Film: Rebirth of Splatter

Forgotten horror classic, Near Dark, finds new life on DVD

Nov 7, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Good ol' vampires Lance Henrikson and Bill Paxton take aim at their victms in Near Dark, director Kathryn Bigelow's 1987 cult film that's finding new life via a special DVD release.

Now that weekend grosses are being reported like sports scores, tallying Hollywood's winners and losers, it's easy to forget that movies have both a life and an afterlife. During theatrical release, a film's success is judged by box-office performance, critical reception and how many awards it accumulates. But the truth of the matter is that a film acquires its long-term reputation during its afterlife. Out of the public eye and media glare, movies are stripped of their status as the next big thing, and often it's not the blockbusters but the runts of the Hollywood litter who find a devoted audience and a place in film history.

It's taken 15 years, but Kathryn Bigelow's landmark vampire film, Near Dark, has finally seen the light of day in a form it deserves (a comprehensive, beautifully packaged double DVD release) thanks to a company dedicated to bringing movies back from the dead.

Anchor Bay Entertainment is located in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Mich., home to struggling retail giant Kmart and Stillwater, Cameron Crowe's house band in his Rock drama, Almost Famous. From a nondescript office building behind a vast collection of auto dealerships called the Troy Motor Mall, Anchor Bay has become a driving force in home entertainment by seeking out the orphans of the film industry and restoring them to their eager fans in pristine condition.

"All of our movies, the movies that we license," says Anchor Bay's Jay Douglas, "I call ambitiously flawed. It's much more fun to watch movies that went wrong, not in terms of being bad art, but movies that were mishandled on the marketing end, or movies that were maybe ahead of their time."

Look for such cult favorites as Diva or Heathers, Repo Man or Kentucky Fried Movie, The Stunt Man or Melvin and Howard, Two-Lane Blacktop or The Wicker Man, and you'll find Anchor Bay's sailboat logo on the DVD spine (The company name comes from a favorite sailing spot on nearby Lake St. Clair).

You'll also see it on more high-brow titles like Silkwood, Prizzi's Honor, Tender Mercies and Frances, on the popular children's series, Thomas The Tank Engine, even on Crunch and For Dummies exercise videos.

But if Anchor Bay is known for one genre, it's horror. Titles like Halloween, Night Of The Living Dead and Maniac, along with films from Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and the Hammer Studio constitute 20 percent of the company's prodigious output, but generate 35 percent of revenue.

Douglas, with the unwieldy title of Senior Vice President of Acquisitions and Product Development, is Anchor Bay's programmer, the man whose broad taste is responsible for the company's eclectic lineup. Near Dark was on the Detroit native's wish list since he took the job in August 1995, and in many ways, it's the quintessential Anchor Bay film.

Near Dark arrived in theaters in October 1987 on the heels of the successful teen vampire film, The Lost Boys, a summer hit which took in $32 million. Bad timing was only one nail in Near Dark's coffin. The film would eventually recoup only two-thirds of its modest $5 million budget at the box office, a fact which still angers one of the film's stars, Adrian Pasdar, whose affection for Near Dark is undiminished by time.

"You work so hard, and it doesn't find the audience that you know is there," Pasdar says. "The people who were behind the marketing of it didn't know their shit from shinola. It just wasn't handled properly, anyone will tell you that. We made a great movie for very little money, but they had other fish to fry and they wanted to make their money back, I guess, on other projects."

Even with better marketing, Near Dark was a tough sell. Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break, K19) made her solo directing debut with a film that would change the rules of a familiar genre. By blending American Western mythology with Old World vampire lore, she created a hybrid which would spawn its own sub-genre. From Dusk Till Dawn, John Carpenter's Vampires, The Forsaken and others owe a debt to Near Dark, whose stark, beautiful simplicity recalls Badlands, and whose defiant attitude embraces the American outlaw ethos.

"Near Dark was, to my mind, this little masterpiece of a movie that was so different," explains Douglas. "You didn't know where it was going. It actually kept you on the edge of your seat because you didn't know the story could resolve itself, much in the way Bonnie and Clyde was. You know it's not going to have a pretty ending, but you just don't know how it's going to end."

Pasdar's character, Caleb, a young man bored with life in a small Southwestern town, pursues an attractive girl, but can't quite pinpoint what makes her so different. It's only when he's introduced to her surrogate family, a roaming band of vampires, that his living nightmare begins. What Caleb would endure is echoed in the journey of Near Dark itself.

After disappearing from movie screens, the film made a brief appearance on home video before quickly going out of print. The persistent Douglas finally tracked it to France, where the rights to Near Dark were held by a media conglomerate, Canal Plus. It would take nearly five years to close the deal and locate the film's original celluloid elements (vital to making the best possible DVD).

Bigelow supervised the wide-screen transfer of the film, provided audio commentary, and participated in the incisive featurette, Living In Darkness (with Adrian Pasdar, the vampire triumvirate of Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, and key crew members). She also unearthed a deleted scene shot in infrared black and white, which Pasdar describes as an abandoned attempt to visualize the vampire perspective as "more animal, less refined human behavior."

Anchor Bay's hard work and persistence has paid off: Near Dark is their No. 1 new title for 2002. After debuting at 13 on VideoScan a month ago, it's already sold 180,000 units, and looks to join Manhunter and Evil Dead as a perennial seller.

"Every year, it seems like Anchor Bay's lucky enough to have a seminal horror film just dropped in our lap," says Jay Douglas. "The truth is, it's not really dropped in our lap. We have to go out and kill what we eat." ©