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Posts Tagged ‘Lance Henriksen’

When a cluster of films with a similar theme all come out at the same time, is it always the best one that makes the most money? Is it the best one that’s best remembered? Here, I suppose, we’re into the problem of defining words like ‘cluster’ and ‘best’ and, perhaps, even ‘similar’. I thought that there were startling parallels between District 9 and Avatar, but no-one else seemed to pick up on them. In that case I would very definitely argue that the better film made less money and less of an impact. Earlier in his career, though, James Cameron was part of a wave of low-budget SF movies set in California with a vaguely punk-ish sensibility and a fascination with time travel, the end of the world, and automatic weaponry – and here surely the best film won on all counts, simply because you’re much more likely to have heard of The Terminator than Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet.

This is threatening to turn into Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but a few years after Terminator, Cameron’s one-time wife Kathryn Bigelow contributed to another notable wave of films – vampire horror movies, usually with teenaged or youthful protagonists. I’m not sure that The Hunger quite counts as kicking this off, but anyway: Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp, and Once Bitten all came out in the space of couple of years. And so, in 1987, did Bigelow’s Near Dark. This is a film which hasn’t enjoyed quite the same profile as some of its peers, but it seems to me to have been much more influential.

Adrian Pasdar does a good job of channelling the spirit of a young Elvis as he plays Caleb, a young Oklahoman farm boy. Caleb is a typical, red-blooded guy and of an evening likes nothing better than to head into town in search of attractive feminine company. Unfortunately this very red-bloodedness draws the attention of Mae (Jenny Wright), who is… oh, well, there’s no point being coy about this: she’s a vampire. However, Caleb forms a connection with Mae that makes her reluctant to rip him open and guzzle his blood, and she leaves him with just a playful little bite on the throat. This is enough to leave Caleb with serious problems when it comes to walking home the following morning. Just prior to his actually bursting into flames, he is abducted by the rest of Mae’s ‘family’, who lack her wholesome good looks and sweet nature. Their initial reaction is to try to kill Caleb, until they realise he is one of them. At this point they are prepared to let him join the family – but in order to truly belong, he has to learn to kill…

There are various problems with the story of Near Dark: there are holes in the plot (does Mae not realise biting Caleb will turn him?), which is reliant on at least one massive coincidence, and various elements are simply unsatisfactory – the ‘cure’ for vampirism that’s concocted near the end is a bit mundane and unconvincing, while the fact that the female lead is responsible for numerous savage murders over a period of years (for which she never shows much remorse nor receives any kind of punishment) is never really addressed head-on. And this last does matter, because Near Dark is framed partly as a mythic clash of good and evil – or, perhaps, innocence and sin. On the other hand, it’s because the movie does this so well that one’s prepared to overlook the problems with the plot.

For a film which is famously a western-horror fusion, there’s a strangely fairytale-ish quality to a lot of Near Dark – the characters are archetypes, the settings classic. The film looks beautiful, thanks to Bigelow’s compositions and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography. I’m not sure whether the striking synth score by Tangerine Dream really suits the subject matter of the film, but it’s one of the most memorable elements. The film looks and sounds impressively distinctive – which is probably quite important, given that it is mainly about putting new interpretations on very well-known ideas and themes.

From the opening dustbowl scenes onwards, the film’s setting in a decaying south-western USA can’t help but recall The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s not that difficult to see the itinerant vampire family as the monstrous equivalent of the Joad family from that book – both are migrants, both bound together by powerful ties of blood and loyalty. Both are, to some extent, aliens in the modern world. But perhaps one shouldn’t go too far down this path, as while the Joads are painfully sympathetic creations, Near Dark‘s vampires are not. They are, in fact, properly scary like few other screen undead. Given Bigelow’s connections with James Cameron (who is in the movie), it’s not much of a surprise that several members of the Cameron Repertory Company turn up to play the monsters. Lance Henriksen plays the head of the family, Bill Paxton is his berserk rockabilly sidekick, and Jenette Goldstein is the closest thing the pack has to a maternal figure. All of them made an impression in Aliens as members of the marine platoon – but all of them are even more memorable here. (There’s a story that the three of them pitched Bigelow a prequel to this movie focussing on their characters – sadly, she passed.)

What lifts Near Dark above the level of films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys is the way in which it jettisons most of the chintzy trappings of older vampire stories in favour of its own, stripped-down mythology. There are no coffins, no crucifixes, no stakes or garlic – and indeed the word ‘vampire’ is never used at any point in the film. Instead the movie finds a way to incorporate the creatures into a dusty, fading western landscape where they don’t feel remotely incongruous. And perhaps the reason why Near Dark‘s vampires are genuinely frightening when so many others feel like joke-shop monsters arises from this. In many other films, vampires are just vampires, and supposedly frightening solely for this reason. The classic archetype of the aristocratic foreign vampire, which is so often the default setting for this kind of character, only became so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness because this figure at one time symbolised a set of genuine fears and concerns for the audience of vampire stories. It’s putting a fantastical costume on a real source of unease. Nowadays, we have different worries, and just trotting out the archetype unthinkingly only presents us with an empty costume to be scared of.

Near Dark works so well as a vampire movie in that it does find a way to use the myth of the vampire to comment on a genuine contemporary source of fear – that of rootless, criminal migrants, potentially committing terrible crimes and then vanishing in the night. It’s important to say that this needn’t be a valid or logical fear – and indeed, if this reading of the film is correct, it must be said that Near Dark‘s view of drifters is surely about as rational as the Daily Mail‘s view of immigrants – but the fear itself has to be genuine for the film to work. And it does.

Even so, the vampire lifestyle almost begins to look alluring at one point in the film – but then the plot takes an unexpected turn and we’re in for a final act which is probably the weakest part of the film. There are various odd and unlikely developments in the cause of a vaguely unconvincing happy ending. The rest of the film is intelligent and well-made enough to more than compensate, and there are some brilliant set-pieces – the family’s visit to a bar, resulting in the gory slaughter of nearly everyone within, and a shootout with the local cops where the real danger is not the bullets but the sunlight the bulletholes allow into the hiding place. This last bit was shamelessly nicked by From Dusk Till Dawn (a movie which got everything nearly wrong which Near Dark gets right), but this film has surely been hugely influential despite its lack of commercial success. Needless to say, a remake is apparently in the works – but I was more surprised to hear of an attempted remake from 2008, which was never completed. Notably strange things about this were the reappearance of key cast members in different roles (Paxton in Henriksen’s part, Goldstein in Wright’s – how the hell was that going to work?) and the fact that it was abandoned on the grounds that it was ‘too similar to Twilight‘. I can’t imagine any version of Near Dark being remotely similar to Twilight, to be honest, but there you go. For the time being the original movie stands, reputation unblemished by dodgy sequels or unnecessary remakes: the best fusion of classic Americana and supernatural horror I can think of.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 28th 2002:

[Originally following a review of Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.]

Well, what are the odds? You wait weeks without a single monster movie getting a mention and then suddenly two come along at once. Yup, let’s look at James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens.

Looking back at Cameron’s filmography as a director, it’s clear that originality is not the man’s strong point. It’s a collection of reworkings of other people’s material (The Terminator, True Lies) and sequels (Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Terminator 2, the film in question) and, of course, based-on-fact disaster movies. The sole exception to this is The Abyss, which I’ve always found to be his weakest movie for a major studio. [Anyone heading for the comments section framing a remark featuring the word Avatar, don’t bother. – A]

But anything he lacks in terms of inventiveness he makes up for in his ability to deliver a high-octane head-banging action movie, and that’s exactly what Aliens is. 57 years after the events of the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat Jones (a cat) are rescued from their deep-space deep-freeze. Her employers refuse to believe her story concerning the fate of the Nostromo… until contact is lost with an outpost on the planet they originally found the alien creature. Along with an amoral company executive (Paul Reiser) and a squad of marines (Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein amongst them), Ripley sets out for the remote colony, where nastiness inevitably ensues…

I think Aliens is a better film than its predecessor for one simple reason – James Cameron may not have Ridley Scott’s unique visual flair, but he has an instinctive grasp of storytelling, and he knows that a great action film is all about tension, characterisation, and ultimately delivering the thrills. There are no pointless 2001 homages in Aliens (well, maybe there’s one right at the start), nary a wasted shot or redundant line. There’s suspense in bucketloads (largely achieved by simply not featuring the monsters until nearly halfway through the film), and a small cast of readily identifiable, if not always likeable, characters (with the exception of Reiser’s wretched yuppie-scum). And of course, the climax of the film has the remarkable, iconic Alien Queen as its killer punch – though this isn’t to dismiss the other superb set-pieces (my favourite is the escape through the ducting culminating in Vasquez and Gorman’s trick with the grenades).

Cameron knows how to make a great sequel, too: virtually all the elements of the original film reappear, but his approach to them is sufficiently different to keep them fresh and engaging. The one real change is quite subtle – where Alien was on a deep level a psychological horror story about rape, Aliens – for all its testosterone-fuelled frenzy – is about the alarming power of the maternal instinct. But it still manages to make the original film look like nothing more than a low-key prologue, and at the same time sets an impossibly high standard for the subsequent films in the series.

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