange, given how influential it seems to have been, that it took me so long to see this, but I’m glad I finally have.
The performances are generally quite good, apart from a child actor who’s just adequate, with Aliens alumni Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jeanette Goldstein being especially magnetic as the deadliest members of the vamp clan. The dreamlike quality of the romance between Caleb and Mae saves their somewhat awkward scenes from seeming too wooden. Apart from a couple of rather unlikely coincidences toward the end, I felt the whole thing was thoroughly worthwhile.