Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: NEAR DARK (with great sadness not recommended)

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Nov 24, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Near Dark (Blu-ray)

    Studio: Lionsgate
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 94 min.*
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; English PCM 2.0
    Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $19.99
    Disc Format: 1 25 GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 2, 1987
    Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 10, 2009

    *The 99 minute running time listed on the disc cover is erroneous.


    Let’s cut to the chase: Lionsgate has botched the Blu-ray of Near Dark badly enough that I would rather watch my 2002 Anchor Bay DVD upconverted to 1080p by a Blu-ray player. For reasons explained in the “Video” section, it’s a better viewing experience. Which is a shame, because Near Dark is a minor masterpiece of vampire cinema, a moody tone poem that tapped into the romantic allure and outlaw appeal of the vampire figure long before Buffy and Angel, Bill and Sookie, and Bella and Edward channeled these elements into franchises. And because Near Dark portrays these themes with an almost mythic purity, it has dated much less than the other vampire movie released the same year, The Lost Boys, which, with the full marketing muscle of Warner Brothers behind it, overwhelmed Near Dark at the box office.

    The Feature:

    Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young, restless cowboy living in a small Southwestern town with his father, Loy (Tom Thomerson), a local vet, and his younger sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds). In town one night, he glimpses the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright) and is instantly smitten. They drive around making small talk and exchanging looks, but as dawn approaches, Mae becomes frantic about being taken “home”. Just before they get there, they kiss, and Mae bites Caleb on the neck. She runs off, leaving Caleb struck with wonderment.

    As Caleb tries to return home, the rising sun sickens him. He staggers out of his truck and continues on foot, but just as he’s within sight of his father and sister, a mysterious van with blacked-out windows scoops him up. Inside is Mae and her “family”: Jesse (Lance Henriksen), a cold-eyed killer with a thick Southern accent and a Confederate flag sewn into his coat; Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a bottle platinum blonde who’s the perfect mate for Jesse because she’s his match in casual ferocity; Severen (Bill Paxton), the show-off of the group, who turns every murder into a performance; and Homer (Joshua Miller), a child to outward appearances, but a jaded adult killer underneath.

    Though initially disposed to kill Caleb, Jesse agrees to let him live for Mae’s sake as long as he earns his “keep” by killing. This particular band of outlaws lives just outside the fringe of society, randomly feeding on whoever crosses their path and destroying the evidence of their existence, usually by fire. (There’s even a suggestion that they caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.) One of the distinguishing features of Near Dark is that it dispenses with nearly all of the traditional apparatus of vampire mythology (fangs, flying, crosses and stakes), retaining only sunlight, strength, invulnerability to human weapons and blood lust. Indeed, the word “vampire” is never spoken. Mae speaks of “turning” Caleb, and his condition is treated as a kind of extreme addiction. The analogy is made explicit in a scene where Caleb, weakened by lack of blood, tries to buy a bus ticket home, and a local cop eyes him suspiciously and asks what he’s on.

    Caleb’s father and sister go in search of him, and the essential story of Near Dark is which family Caleb will choose – with the additional complication that the outlaw family includes the woman he finds himself falling for more deeply each day (and the feeling is mutual). It’s a simple story, because Near Dark doesn’t have much plot. What it has, though, is attitude – attitude to spare. By stripping the story down to such bare essentials, director Kathryn Bigelow and her co-writer, Eric Red, created a large canvas for Bigelow to deploy, even as a first-time director, the extraordinarily kinetic visual style that has characterized her work ever since, right up through this year’s The Hurt Locker. Much of Near Dark consists of running and chasing, but it’s great stuff to watch, because Bigelow choreographs fights, shootouts and pyrotechnics with the best of them. Even her TV work for Homicide and Wild Palms bears her signature style.

    Then there are the performances. Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein had just finished Aliens together. (A movie marquee in the background of a scene pays tribute to their previous film.) Their established rapport as actors added to the realism of their demonic family, and all three of them seem to have relished the opportunity to play bad. Paxton in particular seems to be having a great time. Imagine his Hudson character from Aliens if no enemy could hurt him, and you begin to get an idea. And both Henriksen and Goldstein had mastered the art of using stillness and silence to create terror. Near Dark is some of their best work.

    The bar slaughter is probably the film’s best-known set piece. Although I can’t prove it, I’m convinced that it influenced numerous subsequent films, from the biker bar scene in Terminator 2 (where the same actor, Robert Winley, gets his ass kicked) to the opening diner scene in Natural Born Killers. When the Wild West and the supernatural burst through your door at the same moment, all bets are off. Bigelow was one of the first to give a modern movie audience that sharp gasp of dread.


    To preface this discussion, let’s talk about the look of the film. Even though most of the film was shot at night, the title is Near Dark for a reason. Much of the action occurs close to twilight or dawn, so that we’re frequently in partial light, as opposed to pitch-black. This makes for an interesting palette, with a variety of shades and shadows. Also, the film is set in the West during summer. Dust and smoke are plentiful, and the outlaw band are a pretty grimy bunch. One should be able to sense their age. “I come through here every 50 years or so”, Jesse tells a motel clerk who recognizes him. Washing off the grime of centuries isn’t a prime consideration.

    So what kind of a transfer do we get? Well, it’s clean. Man, is it ever clean. It’s so clean that the film grain is gone. It’s so clean that a lot of the detail is gone. While the stripping away of high frequency information (or DNR, or whatever one wants to call it) is not so obvious and severe that the faces of the actors are smoothed into wax dummies (or what one HTF poster called, in a memorable phrase, the “Zamboni effect”), the general cleanliness on display is very much at odds with both the elaborate makeup and with the general surroundings. It’s “off”. It doesn’t look right.

    Now, for a lot of viewers, this may look like a good transfer, and it probably was at some point before the compression outfit got their hands on it. But, within the limits of my technical abilities, I’m going to try to explain why the experience of the film has been compromised.

    In the days when telecine colorists did transfers intended for DVD, they knew that they were aiming for a medium with limited resolution. One of the techniques they used to circumvent that limitation was boosted contrast, which compensated for the lack of detail by more sharply illuminating what detail was there. Today, many colorists have changed their habits because of Blu-ray (and, I’m guessing, because of their experience working on digital intermediates). As a result, we get transfers with much more accurate black levels, because the contrast hasn’t been artificially boosted – and as anyone who has every used a calibration disc knows, black level and contrast are interrelated. A recent example was the Blu-ray transfer of Heat, which, compared to its prior DVD transfer, reflected more accurate black levels, allowing picture detail to emerge at greater depth and resolution, because the medium could resolve so much more than DVD ever could.

    Comparing the Blu-ray of Near Dark to the 2002 DVD released by Anchor Bay, you encounter the same difference in contrast. The black levels on the Blu-ray are much more accurate: deeper, blacker, less contrasty. Why, then, do you see the action so much better on the DVD? Why, for example, in the bar room scene, is it immediately clear what’s happening when one of the outlaws reaches down to hold a beer mug under the spurting wound of a victim, whereas on the Blu-ray, you can’t quite make out what’s going on?

    I think I know why. It’s because the Blu-ray transfer probably started out with all the shadow detail there in various layers of blackness, but it got stripped off when someone needed to make the image sufficiently clean and compressible to fit it on a BD-25. In scene after scene, when you compare the Blu-ray to the DVD (upconverted on the same Blu-ray player), you can better see what’s happening on the DVD, and the characters look more authentically worn and beat up on the DVD than on the Blu-ray. And that, folks, is why I’d rather watch Near Dark on my Anchor Bay DVD upconverted to 1080p than watch this new disc from Lionsgate. The old disc may not come in a blue case, but it provides a better viewing experience.

    Near Dark is a perfect example of how difficult it is to evaluate a disc from screenshots alone. The application of DNR (or whatever you want to call it) is not as severe here as on other discs I’ve seen, and on a different type of film, say, one shot entirely in bright light, it might have produced a tolerable result, though not a laudable one. Given the visual style and palette of Near Dark, however, it has produced a result that I find unacceptable. Unfortunately, this may be the only version available for some time to come. (The Anchor Bay disc is out of print, and the current DVD is from Lionsgate, though I haven't viewed it.)


    The DTS lossless track is not a significant improvement over the DD 5.1 or DTS tracks on the Anchor Bay DVD. Indeed, in one respect, it’s a slight step backward. The dialogue appears to have been set at a slightly lower level in this mix than on the 2002 DVD. Given that much of the dialogue is muttered, this tends to make it somewhat difficult to hear at times. Otherwise, the atmospheric score by Tangerine Dream remains effectively presented, though it is largely confined to the front sound stage. The surrounds get some use in the action sequences, though it’s nothing elaborate by today’s standards.

    (As an aside, as I was finishing this review, I went to look at other reviews to see whether anyone else shared my problems with the transfer. Some did, though not to the same degree. But I had to laugh when another reviewer indicated a lack of familiarity with Tangerine Dream, given how difficult it was to escape them in the movies of the 1980s, including Thief and Risky Business.)

    Special Features:

    All of the special features are taken from the 2002 Anchor Bay DVD set. Not included from that set are director Bigelow’s storyboards; a poster and still gallery; a behind-the-scenes still gallery; talent bios; and the script in PDF form (included via DVD-ROM). Had a BD-50 been used, some or all of this omissions could have been rectified.

    Commentary by Co-Writer/Director Kathryn Bigelow. This is the same commentary that appeared on Anchor Bay’s 2002 edition. Bigelow tends to stick too closely to the action on screen, explaining character motivation and thought processes that are already adequately conveyed by the film. Along the way, she does drop details about working with the actors and various crew, as well as occasional stories from the shoot. However, many of the best items are already covered in the Living in Darkness documentary.

    Living in Darkenss Documentary (47:17) (SD; 16:9 WS). This 2002 documentary contains extensive interview footage with Bigelow, Paxton, Henriksen, Goldstein, Pasdar, DP Adam Greenberg and other key players. It explores both the history of the production and its afterlife in substantial depth and could serve as a model for how such documentaries should be done. It helps that so many of the interview subjects are highly articulate. Henriksen is especially entertaining. His stories of how he worked himself into the character of Jesse (including such risky tricks as terrorizing hitchhikers he’d pick up and intimidating a cop who stopped him on his return from a day’s shooting) are both hilarious and creepy.

    Deleted Scene with Director Commentary (1:18) (SD; 16:9 WS). This is a brief scene in black and white, but without any production sound, involving Caleb and Mae. Bigelow explains in voiceover the purpose of the scene and where it would have fit into the film.

    Trailers (SD; 16:9 WS). There are two trailers, one of them set to John Parr’s “Naughty, Naughty” (which plays during the bar room scene), the other containing a traditional voiceover.

    Adding insult to injury, Lionsgate has preceded the disc with a new trailer for its line of horror Blu-rays, which has been made non-skippable (at least on my Panasonic players). Menu, chapter skip and fast forward buttons are all disabled. As HTF members have made clear on numerous occasions, there are few greater signs of contempt for the consumer than non-skippable trailers preceding a disc.

    In Conclusion:

    Near Dark is a fine film. Lionsgate has mucked it up on Blu-ray. Shame on them.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. Vincent_P

    Vincent_P Screenwriter

    Sep 13, 2003
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    I love this film and it's a shame to read that it's been shat on for this Blu-ray, not only with the lackluster visual presentation, but also with that awful TWILIGHT inspired "artwork".

  3. Powell&Pressburger

    Powell&Pressburger Screenwriter

    Feb 26, 2007
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    MPLS, MN
    Real Name:
    Yeah too bad they messed up this transfer by trying way too hard to make it look clean.

    I guess it fits the cover art perfectly..... awful.
  4. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Funny, my first thought was True Blood, but that's probably because they've made Adrian Pasdar's Caleb look so much like Vampire Bill. I'm sure you're right, given the marketing allure of a Twilight "tie-in". (Imagine the disappointment of anyone who buys Near Dark for THAT reason!)
  5. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

    Nov 15, 2004
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    The basement of the FBI building
    That possibility is the only redeeming aspect of the cover.
  6. Joseph Young

    Joseph Young Screenwriter

    Oct 30, 2001
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    I rented this BD this week, and I can agree with everything Michael mentioned in his review regarding the transfer. It's scrubbed clean to where the detail - particularly shadow detail and three dimensionality of the images - has all but disappeared. Daylight scenes were passable but seeing as most of the film is set in a nighttime, dusky, dusty atmosphere, I had to squint to make out details on my 55" Sammy, which I've never had to do.
    Also, the dialogue is mufffled and the sound mix is just generally uneven. A real disappointment.

    Keep in mind, too, that Near Dark is one of several Lionsgate horror releases including Monster Squad and Cujo (a trailer for all of them is contained on the BD). They all have that 'scrubbed clean' look in the trailer.

    It also didn't help that my wife - a huge fan of vampire films in general - hated Near Dark because of its somewhat meandering plot. This is more of a mood/character piece.
  7. Doug Otte

    Doug Otte Supporting Actor

    Jun 20, 2003
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    I'm glad I cancelled my preorder. The price was very low, but why pay anything just to be disappointed.

    "...meandering plot..." Hmm. I would never think of Near Dark as meandering. It was pretty straightorward.


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