Bill Paxton’s Best Movie Is An Underseen Horror Masterpiece
Bill Paxton starred as a redneck vampire in 1987's Near Dark, creating one of the most frightening and memorable characters in horror.
When Bill Paxton unexpectedly passed away in 2017, cinema lost one of its most versatile and endearing talents. Over the course of his career, Bill Paxton starred in films as wildly disparate as the iconic science fiction action of James Cameron’s Aliens, the family-friendly ape adventure Mighty Joe Young, and the intense psychodrama of Nightcrawler. Whatever Bill Paxton was doing in a movie, he always seemed utterly committed to the role, bringing the same energy to the smallest and goofiest of roles as he did to literally the biggest movies of all time. The single best movie that Bill Paxton ever made is unfortunately one of his less seen films: the 1987 vampire horror Western Near Dark. Despite critical acclaim, Near Dark is hard to find these days, which is a sad fate for one of the goriest and darkest films of the 1980s.
Near Dark stars Bill Paxton as Severen, the most unhinged and violent of a gang of outlaw vampires who seem to have figured out their (literal) taste for blood and (figurative) taste for violence sometime in another century. The film opens with Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), an aimless young man who seems to spend his time cruising around his tiny rural Oklahoma town and avoiding his family’s farm. After encountering an attractive stranger named Mae (Jenny Wright), he is shocked to have her bite his neck at the end of their evening of romantic connection and run off into the darkness. Caleb is even more shocked to find his flesh smoking and burning in the light of the sun the next day, and is unceremoniously picked up in a filthy RV by Bill Paxton and the rest of his adopted family of bloodsuckers.
Despite Bill Paxton’s immediately announced plan to rip Caleb’s head from his shoulder, it turns out that the leader of the gang, Jesse (Lance Henrikson in eerily grim mode) is not so willing to kill him when Mae reveals she has turned him into a fellow vampire. From there, Near Dark follows Caleb as he is seduced into the carnage-filled lifestyle of the vampire gang, finding himself becoming close with Lance Henrikson, a child vampire named Homer (Joshua John Miller), and even the psychotic Bill Paxton. Although he cannot bring himself to kill, Caleb is kept by Mae allowing him to feed from her own veins after drinking human blood.
Near Dark was the solo directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow, who cowrote it with Eric Red (best known for another cult 1980s horror film, the Rutger Hauer stalker film The Hitcher). The 1980s had a brief spurt of popularity for vampire films, with Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys and Tom Holland’s Fright Night doing well in theatres. Bigelow would take the opportunity to fuse the vampire fad with her fascination with the then decidedly untrendy Western, creating a film that had as much do to with the desolate landscapes of the old west and wandering marauding bandits as it did horror tropes and stakes through hearts.
As ever, Bill Paxton steals the show from the presumed protagonists of Near Dark. A role of a violent, filthy vampire that, on the page, has little depth is given a kind of crazed charm through Bill Paxton’s heavy Texan accent and clear delight in his own utterly absurd, dark existence. While his Aliens co-stars Lance Henrikson and Jenette Goldstein (who plays fellow vampire Diamondback) have their own kind of chummy malevolence, the sheer unruly joy that Bill Paxton exudes in his roles as a creature of the night is something only he could pull off.
Near Dark bombed in theaters, not even managing to recoup its relatively small $5 million budget. While it received moderately decent reviews at the time, it took horror fandom appreciating the film as a midnight movie for it to eventually achieve cult status. In particular, the image of a sunglasses-clad, blood-soaked Bill Paxton became its own kind of totemic icon in horror films and created its own new kind of hillbilly redneck vampire archetype. Near Dark has managed to have a longer life than its initial commercial failure could have predicted, and it has Bill Paxton almost entirely to thank for it.