1987. Starring Jenny Wright, Adrian Pasdar. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
On some level in nearly every vampire movie, you are expected to feel a little sorry for the monster. Trapped for eternity (or until some horrible ritualistic death frees them to an unclear afterlife) as a parasite who robs others of life, damned to a solitary, fugitive existence, the vampire seems to be deserve the stake that eventually awaits him. They are pale, hungry, dirty and doomed. Except for when they’re doing something horrific, they seem kind of pathetic.
But what about those unfortunate victims of the vampires who are merely nicked, maimed for the purpose of accompanying the vampire for the next several centuries, to provide company and romance for the bloodsucker? Don’t they deserve a little sympathy?
When we first see Mae (Jenny Wright), at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, she is an angelic waif with an ice cream cone, sauntering in front of a convenience store. There’s a small crowd of rowdy farmboys, and they notice right away. Wright is so sexy, she doesn’t even lick the ice cream cone she’s holding. How she holds the cone is enough to get the farmboys howling at the moon. Farmboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is the first to jump to the bait.
Her vulnerability is an act, but Mae is truly lonely. Soon she is riding the backroads with her prey, waiting for the right moment to make her move. Whether what drives her is a physical attraction or a physical thirst is unclear, but a nip on the neck seals Caleb’s fate. Soon, he finds himself traveling in a blacked-out RV with an extended family of vampires, repelled by them but needing their help.
What keeps him from running away is his attraction to Mae, whose bite has destined him to be with her forever. Mae herself was brought into the family in a similar way, nipped out of affection by Homer, who has been damned to spend his vampire days as a child. (“Have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?” he asks, pathetically.)
The vampire family also demands some allegiance, but Caleb makes for a poor killer, relying on Mae’s willingness to open her veins to keep him. . .well, not alive, but still moving, at least. Leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen) has been feeding on folks since the Civil War, and young wolf Severen (Bill Paxton, in a great over-the-top performance) is viciously cruel, but the family is getting too big to travel light.
The blood-engorged heart of Near Dark is a scene inside a roadside tavern scene near closing time. The vampires tear through patron and employee alike in a scene where Paxton really gets to chew the scenery. The tug-of-war that follows — between Caleb’s real family and the vampires, between Caleb and Homer, between Mae and the vampires — is much less interesting, and the less said about the unbelievable ending the better.
Besides Paxton’s performance of a smirking, wiseass predator, the reason to watch Near Dark is Jenny Wright. She had a few other roles, but apparently abandoned the acting life early in her career. Mae is unique among vampire roles — sad, lonely, sweet. In the middle of the tavern-scene carnage, she takes a quivering farmboy by the hand and dances with him as a prelude to calmly draining him. And, all things considered, it doesn’t seem like a bad way to go.