Since genre movies (SF/F) are an obsession for me and my wife (The B&T Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk), I came up with an interesting idea: what if I wrote about the genre movies we think are perfect, or nearly so? Now, bear in mind that these are opinions only; yours may differ from ours, but these are movies that we feel couldn’t be improved on (with minor caveats; after all, the “ultimate edition” of Bladerunner has five or six Blu-Rays in it). So, over a period of several weeks—not continuous weeks, as I have some books to review too—I plan to review some of our favourite perfectos. Many of my readers will already be familiar with most of these movies, but some may not be—and I could possibly throw in some information that’s not really well known. Since these movies are all “oldies,” I’m not gonna refrain from spoilers.
I don’t have a complete list—we’ve been writing them down, but I don’t know where I put it—so I’ll give you a few “ad hoc” examples: Near Dark, Aliens, Bladerunner, Terminator 2. All these are well-known among genre fans, but I think people have made the assumption that all genre fans are familiar with all genre movies, which just isn’t so. For example, Aliens came out in 1986, and Near Dark in 1987… which means any fan who is 25 or younger probably won’t have seen these in the theatre. And some “mainstream” genre fans won’t like “horror” movies, and won’t have seen Near Dark, which is a crying shame, because besides being a movie about vampires, it’s also a great character study, with distinct character types being played by Adrian Pasdar, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton, Tim Thomerson, Jenny Wright, and Troy Evans. Part of this is the direction/writing by Kathryn Bigelow (and Eric Red).
I’m going to assume you’re under 30 and not intimately familiar with the storyline here. The movie begins when a mosquito, sucking blood from Caleb’s arm, is squashed flat! Wham!
Caleb Colton (Pasdar) is a young farmboy/cowboy who hits town one night with his friend to have a few drinks and see what he can pick up. He meets a waiflike young blonde woman, Mae (Wright), and is immediately smitten with her. He takes her out to the farm to meet his horse, but the animal shies away from her, sensing her vampirism. During the course of the evening, she bites his neck, turning him into a vampire, then runs off into the night. He has no idea what’s happened to him until, when dawn breaks, the sunlight hits him and his body begins to break down. He is saved when a Winnebago—with windows/windshield blacked out—containing the rest of the vampire troupe pulls up alongside him and grabs him.
Inside he meets the rest of the crew: Jesse Hooker, the leader (Henriksen) and ex-Civil War soldier; his main squeeze Diamondback (Goldstein); Severen, the crazy one (Paxton); and the young’un, Homer (Joshua Miller), who’s been young for a very long time. Because he’s new and unblooded and doesn’t fit in, the crew wants to kill Caleb, but Mae convinces them to give him a chance; she’ll guarantee he’ll do the right thing (i.e., kill). Jesse reluctantly agrees and the Winnebago heads for concealment from the day.
That night, fearing the Winnebago was seen, Severen steals a station wagon from a used car lot, and they burn the Winnie. Severen says “Hey, Jesse, remember that fire we started in Chicago?” Caleb tells Mae he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and he has to get home. She tells him he won’t get very far (he hasn’t fed; apparently they need to feed every night). Sick with hunger, Caleb stumbles into town (watch for a familiar movie on a movie marquee) and, looking like a drunk or a bum, makes it to the Greyhound station. He tries eating a candy bar from a vending machine, but it makes him sicker; he tries to buy a bus ticket to his home, but is short. A sympathetic rent-a-cop (Evans) gives him money and he gets on a bus for Oklahoma. He feels so sick he soon tells the bus driver to pull over, and he gets out of the bus. He manages to stumble back to where Mae is waiting, and she lets him feed from her wrist. Revived, he starts fooling around with her, and they run off hand in hand in the dark.
Back in Fix, Oklahoma, Caleb’s dad Loy (Thomerson), who’s a vet, and Caleb’s little sister Sarah are getting up in the morning; they stop by the sheriff’s office, but he has little to tell them except that a burned Winnebago was found. Loy decides to go searching for Caleb on his own.
That night, Caleb tries phoning collect to his home, but there’s no answer, because Loy and Sarah are out looking for him. He tells Mae; she says she wanted to go home too, but they have to go on with their lives now. “What’ll we do now?” he asks. “Anything we want,” she tells him. “Till the end of time. But you have to learn to kill!”
”I don’t want to kill,” Caleb says. “I’m no killer.”
”Don’t think of it as killing,” Mae says. “Don’t think at all. Just rely on your instinct. The night has a price.”
The rest of the vampire crew goes on the prowl for unwary victims: Severen, with his hair slicked back and looking every inch the cowpoke, hitchhikes and gets picked up by a couple of cowgirls in a pickup (Figure 3); Homer stages a bicycle accident so a concerned citizen will stop to aid him; Jesse and Diamondback, cruising along in their pickup, reminisce about the night, many years ago when he had a flat tire and she stopped to help. “I just knew right away that you were trouble,” she says. Their attention is caught by a young man with his thumb out.
”Need a lift?” When he gets in the back of the pickup, another young man with a rifle appears at the driver’s window. “Turn off the car,” he says. The other one pulls out a pistol and begins delving with the barrel in Diamondback’s cleavage. “Mind if I dance with your wife?” he asks. “She’s so beautiful, and you’re so effing stupid!” Jesse smiles. “You’re not gonna look so good with your face ripped off,” he says (Figure 4).
I hope I’ve given you enough detail from the first half-hour of this film to give you the flavour of the writing and acting. Bigelow and Red have taken the best parts of vampire legends and applied them to a contemporary setting and made them plausible by making our vampires a bunch of amoral, rural/Wild West types (probably the first vampire movie with these sorts of vamps) who have a family feeling among themselves, but less regard for their human victims than we have for the cows we make into steaks.
As I mentioned, the character studies make this movie work: from Caleb, the young farmboy who can’t bring himself to kill; to Jesse, world-weary Civil War soldier; to Severen, who loves to kill, break, and burn things; to Homer, perennially pre-pubertal, who hates never being able to grow up.
The rest of the film (about another hour) provides several stellar set-pieces, including a vampire family raid on a rural bar (Severen shines here, with his “finger-lickin’ good!” comment after biting a pool player); to the vampire family’s accidental meeting with Caleb’s actual family; to the penultimate faceoff with the cops. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending, as it’s a fitting one, in my opinion.
If you can, watch it (as we do) on Blu-Ray (or better, if they’ve finally put out a 4K version) for the best experience, as much of it takes place at night, and a small screen will make it hard to see, much less understand, what’s going on. This remains one of our all-time favourite movies. (I was fortunate enough to meet Lance Henriksen when he was filming an episode of Millennium some years ago. I found him to be a courteous and very nice guy.)
If you have any comments on this column, I’d like to hear them. You can comment here, or on Facebook, or by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All your comments, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!