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Men, Monsters, or Both

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 feature ‘Near Dark’ is her ultimate genre film—and a neat summary of her beliefs about power and ambivalence

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"I sure haven’t met any girls like you," says Caleb Colton, the cowboy with a smile as suspicious as his naturally blond hair. He’s picking up Mae, a girl he finds pretty because of her familiarity — the same blond hair color as his, with a cut that almost matches his. He sees her holding an ice cream cone and approaches, desperately, awkwardly, trying to infer that he’d like her to do the same to his dick. Why would this pretty girl let this boy give her a ride home? On the way, she asks to stop under the night sky so she can show him the stars. She doesn’t fight his hollow attempt at a compliment; she tries to explain, using science and the sky. "The light that’s leaving that star right now will take a billion years to get down here. You want to know why you’ve never met a girl like me before?" Mae (Jenny Wright) asks, although only a few minutes into the 1987 Kathryn Bigelow film Near Dark, we know Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is a boy who will say yes to anything, or at least not say no. "Because I’ll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to earth in a billion years." Mae doesn’t eat ice cream cones like the girls Caleb is used to. Mae holds men who approach her like they are ice cream cones. Mae is a girl who eats blood.

Near Dark, which turns 30 this fall, was Bigelow’s second feature film, following 1981’s The Loveless. It is both her ultimate genre film and a genre film unlike any other. It is a vampire movie without capes or crosses, a Western without cowboy justice, a road movie without a destination, and most unsettling of all, a film noir with an ending a little too close to happy. It is also the film that establishes the central question of Bigelow’s work. She returns, again and again, to the same kinds of people, defined by whom they stand in opposition to, and more importantly, where their power lies in the world she’s made for them. Her characters are cowboys, criminals, and cops; soldiers, surfers, and the soulless. As her career has progressed, she’s moved up into more realistic hierarchies of control and chaos, with results that range from contentious to the embarrassingly off-base. All of her men are introduced to us as being at the crossroads of an impossible choice (what kind of person are they going to be?) but the answer she’s looking for is much bigger, and much sadder. A Bigelow movie wonders: If these are the options, what kind of person would choose a side at all?

Bigelow likes binaries, and she likes archetypes. The films that make up her early canon have the same narrative tension; our hero can choose what we know is good, or what we know looks so much better, but really, it’s a question of whether he will choose himself. The Loveless offered a bleak prototype for the story that would become Bigelow’s trademark. Set in the 1950s, a biker gang led by a young Willem Defoe enacts a classic trope of Western films by rolling into a sleepy town, not to start trouble but to expose what’s already there; Defoe’s character, who describes himself in voice-over as having "an afternoon for a heart," does the honorable thing by letting the pretty girl with the hot convertible kill her father and then kill herself. Later, Point Break (1991) would ask whether Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) really wanted to be a cop, turning into yet another pencil-pushing, buttoned-up bureaucrat, or if he should just throw it all away to follow Bodhi, Patrick Swayze’s seductive surfing demagogue. Strange Days (1995), a science-fiction movie set four years in the future, on the last day of 1999, is her most traditional film noir: Lenny, a bad man (Ralph Fiennes), is reluctantly drawn into doing the right thing, when his business of selling black-market virtual-reality clips reveals a bigger, badder conspiracy. Near Dark, however, is the only film that takes us out of the all-too-human options for some fairy-tale logic. By removing her characters from a world that we recognize, Bigelow can more acutely show—and blur— the lines between good and evil; her characters are also freed from thinking too deeply about the kinds of control they have over other people, or the literal power they hold, in favor of thinking about fate. The question in Near Dark pretends to be the furthest from reality, even as it’s all too obvious: Do we want to be men or monsters?

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Near Dark begins with the buzz of a mosquito, who dies from a bloody slap by Caleb — the most overt reference to a known bloodsucking creature the movie will make — and gets to the point quickly. Caleb meets some of his dumb friends in town, and after one of them points out Mae standing down the street, he is super uncool about it and runs to get to her before any of his friends can. He deserves what he gets, not least for his pathetic attempts at seduction. "I’m just dying for a cone," he tells her, gesturing to the ice cream. "Dying?" She replies. They take a drive, supposedly toward her house, but they keep detouring: She wants to show him the night sky, and he wants to show her his horse, who bucks and runs away. "Horses just don’t like me," Mae explains, embarrassed. We know why horses don’t like her. Soon she starts panicking because it’s too close to sunrise. We know why she’s panicking. Caleb, however — dumb, idiot Caleb — thinks it’s all part of some extended foreplay. As the sky turns purple and then pink, he parks the car and threatens not to take her home until she kisses him. (This kind of macho behavior sucks and seems like an important indicator of what sort of human Caleb is: monstrous when he knows he can get away with it.) She kisses him and bites his neck, seemingly out of nowhere, drawing enough blood to stain his shirt collar, and then runs away; she’s faster without him. Caleb starts to walk home, but by now the sun is coming out, and he’s feeling the effects of Mae’s bite. Before he can reach his family, an RV picks up Caleb, the windows shielded by tinfoil. It’s Mae and her bloodthirsty family: Jesse (Lance Henriksen) behind the wheel; Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) riding shotgun; Severen (Bill Paxton), who wants Caleb dead; and Homer (Joshua Miller), a young boy we already know isn’t as young as he looks. Mae admits that she "turned" him, saying that he was "bitten but not bled," which explains his hellish sunstroke: He’s one of them now, and no one is happy about it. Well, that’s not entirely true; Mae is kind of into it, and so they begrudgingly offer Caleb a week to "prove" he can be "one of them." This seems like a test he’s destined to fail. Passive to the point of becoming the living dead, Caleb can not hack it as a monster any more than he can hack it as a man, but neither option offers much heroic appeal.

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So far we have bites and blood; the promise of eternal life, or at least a lack of death; a need to stay in the dark. Still, no one has said the word vampire. No one will. Near Dark is absent of much mythology. Bigelow once said the only reading she did for this film was Dracula and Interview With the Vampire, deliberately taking the most general and least gothic vampire references. None of "the teeth, the bats, holy water, crosses, mirrors," she explained, keeping only what she calls the most "salient aspects: "They burn up in sunshine, they must drink blood to live, they live forever, bullets don’t hurt them, and they’re strong." Like Bigelow intended, we don’t see fangs, but knives; we don’t see capes, but Stetsons. If it weren’t for the fact that they can survive the force of bullets and bulldozers but can’t stand the sun, we would question whether they were monsters at all, or just very strong, very sadistic humans.

The following scenes, in which Caleb half-heartedly spends the week trying to convince the family to accept him, are all about proving that the other vampires are especially cruel, even for monsters. One sequence shows the ways the family will split up to find people to feed on, and though they take different tacts — Severen picks up two women disguised as a cocky cowboy, Homer pretends to have fallen from his bike to lure in a passerby, and Jesse and Diamondback are thrilled when two teenage criminals attempt to carjack them — they all take too much pleasure in being predators disguised as prey. Mae, it becomes clear, does the same, drawing in men by wandering around, thumb outstretched for a ride or ice cream cone in hand, looking for someone stupid enough to think that because she looks sweet she is.

Since its release, the scene in which the entire vampire family destroys a bar and everyone in it has become iconic: Described by Bigelow as her "film within a film," there are four acts, with four songs to match ("Fever" by the Cramps, "Naughty Naughty" by John Parr, "Morse Code" by Jools Holland, and "The Cowboy Rides Away" by George Strait) for the brutally, wickedly violent deaths. "It’s ultimately about turning a bar into an abattoir," she explained in an 1995 interview with Gavin Smith, and the meat metaphor is as accurate as it is gruesome. At one point, Severen licks the blood off his hands and declares it "finger-licking good," because even monsters can appreciate good advertising copy for their own fast food. Bigelow’s gift and enthusiasm for fast, frenetic, and violent sequences is what makes her ideas work; she doesn’t just understand how power works, but what power looks like in action. It’s also the scene in which Caleb has a chance to prove himself, and fails. Mae tries to seduce the cowboy in the room most like Caleb, and when he runs away, Caleb catches him but lets him go. This is less a moral decision than a plain hesitance, and ultimately an ambivalence, on Caleb's part; he is still making up his mind about what kind of monster he wants to be.

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Before Bigelow made features, she started making a short film called The Set-Up and finished it in graduate school at Columbia University. For 20 minutes, two men beat each other up. One calls the other a fascist; he responds by calling the first guy a Commie. It was, according to Bigelow, "politically literal." Two professors at Columbia at the time, Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, talk about the film in voice-over as it happens, and the film ends, as Bigelow recalled in an interview, with Lotringer explaining that "you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words a police officer, the government, the system, but that’s not really the case at all, fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time."

Bigelow is responsive to power, both personal and structural. Bigelow’s male heroes are not really heroes, but are, instead, individuals enacting and enforcing the same power structures that benefit them; they have no souls to save, just their own senses of self. Bigelow has been more successful examining this dynamic in what we consider a "genre" film; her work after 2008 (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and, most recently, Detroit) attempts to apply these individual conflicts to more politically literal narratives of soldiers and police officers, with wildly differing results. Her writing partner, Mark Boal, was a journalist before a screenwriter, and his journalistic tendencies — to find the stories, the action, the characters — prioritize questions of reporting and detail over motivation. This has the effect of reducing history and lived experience to just another medium for an artist at work, a series of linear moves leading to an inevitable conclusion. With a film like Zero Dark Thirty, the result is pointed and haunting; with a film like Detroit, the result is hollow and reductive.

The women in Bigelow’s movies serve strange purposes. In her few films where women are the heroes, the characters have already chosen to be good, and then they have to spend the entire run time proving that their good choices aren’t a cover for being bad. In Blue Steel (1990), everyone wants to know why Megan, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, would want to be a cop, except for the psychopathic serial killer obsessed with her. He knows, he tells her, that she wants to be a cop because they’re the same: They both want to kill people and get away with it. Curtis will spend the rest of the movie killing or getting people killed to prove him wrong. In Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is a CIA operative who believes that torture, among other immoral tactics, successfully led to the discovery and execution of Osama bin Laden. In the year 2008, she is warned, by a fellow CIA operative, that times are changing, and she doesn’t want to be "the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." For Bigelow, the best man is the man who chooses himself; her women have already chosen their idea of good, and that choice can’t be trusted.

In Near Dark, we don’t learn too much about the vampires before they were vampires, but we learn enough to know that they were just as evil as humans. When Caleb asks Jesse how old he is, he obliquely says he’s old enough to have fought for the South. "We lost," he says, and everyone laughs. Caleb, too, was a predator in his own way, willing to use small acts of cruelty to get a kiss from a girl. Near Dark reaches its apex when Caleb’s human family, searching to bring him home, accidentally end up at the same motel as Caleb’s new, vampire family. He’s just begun to relax, maybe even about to decide to stay with Mae, when Homer finds Caleb’s little sister Sarah buying a Coke at the hotel vending machines. Homer is desperate for a companion his own size, if not internal age, and is thrilled to find her wandering around alone. He asks why she’s out so late, and Sarah, a real cowgirl, responds, "I do what I wanna do, when I wanna do it." She’s probably the only character worth saving in this film. When Homer brings her back to the vampires’ room, after so much violence, it’s a shock to feel real danger. Caleb’s dad, Loy, must be where Caleb gets his uselessness from; he tries to save them all by shooting Jesse, who spits the bullet back at him. After they narrowly escape, Loy says, "Normal people, they don’t spit out bullets when you shoot ’em." No shit, Dad.

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There’s some dubious science barely explained, but we’re led to believe that once the family is back on the farm, Loy administers an at-home blood transfusion, replacing Caleb’s vampire blood entirely, which makes him human again. The vampires come back for him and Sarah, and after a battle that lasts all night, they die when the sun comes up. Mae seems like she wants to sacrifice herself to save Sarah, and deliberately goes back into the sun to protect her, but Caleb "rescues" Mae and gives her the same transfusion that made him human. Near Dark almost becomes a circle: Mae gave Caleb vampire blood, so Caleb gives Mae human blood. She might have set the whole thing off, but she’s the one with the least power. Caleb makes the last and the most important decision for her. The movie ends with Caleb hugging her in the sun, a sign that the transfusion worked, but this happy ending under the sun on this nondescript farm looks like a bleak future for Mae. Just like no one asked her if she wanted to be a vampire, no one asked her if she wanted to be a human, or if she wanted to be at all. If her original plan was to eat Caleb, a lifetime with him seems not like fate, but like a choice worse than death.

Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor living in New York.