Friday, March 3, 2017

Hang Out With The Bad Kids - NEAR DARK

Well, shit.  After the horror show that was 2016, you would think I’d grown accustomed to losing great actors, but Bill Paxton’s surprise death hit me hard.  He was one of the actors I associate with 1984-85, the period when movies changed for me from being a diversion to a passion.  He had such a tiny role in THE TERMINATOR, a movie I watched on a non-stop loop as a kid, but his look and especially his attitude made him stand out. In WEIRD SCIENCE, he got to show off his talent for turning obnoxiousness into charm as the ultimate douchebag older brother, Chet.  His breakout role of Hudson in ALIENS, one of my five 100% perfect movies, cemented my affection for the actor.  Paxton doesn’t get the best line in that movie, but he does get the one everyone remembers.  

So I felt bad that I short changed him in my last piece about PREDATOR 2.  Fast talking Jerry Lambert wasn’t his best role, but Paxton deserved more than the throwaway line I gave him.  So I’m making up for it by writing about Paxton at his most outrageous, manic best, the outlaw vampire Severen in Katheryn Bigelow’s 1987 bloodsucking western, NEAR DARK.

The Capsule:
Dumb teen farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) thinks he’s met his dream girl when the beautiful, spacey Mae (Jenny Wright) falls for his doofus charm.  He gets more than he bargained for when a love bite leaves him with an unrelenting thirst for blood and a severe intolerance to sunlight.  He is snatched up before he can burst into flame, forcibly inducted into a family of dirtbag vampires roaming the open West, including the patriarch Jesse (Lance Henriksen), his deadly lover Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), hotheaded psycho Severen (Bill Paxton), and frustrated old man in kid's body, Homer (Joshua John Miller).  They want to kill him, but Jesse agrees to let Mae keep him, on the condition she teaches him how to pull his vampire weight.  Caleb refuses to kill anyone, but gets in the groups favors when he saves them from a mid-day shootout in a hotel.  When his dad (Tim Thomerson) and little sister (Marcie Leeds) catch up with him, though, Caleb must decide between his immortal new family and his very mortal old one.  

NEAR DARK has it all, an incredible cast, visionary director, striking visuals, surreal atmosphere, and an offbeat script.  It is the darker, nastier twin of THE LOST BOYS.  THE LOST BOYS may be who you are taking to the dance, but it’s NEAR DARK you want to ditch school and run around with.  It will probably involve trespassing and maybe stealing some smokes.  She might get you arrested, but there is a good chance she’ll let you touch her boob.  

Sorry, this came out when I was a freshman in high school.  I might be projecting.

Jesse and his crew are heartless killers, slobs, basically vampire vagrants (they even jump a boxcar at one point).  They are horrible, extremely dangerous monsters who every sane person should want to stay away from.  But Kathryn Bigelow's direction and the actors’ dedication makes them so tantalizingly cool.  They go where ever they want, do whatever they want, and take no shit (except from the sun).  Their outfits are filthy and impractical, but undeniably badass.  They openly carry guns, not because they need them, because they can.  It’s impossible not to root for them, at least a little bit.

They don’t do or say anything that is explicitly racist, but they kind of seem to be. Jesse was in the Confederate army, for fuck’s sake.  He has to be carrying around some baggage from that.  There is a Confederate flag draped in the back of the RV they tool around in, but this is 1987, only two years since The Dukes of Hazard went off the air.  America was still pretty culturally ignorant about that shit.  The gang didn’t care enough about the flag to save it when they torched the RV, so that says something.  Maybe it was just grabbed one day to keep the sunlight off them.  They seem very equal opportunity where victims are concerned.  Severen complains about biting an unshaven dude, but seems awfully happy to see the two black girls that fall for his charming hitchhiker routine.  Becoming immortal creatures detached from humanity may have actually enlightened them on the subject.  Deep down, we are all same on the inside, full of tasty blood.

Alright, I’ve decided.  Jesse’s crew is murderous and cruel, but not racist.  So feel free to like them.

The cast is such a carryover from ALIENS that it is practically an unofficial sequel, or maybe a very weird hyperspace dream.  In fact, one scene even has a movie marquee in the background promoting ALIENS.  One of the fun things about this movie is that the characters are such opposites of their sci-fi counterparts.  Lance Henriksen especially.  The sly and sadistic Jesse is worlds away from the quiet, gentle android Bishop.  Henriksen has a real flare for playing villains, and he rings all the juicy menace out of Jesse down to the last drop.  He has a face like a woodcarving; ruggedly lined and dignified, and that is before they gave him a badass scar.  Jesse genuinely looks like someone who has been banging around since the Civil War.

Jenette Goldstein gets to shed the pumped up roughneck anger of Vasquez for the dangerous, trashy sexiness of Diamondback.  Like Henriksen, she completely owns the role, slitting someone’s throat as nonchalantly as if she were fixing her hair.  There is a great scene where she and Jesse are ambushed on a lonely road by an extremely unlucky trio of car jackers.  As these knuckleheads brandish their guns and brag about all the horrible things they are going to do, Jesse and Diamondback don’t even try to contain their anticipation at what has fallen into their laps.  They react the way a normal person would at finding a 100 dollar bill on the sidewalk.  Bigelow wisely didn’t bother to show the fate of the car jackers.  The pair’s reaction says it all.

In addition to Diamondback’s love for Jesse, she also has a misguided maternal connection to Homer, the saddest of the group.  Homer often complains about being an old man in a kid’s body, but he is really just a very old, very mean child.  His jealousy over Caleb’s closeness with Mae is petulant rather than sexual because he was turned before physically maturing.  His brain is still wired like a boy.  It’s all about insecurity, possessiveness, and entitlement.  He is cursed with the ability to do whatever he wants except grow up.  Miller does a fantastic job of making his character both horrible and relateable, even for a vampire movie.  Between this and RIVER’S EDGE, which he did a year earlier, he was the gold star for shitty kids in the ‘80’s.  

As good as the rest of the cast is, the movie belongs to Bill Paxton.  Severen is probably Paxton’s wildest, most vicious, and most vibrant role ever (though I am also partial to his repulsive turn as Gus from DARK BACKWARD).   Most vampire characters express at least a tiny bit of regret about their inhuman condition.  It is clear from the beginning that Severen has savored every single minute of it.  He is a hotheaded hellion, but has the calculated charm and charisma of a sociopath.  Paxton manages to make the charisma edge out the danger, deftly modulating his mood between relaxed and friendly to electrically charged.  He plays Severen like your sister’s no account boyfriend that you constantly complain about but still kind of have fun being around.  Except this one will kill you.  And your sister.

Severen’s brand of dangerous cool is highlighted by the massacre at a Podunk bar.  The gang might be going there for dinner, but it’s really all about the floorshow.  Jesse and the others mainly just sit back and watch Severen cut loose.  He starts out as just another arrogant asshole hassling a bruiser at the bar, defusing the tension with humor before ratcheting it back up.  When the fists start flying, he shoves poor Caleb in the middle to take (and then dole out) the punishment.  The gradual escalation of intensity within the bar is fantastic, watching the fear dawn on the other patrons and the bartender that they are all in very serious trouble.  The orgy of violence that follows would be almost a welcome relief to the tension, but that too is doled out agonizingly slowly.  The gang could have taken out everyone in a matter of seconds, bled them dry, and been done with it.  Their eternal condition has taught them that as long as they are forced to kill for a living, they might as well have fun with it.  

Caleb and Mae are nowhere near as flashy and entertaining as the others, but both Pasdar and Wright do an effective job.  Mae has a perfect detached, listless quality.  She can’t deal with the realities of her existence, so she drifts through it like a dream.  Aside from her bloodsucking family, nothing really connects with her, until Caleb.  She tries to entice Caleb, and perhaps herself, into the lifestyle by telling him “You can do anything you want.”  It is obvious there are parts of being a vampire that she is uncomfortable with (the killing, the hiding, the poor hygiene), but parts that she really digs.  The final shot is great.  [Spoiler] She and Caleb, both reverted to human by a blood transfusion (the only lame idea in the film), embrace in the sunlight.  She seems happy to be alive and with him, but there is something in her face that says “Oh shit, what have I done?”

Pasdar has probably the most thankless role in the movie playing the moral center, the straight man ruining all the fun.  Bigelow is smart enough to makes him the focus for the beginning of the movie, before things really kick into high gear.  He really sells the pain and confusion of his junkie style transformation into a bloodsucker.  The way he teeters on the edge, wanting to hang with the bad kids while refusing to commit, makes him come off as a bit of a pussy, but in the end he’s brave (or foolish) enough to ride after Severen and rest with just a horse and lasso.  He literally cowboys up.

Everything in this movie comes together so well.  There are so many wonderful little touches that wrap everything together, like all the badges on Severen’s leather jacket, presumably trophies from his conflicts with authority.  Cinematographer Adam Greenberg had an eye for striking images, from an eerily backlit silhouette, to the sunlight spiking through the bullet holes during the hotel room shootout.  There is not a huge amount of blood—until you get to the scene where Severen gets plowed into by a tanker truck.  His half pulverized face is one of the most memorable makeup effects ever, made even more effective by Paxton’s giant grin beaming through all the blood.  

That wraps up NEAR DARK in a nutshell.  The things you are watching should be repellent, but somehow they are just so cool.  And Paxton was a major contributor to that magic, the same way he elevated every movie he was in.  So long, Bill.  To paraphrase Severen, you were finger lickin’ good.

C Chaka

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