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Near Dark as Twilight in Reverse

September 14, 2009

Twilight is an in-between time; the bookmark to both parts of the day, marking the time between dawn and sunrise as well as that between sunset and dusk. It is neither dark nor light. It is, in other words, near dark. Fittingly, this is the title of a vampire film of cult popularity, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.

When I watched this film recently, I was struck by how many similarities the film shares with the Twilight series. Both deal with vampire families, with human families headed by a single dad, and with budding human/vampire romance. Each film also has hip musical scores to heighten its vampire-loves-human-teen-angsty tale.  However, in Near Dark, the lead male is human while the lead vampire is female. In more ways than this, the film functions as Twilight in reverse.

In Near Dark, when the seeming gentleman cowboy Caleb meets Mae, she is eating an ice cream cone. “Can I have a bite,” he enquires. Heightening the vampire-laden sexual innuendo, he continues, “I’m dying for a cone.” Mae echoes the words “bite” and “dying” in a nod to the audience’s awareness of vampire lore. Inviting her for a spin in his old blue pick-up (if it were red, it would look just like Bella’s) we immediately fear for the safety of his cowboy neck.

However, it turns out Caleb’s polite demeanor hides his status as a rather aggressive masculine predator. Showing Mae his big, wild horse (how phallic is that???), he lassos her with what critic Nina Auerbach reads as “bullying affection.” Yup, nothing says “I really dig you” like non-consensual rope imprisonment. But, to Caleb’s dismay, she is stronger than he, and able to evade his rodeo-style domination. Later, when Mae frantically pleads to be taken home (due to the impending sunrise) Caleb refuses to do so until he gives her a kiss, exuding a hyper-macho flirtation style that smacks of date rape. The forced kiss would surely have had a different ending if not for Mae’s neck nip.

Although the film encourages us to side with Caleb, and to sympathize with the horrible-vampire turn his life has taken, this viewer sympathizes with Mae. She did not intend to turn him vamp – rather, when he forces her to kiss him (Jacob Black style), she bites his neck. Her regret at doing so is quickly established as she jumps from the truck and begins running towards home. Yet, in typical mainstream Hollywood fashion, the film makes Caleb, not Mae, the hero. We are not encouraged to condemn his rather chauvinistic aura, but to desire it if we are female or respect it if we are male (like Twilight’s similar championing of Edward and Jacob, and sidelining of Bella – both within the texts and the fandom).

Mae, the vicarious conduit for female viewers, becomes Caleb’s protector and defender when he cannot live up to the demands of his new vampire father. Nourishing him with her own blood, Mae becomes his meal of choice. Shown as looking drunk and post-orgasmic after drinking from her wrist, he comes off as callous womanizer (vampirizer?), apparently not caring about Mae’s weakened state as she warns him “Caleb, you could kill me if you drink too much.”

Yet, at the film’s end, with the help of his veterinarian father, he does just the opposite via a blood transfusion that makes her human once again. She closes the film by shuddering into his imprisoning embrace, murmuring “I’m afraid.” Here, in a narrative arc that is the exact opposite to Bella’s, Mae goes from strong, fearless vampire to weak, fearful human. However, though these endings in one way contrast each other, in another, they are eerily similar. Namely, both of the female leads end up purely ensconced in their patriarchal worlds. Both Mae and Bella are coupled to a hot male partner coded as strong, protective, and ‘old-fashioned’ – or, in other words, they are ‘mere females’ in a male dominated world (regardless whether that world is vampire or human). These endings incline me to agree with Auerbach’s claim that vampires have been co-opted by “a conservative social enterprise,” one that is militantly pro-family, pro-abstinence, pro-Christian, and pro-patriarchy.

However, I think Twilight more so than Near Dark can be read as containing some latent subversive context. If one digs below the more staid surface messages, there are underlying suggestions Bella is not the patriarchal, good girl she is often read as. On this, the day after her birthday, I think we might benefit from considering the way she departs from rather than promotes limited conception of femininity. She may love her rather domineering vampire and wolf men, but she also insists on moving away from the typical dutiful daughter/wife role that patriarchy chains women too. By insisting she become a vampire, she, in effect, balks the patriarchy. Unlike Mae, who is returned to her frail, female human state by movie’s end, Bella, at the close of the saga, is a vampire super-hero. The ending of the Twilight saga may not be the stuff of feminist dreams, but it is not quite the feminist nightmare it has often been read as either…

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