Near Dark (US - BD)
Gabe takes a belated look at Kathryn Bigelow's vampire flick on Blu-ray...
Oklahoma small town bumpkin Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) finds true love one night in a mysterious, out of towner named Mae (Jenny Wright). During a make-out session Mae bites Caleb’s neck, and draws blood, before running off. As the sun rises Caleb’s skin begins to burn, and just before making it back to his farm home he’s snatched up by Mae’s roving family unit. Turns out that they’re vampires, and that Mae’s love bite has turned Caleb into a vampire too. Awkward family dynamics and blood drinking ensue.
Popular vampire stories, as noted by many important intellectual sources, are a surprising potent measurement of the popular culture of any given era since their inception. In the ‘80s the most popular vampire movies were rather fun-loving, relatively bloodless exercises, including Fright Night and My Best Friend’s a Vampire. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark doesn’t offer much new to vampire lore, except maybe the mode of transportation (and possibly the old man vampire trapped in a child’s body element), but it was the perfect antidote to Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, which was released the same year, and featured many similar plot elements. Both films feature a male protagonist falling in with the wrong crowd (in both cases crowds of a vampiric nature), falling for the wrong girl (though in the case of Lost Boys the homoeroticism overtakes any doomed hetero romance), and fighting the violent side of becoming a vampire. Both films also deal with post-adolescent family units ( The Lost Boys title clearly evoking the classic tale of post-adolescent – Peter Pan). Apparently 1987 audiences preferred Schumacher’s more lighthearted take on the formula (it was a hit, while Bigelow’s film was a flop), but many horror fans prefer Near Dark’s harder edge.
The love story stands just this side of hokey, but the events surrounding it are delightfully southern fried, and just as testosterone driven as the majority of Bigelow’s aggressive filmography. The western aspects of the film are something that wouldn’t be explored again on film until Anthony Hickcox’s Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat in 1990 (an even more underappreciated film than Near Dark), and later by John Carpenter, who took a crack at the genre with the aptly titled Vampires, which was one of the directors most unfortunately uneven films. Bigelow’s film was definitely ahead of the curve in this aspect, and the frequency and cruelty of the film’s violence sets it far apart from most of the ‘80s best vampire flicks, save perhaps Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane’s underseen The Black Room (which is such a child of the ‘70s many critics suspect it was actually filmed in the era, and held unreleased until 1984). Tony Scott’s The Hunger is bleaker overall, but Near Dark’s rough edges make it the more indelibly visceral experience.
Despite apparently coincidental thematic similarities with The Lost Boys, Near Dark’s script is probably its strongest suit. Bigelow’s direction is strong, especially based on her budget, and the cast is packed with deservingly memorable performances, but without the perfectly structured script, crafted by Bigelow and Eric Red, the film’s less original elements would’ve stepped more to the forefront. The film’s cult appeal is largely due to the unique story elements, and the brisk runtime, both of which wouldn’t have worked without such a strong script. Perhaps even more relevant than the air-tight structure and indelible characters (which are equally credited to the actors, who developed them through extensive rehearsal and improve) are the screenplay’s understated analogous elements. No one ever feels the need to directly reference the social implications of Caleb’s dueling family units in terms of dialog. Red’s screenwriting pedigree is largely defined by Near Dark and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, which was released the year before Bigelow’s film. Since then he’s largely floundered, but his efforts are always recognized by horror fans, and his newest films are usually given the benefit of the doubt.
The horror stories surrounding this particular high definition transfer are, sadly, at least partially true. The claims comparing this transfer unfavorably to Anchor Bay’s OOP DVD special edition strike me as hyperbole, but it has been a long time since I rented that particular disc, and when I did I certainly didn’t watch it on this set. On the whole this 1080p transfer looks better than an up-converted DVD to me, but it certainly isn’t the reason to celebrate I’m sure fans were hoping for when the Blu-ray release was announced. The night time scenes are very dark, and low on details, but there isn’t too much grain or noise. The daylight scenes are a more startling story, featuring some major DNR (especially visual in background details), a sad lack of details, and some edge-enhancement problems on the harshest contrasting areas. These scenes are sometimes sub-up-converted DVD quality. The indoor and stage set scenes, where the filmmakers exert the most control, are the best looking parts of the transfer, featuring some nice pin-point contrasts without edge-enhancement, though details are still at a premium, and there are a few unfortunate ghosting effects. There aren’t many chances for vibrant hues in the film, but the occasional warm bursts are solidly cut, and clear of obvious compression noise. It’s pretty clear that the overall darkness of the film is most to blame for many of these issues, and the darkness is key to the film’s overall mood. Without being an expert on the subject I’m assuming the transfer would actually look better with more grain and noise, and the DNR frequency, which creates an overall muddied look, is the release’s real problem.
Again, it’s been too long since I last viewed the Anchor Bay release, and I can’t recall the audio quality for comparison purposes here. What I can say, based on this viewing alone, is that some of the 2.0 to 5.1 efforts are a bit on the awkward side. The centered elements don’t bleed, but disappointingly enough make up the majority of the non-musical aural pieces. The directional stereo effects that do make their way out from the center are often a shed too obviously adjusted for the new mix, but work well enough to add a little texture to the mix. The rear channels are almost entirely free of discreet noise outside of some minor ambience and musical echo effects. The LFE track supports the music, vehicular engines, and gunshots, but its most creative use is the rumble caused by encroaching light. Overall the track’s biggest problem is volume consistency throughout the effects and dialogue. The included PCM 2.0 track is a little more consistent, and though the center channel bleeds a bit into the stereo channels, and the LFE is shallower, probably the preferable way to view the film. Tangerine Dream’s synth heavy score is the most aggressive element on both tracks, often overstepping into too loud territory, but the score’s melancholy nature works well to undercut the film’s more action and suspense oriented scenes. The bar scene is the best sampling of the mix’s aural abilities, featuring a mix of relatively consistent vocal elements, natural sound effects, and some nicely blended ambient jukebox music.
Lionsgate isn’t very good about creating new extras for their catalogue Blu-ray releases, but they’ve done the next best thing in this case, and commissioned the Anchor Bay DVD’s extras, or at least the most valuable ones. These start with a commentary track with director Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow is intelligent and delightfully soft spoken, but she leaves a lot of blank space, and has a tendency to state the obvious. I’d prefer a little more focus on the technical aspects of filmmaking, or behind the scenes stories, but Bigelow is mostly intent on discussing the structural and unspoken elements of the script. There are some surprises here that aren’t available in the making-of documentary, but overall the track is merely a nice addition, rather than a ‘must hear’.
‘Living in Darkness’ (47:20, SD) is a solid retrospective look at the film. The various cast and crew interview subjects, including Bigelow, producer Steven-Charles Jaffe, cinematographer Adam Greenberg, actors Bill Paxton, Lance Henricksen, Adrian Pasdar, and Jenette Goldstein discuss the script’s inception, selling the film, securing Bigelow in the director’s chair, the film’s look, casting, character back-story, the filming process, Bigelow’s directing method, special effects, and release. Henricksen’s method acting method stories are particularly entertaining, as are the descriptions of on and off set pranks. The talking head interviews are set to scenes of the film and still photos, but there is unfortunately no behind the scenes footage available.
The extras are finished up with a deleted scene (1:20, SD), shot in infrared black and white, and presented only with Bigelow’s commentary as audio, and two trailers.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Lionsgate production artists tailoring this Near Dark Blu-ray’s cover art towards the Twilight crowd, and personally I’m for it. Even if only one fan of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon dynamic vampire series enjoys Kathryn Bigelow’s film enough to seek out more complex vampire lore this goofy cover art is worth it. The disc, on the other hand, is actually a disappointment, featuring a DNR flubbed transfer, and average audio. The Anchor Bay DVD’s extras are somewhat represented though, so fans that missed out on that release will want to pick this up for the commentary track and making of doc, but those with the AB release in hand might want to skip.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 10th November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Living in Darkness, Deleted Scene, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Adrian Pasdar, Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, Tim Thomerson
Length: 99 minutes