The first time I became aware of Kathryn Bigelow was in 1987 when I went to see a new vampire film entitled Near Dark (1987). There was little else out that interested me at the time, and Sherri and I always liked a good horror film, so despite the fact we knew only one member of the cast, we took a chance. Needless to say we were rocked in our seats by the brash and incredibly confident style of director Kathryn Bigelow. This was a vampire different from the others, tough and sinewy, with acts of terrible violence and roughly portrayed characters, all with a lived in feeling that worked for the film. To this day it remains the best vampire film I have ever seen, though I confess to being biased. Written by Bigelow and Eric Red, it was her first feature film, and displayed a staggering confidence with the characters, narrative and images that would become her trademark. It is a horror film merged with a western, sometimes called “that hillbilly vampire film” which would not necessarily be out of line.
On the run as the sun is rising they attempt to bully their way in a crappy motel. When the clerk, an ancient old man states that Jesse (Lance Henricksen) looks familiar, he slams the cash on the counter on the table and says, (paraphrasing) “Put it this way…I fought for the South” which is among the more chilling lines in the film as it gives us an idea of just how old Jesse is.
In a battered old van with the windows taped with black electrical tape to protect them from the deadly rays of the sun, this dysfunctional family group of vampires travels the American Midwest slaughtering everyone in their path, on the lamb from the law, and trying to stay alive. Jesse is without question the leader and obviously the oldest of the group, his mate being James Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein as Diamondback. Another Cameron actor, Bill Paxton gives his wildest performance as Severn a particularly vicious vampire, while Joshua Miller, so good in River’s Edge (1987) is Homer, a child vampire likely a hundred years old given the name. Mae, portrayed by Jenny Wright nips Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and brings him unwilling into their world. Though they try to get Caleb to kill he won’t do it, and eventually they decide to kill him. When he saves their lives by getting them to safety he buys himself some time.
There is a stunning scene that takes place in a red neck bar, and the moment they walk in you know danger lurks by the looks in their eyes. It turns into a slaughter, with Paxton having the most fun, dancing on the bar, killing whoever he can and drinking their blood, bitching “I hate it when they don’t shave”. Bigelow fills the film with images we have not seen before in a vampire film, one that has always stuck with me. Fighting it out in a battered old motel room at daylight, the bullets from the police tear through the wood causing deadly sunlight to zip into the room like deadly lasers, placing the vampires in peril. Original, striking, and allowing us to see that the killers had their vulnerabilities, it was directed and edited to perfection.
The performances were terrific, though Pasdar and Wright were a tad dreary and their love story was weak. The film came to life as though with an electric charge when Henricksen, Paxton and Goldstein were on-screen, which luckily for us, was often. Young Miller, the son of Jason Miller who portrayed Father Karras in The Exorcist (1973), and brother of actor Jason Patric, has his moments and for a time took all the roles in movies and TV that needed a sociopathic twelve-year-old. Here he is obviously a very old man stuck in a childs’ body, and he plans on doing something about it, placing Caleb’s innocent sister in harm’s way.
Bigelow would go on to direct high testosterone movies such as the cult classic Point Break (1991), but for me this was her finest film until The Hurt Locker (2009) and for me would have forever made her the real deal. I really am thrilled for her that she is peaking at this point in her life. How odd that women directors are so many in the world of theater yet so rare in film? Bigelow has helped turn eyes to Sarah Polley and many other young women starting out in the business, giving them hope.
She could very well win her second Academy Award for Zero Dark thirty, her brilliant new film about the hunt to find Osama Bin Laden, and if she does, it would be a justice, one of three that could take place in the category of Best Director. Hard to dispute this sort of genius.