MUBI Movies: NEAR DARK (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s cult classic is a not-so-subtle allegory for drug abuse.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

Vampires and allegory are no stranger to one another, stretching back to the cautionary tales of Dracula and into the escapist romantic fantasies of Twilight. Vampires bridge a gulf between humanity and monstrosity in a way that lends itself well to heightened parable, as the exchange of blood for the ultimate wish of immortality carries enough broad cultural implication that there are nearly infinite ways to interpret the trope as social commentary. Kathryn Bigelow, a film auteur best known for her stripped-down action sensibilities and blunt portrayals of human evil, tried her hand at the vampire narrative with her sophomore feature, Near Dark, and the result was an examination of drug culture that would gain a cult following outliving its lukewarm Reagan Era reception.

Set in the American West, Near Dark follows Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) as he pursues a mysterious young woman, Mae (Jenny Wright). After a night of flirting and aggressive advances, Caleb finally insists that Mae kiss him before they can part ways, to which Mae responds by biting his neck and running away. The next day, Caleb starts to burn in the sun, and after seeking refuge learns that Mae is a member of a vampire gang that roams the countryside for human victims to feed upon. With the newfound knowledge that he needs blood to survive, and with the begrudging acceptance of the gang’s leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen), Caleb learns what it means to be a vampire, coming face to face with a draw to power at the expense of the human lives around him.

What’s interesting about Bigelow’s take, aside from her usual stark storytelling and preference for naturalistic delivery, is that she frames vampiristic compulsion as a narcotic withdrawal, treating Caleb’s early hours without human blood in his system as the shaky unfocused behaviors of an addict. He tries to get away from Mae and the other vampires, only to come crawling back under the belief that he needs them to survive, to make the pain stop. And through a legendary pool hall takeover, Caleb starts to realize the power inherent in his new life, the feeling of strength and euphoria that comes from embracing his addiction.

However, the moral of this story isn’t that Jesse’s posse is justified in their disregard of humanity. It’s one thing for Caleb to kill strangers who seem to have it coming, but it’s quite another when his family starts looking for him, and the vampires threaten to kill his father and turn his sister. There is a realization that the human cost of his newfound feeling of power is not worth the lives he must destroy to attain it, and it is ultimately an illusion anyway as the light of the sun destroys any semblance of freedom. Only by renouncing his addiction is Caleb able to bring himself back into the light, a process which nearly kills him but does restore his humanity.

Interestingly, Bigelow frames the existence of public authority as detrimental to Caleb’s recovery. When confronted by a police officer who assumes his vampiric withdrawals are a form of drug high, Caleb is treated as a public nuisance to be disposed of, not a suffering individual in need of assistance. The vampiric gang is attacked in a police raid under the presumption of guilt tied to their roaming lifestyle. When he finally chooses to step away from vampirism, Caleb refuses to go to the hospital in the justified belief that the experience would kill him. The institutional war on drugs is ultimately a war on addicts, not their addiction, and Near Dark has an understanding of that paradigm that was ahead of its time.

The allegory is what spoke most strongly to me personally, but there’s no getting around how Near Dark is just an excellently written and directed film, brought to life by fantastic performances by Pasdar, Wright, Henriksen, and, in one of his more iconic roles, Bill Paxton as the psychotic Severin. This is exceptionally solid filmmaking, and it’s a testament to the strength of Kathryn Bigelow as an auteur even in her earliest works.

Near Dark is part of MUBI’s What Is An Auteur? Series and is available to watch right here!