America in the nineteen-eighties was a difficult time for farmers and landowners as the expansion of cities destroyed agricultural land and engulfed small towns. Literature and film created in this time period often portrayed rural communities as a utopia due to a negative stigma associated with the advancement of technology and growth of urban life (Dyer 54). The feature film, Near Dark, released in 1987 uses camera distance, lighting and vampirism to portray the death of the rural countryside in nineteen-eighties America.
The movie follows Caleb, a young man having grown up in a rural farming community who wants nothing more than to escape the small-town life and travel “a thousand miles from here tonight.” The opening scenes of the movie show the sun setting over the rolling fields, the light fading and darkness falling the further Caleb drives into his small town. This is the first sense the viewer has that lightness, and therefore life, is a feature of the rural areas. As the movie progresses, city scenes are shot solely in the night’s darkness, while the countryside remains a contrasting golden hew of daylight. This portrays the sinister aspects of city life. If the protagonist had been a city man falling prey to the vampiric lifestyle, the film would have lost this representation entirely. However, having the vampires, one of which is the love of Caleb’s life, lure him into the city, contrasts the innocence or rural life with the malevolence of urban. Vampires, trapped in limbo between life and death, are often shot with there faces half in darkness and half in light. The light depicting the life they yearn to have in the country, the dark depicting the cities that engulf them. Mae, a vampire, meets Caleb in the country, suggesting the city moving into the country. Mae’s line, “look, the night, it’s so bright it’ll blind you,” suggests she’s been kept in the dark from her crimes, and therefore the cities’ crimes. In “Rural America in Film and Literature” Dyer argues that this depiction is idealized: “Although this sentimental yearning for ponds, vegetable gardens, and old houses set deeply in the woods seems relatively harmless, it frequently prevents us from recognizing and understanding the hard realities of our rural population: financial difficulties of the farmers, unemployment of miners and loggers, boredom and confusion of youth living in small country towns.” The title itself, Near Dark, is a commentary on the lighting, the skyscrapers that will soon cast a shadow over the countryside, leaving it in darkness. Dyer points out that this sense of rural utopia is fictionalized and portrays a biased view of rural standard of living.
Furthermore, camera distance is used to create a similar effect. After Caleb is initially bit by Mae, he runs home to safety. The fields he runs through are shot with loose framing to suggest freedom and safety. He can run in any direction, it’s only the vampire bite and the growing infection that slows him down. However, the moment Caleb is kidnapped by the vampires he is sequestered into an RV where the framing is tight suggesting the confinement of the expanding cities. Tight framing and confined spaces are used every time Caleb is pressured to act in a criminal manner; the train car with only one exit, the dive bar where Severn instructs Caleb to kill for the first time, and the hotel room where the vampires find themselves under the attack of the police. These close shots give the impression of claustrophobia, while the shots of the ranch are always loose with wide frames. When Caleb’s father and sister visit the police to enquire about Caleb’s missing person’s case, we once again have tight framing and shadowy lighting. This suggests that the country folk are turning towards authority, and therefore the city for help, which is leading them into darkness. In the end, it is not the police or even the hospital that brings Caleb to safety and health, but rather his return to the countryside.
Lastly, a significant historical event of the nineteen-eighties is the discovery of AIDS, a disease rampant in many young urban men (CDC 430). In cinema, vampires have often been symbolic of the detriments of unsafe blood transfer and the spreading of disease (Marty 416-432). Near Dark is no exception. Caleb and Mae’s first sexual encounter, a simple kiss turned bite, leads to the transfer of blood that infects Caleb and turns him into a vampire. A creature of the night. A city dweller. The drinking of blood is played out in overtly sexual ways, often leading to the death of the human, which suggests the spreading of AIDS throughout the city, causing an influx in mortality. It should be noted that when Caleb watches Mae kill for the first time there are oil rigs in the background. She sucks the blood from a man while the city sucks the “life” from the Earth. Since vampires acting sexually towards their prey before killing them is not unlike the oilrigs “raping” the rural landscape. Although the vampires reside in the city, their prey tends to be people in rural areas, like the country folk in the dive bar, people that won’t be missed. Furthermore, when Caleb chooses not to kill in order to survive, there’s a sign in the background reading “Because Clean Hay Pays,” which once again connects the countryside to life and survival. In the end, Caleb cannot overcome his sickness until he returns to his home in the country. He no longer wants to run away from small town life, instead he’s found contentment within. The last scene is of Mae choosing to love by joining Caleb in the country; she too is given a second chance at life now that she has put the city behind her. In “Embracing the metropolis: Urban Vampires in American Cinema of the 1980s and 90s” Abbott writes, “Since Stoker’s novel, vampires, particularly in film, have been increasingly attracted to cities in which they are free to hunt amongst the crowds… The vampire in cinema is no longer an outsider representing the pre-modern but rather embraces the metropolis as its home and through it modernity itself.” When Caleb and Mae leave the city, they no longer embrace modernity and therefore can no longer be considered vampires.
The nineteen-eighties were a time when rural life was depicted in film and literature as a utopia that should be strived towards, as the expansion of city goes hand in hand with the expansion of crime (Dyer 54). Although this a skewed view of rural living, it is a reminder that with change comes fear. Much like changing from human to vampire. Near Dark uses lighting, camera distance and vampirism to depict the death of the rural countryside due to the expansion of cities. However, it also suggests hope. Hope that people can realize when something is wrong, fight against it, and return to what is safe and pure. An especially poignant line, delivered by Mae in this film is, “Don’t think of it as killing. Don’t think at all.” This line juxtaposes the intention of the film, to have the viewer consider the expansion of evil, and take action against it.
Abbott, Stacey. “Embracing the metropolis: Urban vampires in American cinema of the 1980s and 90s.” Vampires: Myths and metaphors of enduring evil 28 (2006): 125.
Bigelow, Kathryn. “Near Dark.” Perf. Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen. F/M (1987).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC. “HIV and AIDS–United States, 1981-2000.” MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report 50.21 (2001): 430.
Dyer, Joyce. “Rural America in Film and Literature.” The English Journal 76.1 (1987): 54-57.
Fink, Marty. “AIDS Vampires: Reimagining Illness in Octavia Butler’s “Fledgling”.” Science Fiction Studies (2010): 416-432.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Broadview Press, 1997.