Scene Analysis | Grace and Brutality in “Near Dark”

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark tells the story of Caleb, a naïve young man who falls for the winsome blonde vampire Mae and finds himself struggling to adjust to her nighttime world of murder and mayhem. Transformed by a bite from Mae, Caleb nevertheless struggles with the morality of feeding on humans. Bigelow’s vision of star-crossed love among bloodsuckers is at once wildly romantic and frankly gruesome. It offers a rare mix of beauty and ugliness – grace and brutality.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes exemplifies this seemingly contradictory allure. In it, Caleb, Mae, and the rest of Mae’s nomadic vampire family descend upon a small rural bar in order to find Caleb’s first victim. The veteran vampires in the group take sadistic glee in this project, intimidating, insulting, and otherwise toying with the patrons. Essentially, the vampires are playing with their food.

By alternating the vampire’s vicious teasing with explosive moments of violence, Bigelow creates a sequence that parallels the loud-quiet-loud dynamic of many rock songs. Indeed, she orchestrates the action so it seems to sync with the songs emanating from the bar’s jukebox. When the ruthless vampire Severen leaps onto the bar and stalks his way toward the bartender, kicking over glasses as he goes, the steady beat of The Cramps’ cover of “Fever” heightens the tension while transforming the attack into a kind of dance. The effect is at once enthralling and repellant. Bigelow shoots from a low angle when Severen stands on top of the bar, creating the feeling that he’s looming over the audience just as he does the doomed bartender. With his blood-smeared face and unapologetic cruelty, Severen is every inch the monster that Caleb stands to become if he joins in the bloodshed.

Indeed, the bar sequence serves not only as a memorable centerpiece for the film, but also a neat précis of its conflicts and themes. In what is meant to be a rite of initiation for Caleb, cementing him as member of Mae’s murderous family, Severen antagonizes the humans in the bar in order to get Caleb into a fight. Severen aims to show Caleb the extent of the latter’s newfound vampiric powers, which include heightened strength and the ability to withstand a severe gunshot wound. Caleb is astonished and not entirely displeased by these revelations, but a bit later, when Mae handpicks a victim for him, he ultimately can’t bring himself to kill. By depicting the vampires’ attacks with style and humor while also acknowledging the horror of their deeds, Bigelow helps us understand Caleb’s dilemma: he must weigh his morality and empathy against the appeal of a powerful, lawless existence with Mae. “The night has its price,” Mae tells Caleb at one point in the film. The bar sequence forces Caleb to confront whether the price of power – and love – has become too high.

Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.
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