Setting: Grandparents house, tiny rural town population 100
Time: 2 a.m.
Scene: Lil’ Blank Stare watching Bill Paxton kick the jugular out of some poor bloke with a pair of spurs, glancing nervously out the window because it looks like this could be happening right now, just down the street.
Visiting Grandma and Grandpa was an event; even though I lived in a bigger town, it was less familiar than the cattle dust, morning dew and gum trees of Grandma’s place. Clucking chickens (I only knew about lizards and snakes and blow flies back home) and the friendly outback commerce of road trains and locals with exaggerated stories of pig hunting and women-chasing. Home was deathly stillness and broiling heat, bad channel reception for the two TV stations, rocks and the promise that if you went too far from home, you’d be dead of snakebite or spinnifex (the tips could break off and flow to your heart, was the schoolyard wisdom), redback spiders or roaming serial killers. And if none of that happened, the sun would do you in before nightfall.
There was a lot to be scared of, is where I’m rambling towards.
But Grandma’s was safer, with family and their friends, a general store slash service station stocked with ancient toys in yellowed blister cards, biscuits, a cold room filled with popsicles and a single wire spinning rack with a couple of dozen well used VHS cassettes.
Mum was busy; even vacations here meant a good deal of work, farm life never being an idle thing; I played with the dog, explored the paddock, went shooting with an uncle or found a shady spot to just sit and think. Dinners were a boisterous affair, with unfamiliar cousins and relatives discussing alien topics like girls and work, what would happen after school and where needed a slab of concrete laid next.
But 2 a.m. was my time; creeping from my mother’s bedroom, slowly on every loose floorboard and a little faster on the carpet, I would make it to the cozy living room and fumble a VHS cassette into the player by the light of the static screen.
I saw a film where thousands (millions!) of terrifying insect-like things harassed and slaughtered space-soldiers in some barren colony; Clint Eastwood slammed heads alongside an orangutan, the ghost-apocalypse happened in NYC and more. An arcade game enthusiast became a galactic saviour and creepy, gooey little lizard-guys wreaked havoc in a department store. I was rapt, but not so much that the TV would mute every time it sounded like someone in the house had awoken. No one ever came to investigate though, so to this day I’m not sure if it was just wordlessly accepted or if my grandparents were uncannily deep sleepers.
But for some reason it was Near Dark that said something so familiar; it was all night-time lit by truck lights, dust kicked loose by wandering feet and filthy motels in the middle of nowhere, but most of all it was isolation and menace that rang true. That waiting out in the stillness was something you didn’t want to run across and if it ever got you, your bones would be sunbleached long before someone ever found your final rest.
I was a Star Wars fan like every kid (and even met Darth Vader himself at a bank opening in Sydney once) but when I saw howling blood fiends in a world so reminiscent of my own, I wondered about where I was and what passed me by without me even seeing. The day had a new, suspicious edge to it; driving home had me peer into the windows of every freight hauler we passed. When the sun set, I curled up in the back seat and slept, not wanting to look out any more.
Fifteen years later, I used this convenient internet thing to look for a movie I’d once seen, vaguely recalled, about vampires in the New West. I was amazed to recognize actors from a far more familiar favourite, Aliens and that there were copies being printed, even fans of something that amounted to a childhood bad dream; I snagged a copy from Amazon.
Nothing had been erased from my recollection, only buried under normal life; the prose was simple and a little jagged but potent atmosphere and startling performances coupled with surprisingly brutal violence can cover a lot. It made The Lost Boys look washed and gilded, Interview with the Vampire was a lavish tale spun from Hollywood gold; but Near Dark was as real as speeding asphalt, the true story behind an outback tragedy on page three of the local paper, a wrong turn for only the unluckiest of souls.
I don’t watch it much, but when I do, I’m a kid again. The small cozy living room at my grandparent’s old place and the singular light of the TV screen; the self enforced silence and the occasional nervous glance to the window.
I carried this movie with me, all fake blood and b-list actors in my subconscious because it said more about my world than anyone else did. And that night long ago, that became the standard by which I now judge all films; does it see what I have missed? Does it say what I cannot say? Does it speak a familiar language? Does it know what I hope is not true?
Will I dream of it?