Ed. note– I love early John Carpenter like many horror fans. And I love VAMPIRES almost as much as I love those films from his classic period. I didn’t love my review of VAMPIRES I wrote for my previous gig, so this one I rewrote wholesale. I hope you enjoy the review, and the film.– P.F.
In my Vault revision of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, I mentioned how that movie ended Carpenter’s run of great films, and he would never hit those heights again. In the 1990s Carpenter would produce middling fare such as VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and the dreadful ESCAPE FROM L.A. But at the tale end of the decade, he would direct what will stand as his closest effort to his previous greatness, VAMPIRES. It’s earmarked with some classic Carpenter touches, and falls just a bit short of his better works.
VAMPIRES is about a mean group of vampire hunters and their tough guy leader Jack Crow. The Vatican-funded group of vampire slayers is on a hot tear, cleaning out a colony of the undead in the opening scene, with high tech weaponry and nature’s vampire destroyer, sunlight. But all goes wrong that night at the Sun God hotel, when the master of all master vampires Valek arrives and wipes out most of Crow’s team. Left only with fellow slayer Montoya, and joined by the young Father Guiteau and bitten hooker Katrina, who has a psychic connection with Valek, Crow must piece together Valek’s plan in hopes of catching up to him and slaying him.
The best thing in this movie is James Woods as Jack Crow. He’s no-nonsense in the same terms as R.J. MacReady or Snake Plissken (just watch him light a match off a vampire’s skull), but he’s much more talkative, and a lot more pissed off. Woods is amazing in the role, aided by the fact that Carpenter let him do an improv take on the dialogue for every scene, which led to lines such as “You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata WHILE he’s suckin’ the blood outta your neck.” Woods is at his most macho and his funniest as Crow, and he shines in a role that in the 80s certainly would’ve been played by Kurt Russell. It’s a compliment to Woods’ acting that it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Russell’s.
X Marks the Oscar: James Woods was brilliant in his Best Actor Oscar- nominated role for SALVADOR, and he’s just as brilliant as Jack Crow.
But every horror film needs a great adversary, and Thomas Ian Griffith provides just that in Valek. His frosty demeanor and otherworldly powers fly in the face of Crow’s hot spurs and weapons. The movie explains that Valek was the creation of a reverse-exorcism (which I got the hang of, but oddly enough Carpenter claims he didn’t quite understand), and he’s out to bring vampires the power to walk in daylight. The stakes are high, and Valek is up for the game, flying onto the back of a pickup at one point, and spread eagled on the ceiling of the motel in one awesome shot over his prey. Griffith and Woods play well off one another, which turns out a great conflict. And Valek gives my choice for the best-placed vampire bite in the history of film.
As for the story, Carpenter was wise to chuck out the majority of Don Steakley’s novel Vampire$, not exactly a masterwork. The film flows well, with Valek always just a step ahead of Crow. There’s a subplot with Montoya falling in love with the stricken Katrina; it makes little sense, adds nothing to the plot, and suffers from a weak performance from Daniel Baldwin. But Sheryl Lee is intense, laser focused as she freaks out over seeing the atrocities Valek commits through the vampire master’s own eyes. While PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS meander aimlessly at points, VAMPIRES progresses steadily throughout.
Interestingly, Carpenter directed the project because he’d never been able to make a straight Western before. Carpenter’s love of Howard Hawks is on full display, with his masterful 2:35 to 1 widescreen cinematography capturing the New Mexico desert landscapes in shots that would likely make John Ford proud. There’s even an interesting reversal of the old RIO BRAVO strategy that Carpenter used in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and THE THING; instead of being trapped in a place and trying to keep the bad guys out, Crow and company have to invade a prison and drag the vampires out.
This is also Carpenter’s goriest film in years. Sure, it’s not on the level of Rob Bottin’s stuff in THE THING, but watch Valek cut a guy in half with his razor fingernails, and then watch the guy split slowly in half, and it quickly becomes clear that the director planned on pleasing the gore crowd. Carpenter was once criticized as being a “pornographer of violence.” If you take that as a compliment for the director, you’ll appreciate the red stuff in VAMPIRES.
If there’s anything to say against VAMPIRES, it would be that it doesn’t have the gravitas of Carpenter’s earlier films. It’s more of an action flick than a horror movie at times; and though there were some jokes in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the actors delivered them deadpan, whereas here they’re clearly meant to spark laughter. But it’s probably unfair to compare this late-career film to his early output, which from HALLOWEEN through BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA comprised perhaps the greatest run of genre films by a single director in history. View VAMPIRES on its own terms, and it’s enjoyable entertainment. I can’t say the same for MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.
VAMPIRES was a near-return to form for John Carpenter, combining all the elements of his glory days with superb performances by Woods and Griffith. It’s nice to see a master sometimes still has that old touch, even if a master vampire may never walk in daylight.