I have seen many favorite directors of mine fall into a decline over a period of time. They used to be great, but time has done something to change their ability to output work that rivals their best. John Carpenter is one of those directors. The 1980s were his glory years. In the 1990s, his work started getting spotty with some hard misses such as Village of the Damned, but for me, this 1998 action horror film is still on the better side of his filmography. It does have some problems, but the stellar performance by James Woods elevates this to a far higher level than it would’ve had otherwise.
Jack Crow (James Woods) is a professional and Vatican-funded vampire slayer. He and his team of slayers have just cleared out a nest of vampires in the New Mexico desert, but, disappointingly, the master vampire was not there. That night, the team is partying at the Sun God Motel, rejoicing in their victory when the master, Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), arrives to slaughter them after seducing and biting Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker hired for the party. Crow is surprised when Valek happens to know his name, but he soon retreats with fellow slayer Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and Katrina. They soon have the young and timid priest Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) forced upon them by Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) as a replacement for their slain Father Giovanni (Gregory Sierra). Thus, this new team heads out to find Valek with the help of Katrina’s psychic link with him, and stop him from completing a ritual which will allow vampires to walk in daylight.
This was based on the novel VAMPIRE$ by John Steakley, and while I have never read it, I’ve been told that the book has a far superior story. Steakley himself said that the film contains much of his dialogue, but none of his plot. Reading just the quick summation of the novel, there are heavy deviations following the motel massacre. So, anyone familiar with the book should not expect more than a basic adaptation of it in the film, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some very worthwhile content in John Carpenter’s Vampires.
As I said, this entire movie belongs to James Woods. Without someone of his caliber inhabiting this hard edged, charismatic character, this film would inevitably falter. He truly commands the screen with power and authority. Jack Crow is a rugged man with an intense physical presence that takes nothing from no one. He knows nothing of subtlety. You feel his electric energy pulsate off the screen. The back story of Crow is very painful and traumatic, but he’s not a sympathetic hero. He doesn’t have the time or mentality of sympathy. He’s the flipside of another Carpenter bad ass – “Snake” Plissken. Where Plissken was pretty soft-spoken and forced to trust in unsavory people in bad situations, Crow is a hard ass that doesn’t much give a damn about the odds. He’s got a vendetta to settle with Valek now, and there is nothing that will stop him until he gets some blood spilled. Still, he’s keen and focused. Crow doesn’t get blinded by rage or vengeance. He’s a hunter, and that’s the instinct he follows the most. James Woods has great scenes with everyone in the film as his charisma energizes every scene. Crow really shows no fear even in the face of apparent death. The guy’s got attitude to spare, and I couldn’t think of anyone but James Woods tackling this character. He’s got such an energy, intensity, and authority that allows him to easily carry the entire film. The late film critic Gene Siskel believed that Woods deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and I could stand behind that statement as well. Carpenter’s worked with some great actors before, but Woods is just another breed of animal altogether.
Another strong performer is Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek. Griffith’s career has been mostly relegated to mediocre B grade action movies, but here, he shows that he can envelop himself in a very imposing and alluring character. He gives us a savage, confident, creepy, and sadistic style. Valek does have a rage, but it is controlled. He knows what he wants, and goes about it with lustful passion. He really holds his own against Woods, and makes Valek a very powerful and memorable villain. Valek follows in that more romanticized style of vampire, but has more than enough gruesome ferocity to balance that out to maintain himself as a serious threat.
Daniel Baldwin plays Montoya with a lot of different tones. He’s a bit cynical and vulgar at first, switches over into a real mean streak, but also shows us some hurt at the end. It’s very solid performance by him. Sheryl Lee is not only very talented, but she is sizzling hot! We see some very nice bare skin, but nothing frontal. She has some very intense stuff to tackle here, and does so superbly. Tim Guinee plays the timid and inexperienced Father Adam with an endearing quality. You feel sorry for the guy when Jack Crow is smacking him around and literally ripping on him. There are answers that Jack needs, and he has to physically force Father Adam’s reluctant cooperation. And of course, Maximilian Schell brings his fine Shakespearian acting talents to grace this film with a wonderful performance. He brings a nice sense of culture wrapped in a little bit of shadiness.
John Carpenter has always been a big fan of the westerns, and that is never more apparent than in this film. Vampires has distinct elements of those great old Spaghetti westerns. Jack Crow truly feels like an old style gunslinger or bounty hunter. A man hardened by life who doesn’t live by laws. He takes what he wants when he needs it. He’s a man who doesn’t require comforts in life. He’s on a mission, and nothing’s going to stop him. The southwestern American landscape is used to strikingly stunning degrees, and provides a unique backdrop for a vampire film. The cinematography from Gary B. Kibbe really brings an amazing beauty to this classic old west style environment. Kibbe also lensed Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness which both also had fantastic and dramatic cinematography. Carpenter and Kibbe have worked on other pictures as well, and they seem to really mesh nicely as a team.
This western motif is further enhanced by John Carpenter’s amazing score. The main theme has a heavy blues emphasis. It sounds like a modern electric guitar version of an Ennio Morricone / Sergio Leone film score. However, the more general score is very haunting and foreboding. It creates a great atmosphere for the horror elements of the film while the theme more pops up to enhance the presence of Jack Crow. It’s an incredible piece of work all around with a very chilling and intense orchestration. I’ve been a proud owner of the soundtrack CD since the film’s release.
Vampires is also a great film for gore fans. KNB EFX Group delivers again with some elaborate, blood soaked gruesomeness. They got better with every film they worked on, and their work here is amazing. Bodies ripped in half, throats slashes wide open, blood everywhere, and creepy vampire makeup really brought this film a major shock splatter factor. Where John Carpenter has mainly been a suspense driven horror director, this film plunges headlong into a large vat of blood. It flows and splatters everywhere making Valek even more of a violent, powerful threat to show he can produce this much carnage alone.
One of the detractors to this film back in 1998 was with the marketing. The trailer actually spoils what is meant to be a startling revelation in the film. I have refrained from spoiling that here for the sake of those who don’t already know it. However, as I said, there are a few problems with the movie. The plotting of the movie is pretty good, but it seems like there are some plot threads that are trimmed out. As if there is some connective tissue that could have strengthened a few plot twists and character motivations in the third act. That’s mainly where the problems arise is in the final act. The climax has many good elements to it, but when it comes down to the final confrontation between Jack Crow and Valek, it couldn’t end more anti-climactically. It does fit the attitude and personality of Jack Crow to end it how he does, but the dramatic pay-off of the story suffers for it. Valek has viciously slaughtered Crow’s entire team and worse. He’s a massive threat with a integral, important back story. The dramatic storytelling really demands a fight fueled by fiery vengeance. Something that truly has them ripping at each other with brute force, but we are not given that. This ending does have a John Carpenter style and sensibility to it, but lacks the big punchy quality he usually gives us.
At the time of its theatrical release, this was the start of horror films getting gory again. The genre had gotten mainly watered down throughout the 90s, and coupled with Blade, this was bringing back the violent and bad ass vampires to theatres. John Carpenter’s Vampires delivers a lot of action, brutality, plenty of gore, and a nice dash of appropriate cynical humor. There’s also some suspense mixed in at times to keep the nerves tingling a little. So, on a pure horror front, the film essentially succeeds, and it has been one that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I just think that the script could’ve used some stronger through lines with a few characters and certain aspects of the plot to give more purpose and build up to some of the reveals during the third act. Ultimately, the film is mainly concerned with Jack Crow. While that is the film’s true strength with James Woods’ incredible performance, there was enough room to flesh out other aspects of the story to make it feel more satisfying on a storytelling level. There are those that put John Carpenter’s Vampires in the bad category of his career, and while I can see there was room for definite enhancement, this is far from being a bad movie. Carpenter did produce a good film here which does have much going for it. As it is, this is a hell of a fun ride that I find quite entertaining and thrilling. It is absolutely worth your time to watch this intense, haunting, and grisly horror movie. It’s also probably the closest we’ll ever get to having John Carpenter direct a western, and he couldn’t have gotten a better old west style anti-hero than James Woods.