|by Peter Sobczynski
Can’t came up with anything to say for a witty intro to this week‘s column--too distracted by the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in all her deep Blu-ray glory to think.
Ever since it was announced that the 1987 cult classic vampire movie was being reissued on DVD, people have been registering their dismay on discussion boards and chat rooms. They aren’t complaining about the movie itself, of course, but they are upset about the manner in which Lionsgate Home Entertainment has chosen to sell it to the masses. Because it involves vampires and because there is a romantic subplot involving a couple of young people--one a bloodsucker and the other human--the studio has inevitably chosen to play up that angle in the packaging in the hopes of making it look just like the insanely popular “Twilight” and luring the rabid fans of that franchise into buying it. Yes, this is a tacky and underhanded ploy to scam a few bucks off of the easily deluded--one that happens every time when a big movie comes out and other studios raid their vaults to reissue anything with even the vaguest connection--but in this case, I actually welcome such a move. After all, I like the idea of a gaggle of teenage girls taking this movie home and plunking it into the DVD player in the hopes of seeing more swoony swill and instead being slapped upside the head by a film that is not only one of the best horror films to be released during the Eighties but one of the creepiest, nastiest and most brutally efficient vampire-related movies ever made.
Set in the rural Southwest, the film opens as small-town boy Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) meets pretty stranger Mae (Jenny Wright) outside of an ice cream parlor and offers to give her a ride home. When he tries to seal the night with a kiss, she bites him on the neck and flees. After his pickup stalls, he begins to walk home but as the sun slowly begins to rise, he finds himself growing sicker and sicker. Just before he is about to collapse in a cornfield, he is picked up by a blacked-out RV being driven by Mae and her “family” (Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jeanette Goldstein and Joshua Miller). It turns out, of course, that they are all vampires and Caleb hopes to survive, he is going to have to learn to kill people and drink their blood. (Although, to be fair, the film takes pains never to use the “V” word once, an interesting move that opens things up to any number of interpretations.) When he cannot bring himself to do it, Mae does it for him but when he still refuses in the middle of a roadhouse massacre, the rest of the clan considers killing him themselves but when he rescues them from a police raid at the motel where they have shacked up, they allow him to stick around for the ride. Meanwhile, Caleb’s dad (Tim Thomerson) and little sister (Marcie Leeds) have been on his trail looking for him and when they discover what has happened to him, they help him escape and hit upon a plan to cure him of his bloodlust. Of course, the vampires don’t go away that easy and there is a final confrontation between the now-cured Caleb and the clan that is complicated by his still-strong feelings for Mae.
“Near Dark” was co-written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose current “The Hurt Locker” is one of the very best films of the year, and while it wasn’t her first feature film (that was the relatively obscure 1982 biker movie “The Loveless,” it was the one that put her on the map as a filmmaker to watch. In subsequent years, she would go on to be hailed as one of the best action filmmakers around thanks to such kinetic efforts as “Blue Steel,” “Point Break” and the terribly underrated “Strange Days” (which would be roundly considered a modern-day masterpiece if it weren’t for its amazingly lame last two minutes) but I would hold the set-pieces that she creates here (especially the barroom slaughter and the motel shootout) up to anything that she or any other filmmakers has come up with in recent years in terms of staging, execution and respect for spatial dynamics (made all the more complicated by her fondness for shooting within relatively tight quarters. At the same time, this isn’t just a flashy bit of business that has nothing going for it beyond the visuals and the editing. The storyline that Bigelow cooked up with co-writer Eric Red (then best known for the grisly screenplay for the original “The Hitcher”) is an inspired hybrid that effectively exploits and deconstructs the horror, western and road movie genres while also offering, through its views of Caleb’s two warring clans, some intriguing thoughts on the nature of family ties and the ways they can both nurture and choke a person at the same time. The performances are all much better than one might expect from a film of this type--Pasdar and Wright (whatever happened to her?) are so appealing as a couple that you develop a genuine rooting interest in them while all the members of Mae’s family are appropriately menacing, none more so than Miller as the youngest and perhaps most bloodthirsty of the bunch. And yes, for those of you who are interested in such things, this is not one of those vampire movies that plays coy when it comes to the blood and guts--while it never trips over the line into outright gratuitousness, the bloodshed and violence on display here is both memorable and squirm-inducing. Put all of these elements together and you have a work that is both one of the great vampire films of all time and, with the possible exception of “The Hurt Locker, the peak achievement from one of the most underrated American filmmakers working today.
One note. If you are a fan who purchased the 2-disc special edition of “Near Dark” issued a few years ago by Anchor Bay--which included a commentary from Bigelow, tons of storyboards, an informative making-of documentary and a deleted scene--you should hang on to that one because this new edition contains no special features to speak of. However, if you have never encountered the film before, this movie-only version will be more than satisfactory for the time being and when you eventually realize how great it is, you should hopefully be able to find a stray copy of that deluxe version in a store or on the internet. Believe me, this is a film that is worth such effort.
Written by Kathryn Bigelow & Eric Red. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jeanette Goldstein and Joshua Miller. 1987. Rated R. 94 minutes. A Lionsgate Home Entertainment release. $14.98
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): In this colorful and cheerfully goofy take on the legendary tale, Jon Hall stars as the orphan boy who is adopted by a band of thieves and who grows up to avenge the murder of his father, reclaim the throne and rescue the girl of his dreams (Maria Montez)--lucky for him, the same S.O.B. (the eminently hissible Turhan Bey) is responsible for all of that, so at least he is able to save some time in his pursuit. Although nowhere near as good as such contemporaries as “The Thief of Baghdad” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” this 1943 fantasy is still pretty entertaining, though I suspect it probably plays better these days if you first happened upon it as a young child. This is part of the latest wave of Universal’s “Backlot Series” collection of catalogue titles--other releases appearing this week include the 1939 version of “Beau Geste” with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, the 1936 Henry Fonda-Fred MacMurray western “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” one of the first films to be shot outdoors in the miracle of Technicolor, and 1962’s “Lonely Are the Brave,” a fascinating modern-day western in which unreconstructed cowboy Kirk Douglas breaks out of prison and finds himself pursued by contemporary-minded cop Walter Matthau.
THE JOHN BARRYMORE COLLECTION (Kino Video. $59.95): Although he would spend the last years of his career playing up to the drunken hambone persona that had begun to overtake him in his personal life, Barrymore was once regarded as one of the finest actors of his time and this collection brings together three previously released titles--“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920), “The Beloved Rogue” (1927) and “The Tempest” (1928)--along with the first-ever release of the 1922 feature “Sherlock Holmes,” a film that was long assumed to be lost until a print was recently discovered and restored by the George Eastman House.
KNOWING (Summit Entertainment. $26.99): When I heard the premise of this thriller--Nicolas Cage comes into possession of a piece of paper that was locked in a time capsule for 50 years that accurately predicted every major worldwide disaster in that subsequent half-century and which still has three more events to go--I naturally assumed that it was going to be another craptacular in which Cage would rush from one locale to the next solving puzzles and saving the day in the service of another easy paycheck gig. In fact, the film is actually a mind-blowing blend of apocalyptic imagery and metaphysical discussion that is easily the best film of its type since “Southland Tales” (and I should stress that I mean that as a compliment). In his best work since the equally impressive “Dark City,” Alex Proyas brilliantly unfolds a story (about which I cannot say any more without ruining any number of surprises) that sets up a truly audacious premise and then has the nerve to set it through to its ultimate implications without pulling any punches, offers up some of the most sensational disaster set-pieces to hit the screen in a long time (the haunting plane crash sequences alone is worth the price of several admissions) and even gives us some food for thought about whether the universe as we know it is merely the result of billions of coincidences or the end result of some pre-determined plan. Although a surprise hit when it came out last spring, I suspect that many people gave it a pass thinking it was going to be as junky as I expected and all I can do is implore you to give it a chance--I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
LE JUPON ROUGE (Strand Releasing. $27.99): In this French-made melodrama from 1987, the friendship between an aging Holocaust survivor (Alida Valli) and her younger secretary (Marie-Christine Barrault) is threatened when the older woman becomes jealous after her friend begins a romantic relationship with an even younger woman (Guillemette Groban). Granted, I haven’t actually gotten a chance to see this one yet-that said, the box art alone is enough to make it worth a look, along with the chance to see Barrault in one of her relatively rare screen appearances.
LOVELY BY SURPRISE (Indigenous Film Works. $19.98): In this low-budget indie charmer, a author struggling with writer’s block (Carrie Preston) asks her mentor (Austin Pendleton) for advice on how to proceed with her latest work--a seemingly unreadable nightmare about two brothers living in isolation on a houseboat--and he advises her to have one murder the other in order to provide some dramatic conflict. However, the brother pegged for death (Michael Chernus) somehow survives his fate and escapes into the real world, eventually taking up with an emotionally distraught used car salesman and his young daughter. Yes, I am fully aware that the basic premise of this 2007 film is similar to the one utilized by “Stranger Than Fiction” a year earlier but writer/director Kirt Gunn gets a lot more mileage out of the material by taking it in new and unexpected directions and while the final resolution is a bit of a mess, the rest of it is interesting and intriguing enough to make it worth seeking out.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000--VOLUME XV (Shout! Factory. $59.99): The bots are back with another quartet of episodes from their award-winning series in which they, along with human Joel Hodgson/Mike Nelson, skewer some of the silliest movies ever made with a relentless series of quips, bon mots and obscure references. The films under examination this time around include “The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy” (for which no explanation is presumably needed), “The Girl in Lovers Lane” (in which a couple of drifters blow into a small town and find romance with a pretty young thing and trouble with the psychotic Jack Elam), “Zombie Nightmare” (in which a pre-fame Tia Carrere and a post-fame Adam West find themselves being stalked by a mullet-haired zombie played by the immortal Jon-Mikel Thor) and ‘Racket Girls” (a sleazy exploitation film from the Ed Wood school in which an oily criminal uses his women’s wrestling league--cue lots of fight footage--as a front for a number of illegal activities). This week’s other TV-related DVD releases include “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Movie Collection--Set 4 (Acorn Media. $49.99), “Callan: Set 1” (Acorn Media. $49.99), “Kath & Kim-Season One” (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98), “Matlock: The Third Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “Murder She Wrote: The Complete Tenth Season” (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Peanuts: 1960’s Collection” (Warner Home Video. $29.98), “Petticoat Junction: The Official Second Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98), “Reno 911!--The Complete Sixth Season” (Paramount Home Video. $26.98) and “Third Watch: The Complete Second Season” (Warner Home Video. $59.98).
PUSH (Summit Entertainment. $26.99): Jamming together huge chunks of “X-Men,” “The Fantastic Four” and “Firestarter” into one big and insipid mess, this sci-fi thriller features Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning as a pair of dopes with psychic abilities on the run in China from a top-secret government program designed to heighten their powers in order to harness them for nefarious purposes. Outside of the Dakota Fanning Drunk Scene (which never realized the same cultural cachet as the Dakota Fanning Rape Scene from “Hounddog,” there is nothing here that you have seen a hundred times before and usually presented in a more coherent manner.
THE UNBORN (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Yes, up-and-coming starlet Odette Yustman has an amazing hinder but not even the long and lingering shots of it in its panty-clad glory on display here are enough to save this awful horror film in which she plays a hot young thing tormented by visions of a demonic child who turns to rabbi Gary Oldman (not in one of his scenery-chewing modes, sadly) to help free her via an exorcism. Too silly to be scary, too dull to work as camp and seriously, writer-director David S. Goyer, did you really need to drag the Holocaust into your crappy exploitation film in order to give it some “edge”?
THE DEEP (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98)
GRUMPY OLD MEN (Warner Home Video. $28.99)
THE UNIVERSE: SEASON 2 (A&E Home Entertainment. $79.95)
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2793
originally posted: 07/10/09 06:20:28
last updated: 07/10/09 08:06:13