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Near Dark (BFI Film Classics) by Stacey Abbott review – ‘a rare piece of work…a masterclass’

Embarrassingly, I’d never seen Near Dark before I started writing this review. I don’t know why, it just seemed to pass me by. I take some comfort in the fact that, at least on initial release, this vampire-noir-western hybrid passed a lot of other people by as well.

Although now considered a cult classic, Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature film and solo directorial debut was a flop at the box office and failed to recoup even its modest $5 million budget. To add insult to injury, The Lost Boys – released a few months before Near Dark and covering similar, if tonally distinct, ground – brought in a frankly whopping $32 million. Why is it that a film described by some reviewers as “weird and beautiful” failed to find popular acceptance? How did it manage, pleasingly, to return from the dead to find new life outside the glare of the box office?

These questions, and more, are ones that Stacey Abbott’s investigation seeks to answer.

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As preparation for this review, I rectified my previous oversight and watched Near Dark. Although I thought it was a good film, I couldn’t bring myself to call it a great film. The story – restless cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is turned into a vampire by Mae (Jenny Wright) and has to wrestle with either losing her and returning to his family or losing his humanity and becoming more like callous Jesse (Lance Henriksen), vicious Severan (Bill Paxton) or malevolent Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), Mae’s own vampiric “family” – felt a bit too slight, relying too much on set-pieces to add momentum. However, one thing that’s immediately and persistently apparent in Abbot’s book – like many of the other entries in the BFI’s Film Classics series – is the fact that she absolutely loves Near Dark. Beyond any technical understanding or theoretical insight, there is a simple delight in talking about the film that is palpable and infectious. Reading Abbott’s own thoughts on the film and its place within the medium of film as a whole has made me reassess my own opinion, made me realise that Near Dark is indeed something genuinely special. If you’re pushed for time, then take that as the glowing review it’s intended to be.

If you hang around, though, the second thing that strikes the reader is that Abbott is a fan but no sycophant. A large part of the book deals with, and refutes, Bigelow’s claim that her intention with Near Dark was to “take away all the Gothic aspects” from vampire films. Indeed, Near Dark is bereft of the genre’s stereotypical “castles, bats, crosses, stakes in the heart” and, as Abbott reminds us, “no one in the diagesis recognizes the vampires for what they are or have become”. Yet Abbot, rightly, calls this “a rather restricted definition of the Gothic”. Near Dark absolutely is a gothic film not because of the presence or absence of mere props but, more interestingly, because of its use of transgression, liminality and chiaroscuro. This deep link with thresholds and contradictions is what allows Near Dark to talk about “the Gothic oppositions of day and night; good and evil; civilized and barbaric; reason and nightmare”. Perhaps, in some way, this is why the film failed at the box office; it struck too sensitive a nerve when biting into the contradictions and nightmares that exist in the crepuscular worlds that lurk either side of daylight.

Even further, Abbott explains how Near Dark’s liminal qualities yet lack of overtly gothic trappings situates it in a group of other films – like The Hitcher, The Terminator and Aliens – that share not only similar themes but also, to greater or lesser degrees, cast and crew members. Like Near Dark, all of these take place in liminal environments, dealing with what it is to be human and inhuman. Like Near Dark, they all use sustained bursts of violence and abjection to distinguish themselves from other texts, like The Hunger, which look more at the seductive and sympathetic side of vampirism. Abbott’s awareness of this wider canon and ability to use it to draw out contrasts or comparisons adds both a depth and warmth to her analysis of the film at hand.

This level of analysis is also afforded to the characters within the film, most notably Mae. Abbott devotes an entire chapter to this “not-so-reluctant” vampire and the conundrum she represents. Mae seems to enjoy being a vampire. She is neither a self-pitying recluse nor a ravening monster. Instead, she uses her vampiric powers to investigate the world in a deeper, more philosophical way than she ever could have done as a “mere” human. The emotional contrast between her and her more appetite-driven family is stark, yet she is a cold-blooded killer just like them, and she never shies away from that aspect of herself. As Abbott explains, Mae is a transgressive figure that confuses and blurs, in an intensely gothic way, what people, women and even vampires are expected to be.

Abbott uses the end of her book, fittingly, to discuss the film’s finale and closing scenes which I won’t discuss here to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, she brings the same insight and thoughtfulness to the analysis that she has to the preceding chapters.

Abbott’s Near Dark is a rare piece of work. She talks about her chosen film in a way that is engaging and enlightening, yet always challenging. As Professor Roger Luckhurst summarises in his back cover blurb, she “brings the authority of decades of scholarship and the enthusiasm of the fan to bear” in a work which will be useful to anyone interested in vampire horror, Bigelow’s filmography, gothic texts or 80s action movies. Greater than that, Abbott has written not just an exploration of a film but also a masterclass in talking about film as a concept. 

Near Dark (BFI Film Classics) by Stacey Abbott is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

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By Daniel Pietersen

Daniel Pietersen is a writer of weird fiction and critical non-fiction on horror and horror theory. When not writing articles or preparing conference papers, you will find Daniel still trying to complete Dark Souls 2. Daniel is on Twitter as @pietersender and much of his work can be found through his website.

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