*** (A must-see)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

With Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, and Lance Henriksen.

Well, the leaves may be turning wondrous shades of red and gold, but the real proof that autumn is here is that we’re once again being swamped by a flood of horror pictures. They show up in a trickle beginning shortly after Labor Day, and steadily gather in force until, come Halloween, they make up a raging torrent. Fall used to be a time when low and moderately budgeted films could elbow their way into theaters amid a seasonal downturn in major studio releases. But lately, as the big studios have grabbed for a piece of the horror pumpkin pie, fall has become an extra season for them; their big-budget horror, combined with the undiminished output of their discount competitors, leaves us with an orgy of knife-wielding teens, goop from beyond, and Satan in all his myriad and banal forms.

And no matter how the slasher slices it, a lot of it is baloney. The horror film of the 80s is almost always a crude affair that substitutes special effects for real suspense; it’s usually based on the umpteenth variation of some blatant, oversimplified Freudian shibboleth, and it’s rarely scary. Of course, public and critical expectations seem to be at an all-time low, so we are faced with the bizarre experience of seeing a second-rate piece of desperately gory claptrap like Hellraiser actually praised as, of all things, “stylish”–not to mention the same encomiums bestowed on questionable talents like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven. In fact, the only two talents to work in the horror genre with anything resembling consistent artistic accomplishment are George Romero and David Cronenberg.

Against this background, amid gobs of product unaccompanied by the most basic felicities of style, comes Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, an emotionally complex, thematically resonant meditation on the horrors of love, loneliness, and alienation. All this intelligence comes packaged in a story of vampirism that makes other efforts in the field–The Lost Boys comes rapidly to mind, but there are others–look pallid and timid. This is a movie that, while not as dishearteningly bleak as Romero’s work or as stomach-wrenching as Cronenberg’s, projects a truly upsetting image of revulsion and horror. Its scenes of bloodletting–especially a long, spectacular set piece featuring the killing of the clientele of a low-life tavern–are not merely gross, but genuinely disturbing.

Also pervasively disturbing is Bigelow’s imagery of what takes place between two lovers. Mae (Jenny Wright) is the mysterious, good-looking girl who, with a nonfatal bite, has caused the transformation of young Caleb into a vampire. But Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a fresh-faced farm boy, can’t make the final transition. He desperately needs blood to survive–normal food just sickens him–but he can’t bring himself to kill. After a truck ride in which Mae has had to bring down the prey for both of them, she opens a vein in her arm–as she’s done before–and allows Caleb to suck the freshly ingested blood from it. As he drinks thirstily, she has to push him away, fearful that he’ll take it all and inadvertently destroy her. He leans back rubbing his bloody lips and laughs with a strange exhilaration, as if he has sated himself with something more than food.

Something more than food is what the film is about. It’s about that something that nourishes social groups and keeps them together, and about what feeds romantic relationships and tightens those bonds. However unearthly their conditions, Caleb and Mae are really just a pair of young lovers, though more star-crossed than most. Caleb first sees Mae eating an ice cream cone on the deserted streets of his small Oklahoma hometown. He offers her a lift, and as the dawn draws ever closer, his amorous teasing–which is clearly causing her some kind of inner struggle–causes her to make the fateful bite. As the rising sun nears the horizon, she bolts, leaving Caleb to stumble across plowed fields. The sun burns off the morning damp, and it seems to be affecting the stumbling youth until (within sight of his widowed father and little sister) a battered RV, its windows painted black, races across the field. An arm reaches out and pulls him aboard. He’s been snatched by a traveling band of renegade vampires–an older couple, a hood, a young kid, and Mae. Now that Caleb has crossed the barrier, he has to travel with them as they make their way across the rural countryside, tearing up the landscape with their horrific version of a crime spree.

If the plot sounds familiar, it should. It’s more or less a direct lift from Nicholas Ray’s debut film, They Live by Night. Though the title makes it sound like it is a vampire movie, too, Ray’s film is one of the greatest of young-love-on-the-run films, about a pair of kids (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell) who end up with a pair of bank robbers during the Depression. This ersatz family, at first their protectors, become oppressors as their outlaw life-style eventually begins to put unbearable pressures on the lovers. They have to plan an escape from their escape.

There’s nothing wrong with borrowing a plot if you can do it justice, and Bigelow certainly does. For one thing, she obliquely credits Ray by echoing the earlier film’s famous opening shot–a helicopter shot of a car racing across a barren field–several times. And Bigelow’s bloodsucking bandits are caught in the same trap as Ray’s more prosaic criminals. Having loosed the bonds of society, they now find that freedom is accompanied by danger, the threat that no one else is bound by convention any more than they are. Bigelow’s brave new cross-country raiders are revealed to be deeply neurotic, driven by appetites that are usually repressed but which they vent with awful destructiveness.

Caleb’s initial appearance tells us almost everything we need to know about him. Arriving outside a tavern with his pickup truck, he almost lets the wiseass banter of two friends goad him into an unnecessary fight. Clearly he has some deep-seated, hidden pressures that are about to blow. Mae offers an easy, immediate respite from his normal life. She holds the promise not only of sex, but of change and escape.

But if Mae symbolizes the upside of rebellion, her traveling companions are vivid symbols of the downside. Led by a scarred, gravelly voiced old soldier named Jesse (played by Lance Henriksen with menacing authority, in the film’s outstanding performance), who’s been biting necks since he was in the Civil War, they include a saucy, hard-bitten dame, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein, the woman marine from Aliens); a biker-type hood, Severen (Bill Paxton); and a dangerous 11-year-old, Homer (Joshua Miller). The obvious cracked mirror image of a typical family does nothing to mitigate the menace they impart immediately, and Bigelow introduces them in a cacophony of quick dark shots, as they race their enshadowed vehicle across the bursting daylight of the fields to a lonely utility garage and dark respite.

These are very modern vampires, and the periphery of society holds out an apparently eternal hiding place. Their dwellings are lonely garages and isolated motels; their prey are society’s other marginals–crooks, night workers, wastrels. Bigelow’s scenes of the feeding frenzies are practically brilliant. The pack, restless and angry that Caleb has refused to kill, wander into a roadhouse one night. “Shitkicker heaven!” exclaims Severen as he parades through the place, trying to pick fights with the seedy, dangerous-looking customers. Bigelow plays out the destruction of the bar and its inhabitants in excruciating detail. Then, with only a moment’s pause, she leads right into a shoot-out between the vampires and police, a shoot-out that’s deadly because, despite their repeatedly demonstrated immunity to bullets, the creatures are threatened by the sun pouring in through bullet holes in the walls. If nothing else, with these two scenes, Bigelow has put to rest forever the notion that women can’t direct action. These scenes are as well shot and edited as work by the best contemporary action directors–Walter Hill, John Carpenter, etc.

The film’s rhythm is set by lonely nighttime vistas, and by incantatory shots of the sun setting and rising. The sun becomes a rich symbol of life and death in the film, for all of its movements spell the end for someone, either the vampires’ victims, or the vampires themselves. But it’s the air of deep, neurotic melancholy that makes Near Dark work. Both Caleb and Mae feel fatally marked, stuck with their situation, unable to reintegrate into society. Their deep sense of alienation, of being unable to trust anyone but each other, is an accurate deepening of the feelings of many unhappy young people. Bigelow does open a door for them, and they manage to force a happy, if violent, ending. But somehow it lacks symmetry, if not conviction. More convincing is the fiery destruction of Jesse and Diamondback, the unregenerate killers and outsiders, who die with Diamondback’s blessing of “Good times, baby.”

In life, young people’s feelings of alienation, their fears of not belonging, are not so much resolved as replaced with other problems; in art, any resolution of these feelings is bound to feel arbitrary. Jesse and Diamondback–blowsy, lined, and haggard as they are–embody youth in their actions, so their dissolution, vaporous and final, seems more real than the kids’ resolution. However, that is more a source of tension than failure in Near Dark. The film’s purgation of terror is as vital and energizing as can be possible. This is one hell of a movie.