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Vampires (1998)

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.


The Exorcist (1973)

This used to be the scariest movie I had ever seen.  When it was theatrically re-released in 2000, I was paralyzed with fear in my theatre seat.  When I saw it theatrically in 2010, the film barely did anything for me.  I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I have theories.  Possibly a decade of exposure to numerous hardcore horror movies have hardened me as a movie-goer, thickening my skin and threshold for terror.  By comparison, The Exorcist III has been a consistently effective film that I have gained more respect for with each viewing.  This review is surely not a negative one in the least, but it’s important to know my experience with The Exorcist over the years.

Taking up temporary residence in Georgetown, Maryland is movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is having her troubles.  The script for the movie she’s filming seems inadequate, her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair), neglects to call the girl on her birthday, and the attic has rats.  Meanwhile, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith while dealing with a terminally ill mother who needs medical care he hasn’t the money to provide.  Meanwhile, the sweet and innocent Regan has undergone a slow, brutal change in both the way she looks and the way she acts, with violent outbursts on everyone who comes in contact with her.  Medical professionals prove to have no cure for her condition, and thus, her worried mother meets with Father Karras with the belief that her daughter is demonically possessed.  She requests an exorcism, which Karras and the church are hesitant to grant on a whim.  Another priest, the old and ailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), has just returned from an archeology expedition in Iraq with forebodings of evil.  He has faced this unholy evil before, and soon, will have to face it again.

I believe the main aspect of the film that made it so effective was its realistic quality.  William Friedkin shot this in a very textured way.  Lighting is very natural and subdued.  It never looks staged or stylized.  Friedkin intended to take a documentary approach to the film to give it sense of grim realism.  The scenes in Iraq are very gritty with an unsettling and harsh quality that is striking.  The scenes in Georgetown have a slightly gloomy autumn quality that boosts the foreboding and grim nature of the movie.  Yet, there is still eerie beauty at times such as the moment where “Tubular Bells” creeps into the score.  Friedkin simply instills a lot of subtle atmosphere with the lighting, camera work, and the score that gets in under your skin.  He uses the music very sparsely allowing that ambient reality to seep into your nerves.  That realistic tone in the visuals and the performances solidly grounded the film, and thus, when these horrific changes begin to surface in Regan, they are all the more unsettling and chilling.  The sound design is profoundly effective.  These disturbing auditory elements are mixed in together at a high volume to truly jump out at you in an almost unnaturally loud way.  It’s an example of using sound effects and design to establish an unnerving mood without resorting to a musical score, which supports the documentary feel Friedkin was going for, and it succeeds in spades.

Now, William Friedkin has been known to be quite the bastard of a filmmaker.  Him firing guns on set, and throwing his actors into hard stunts to get a visceral reaction out of them are just a few reasons why.  Personally, as a filmmaker myself, I don’t believe someone has to get hurt for the sake of art.  There’s always another way to achieve the results you want.  Still, regardless of how you view his methods, his results are very intense.  He always casts great actors, and does some challenging work with them.  With these actors, we are given a breadth of deep, hard hitting emotion that penetrates the characters’ souls.  The struggles of faith with Damien Karras are portrayed with deep heartache and weariness by Jason Miller.  You can empathize with his pain and fear as you see the dour aspects of his life.  It is a powerful performance that Miller poured deeply into his soul to achieve.  Ellen Burstyn put in a very warm portrayal that gradually morphs into something very raw and painfully emotional.  The grief she expresses as Chris MacNeil is heart wrenching and soul tearing.  It hits harder than anything in the film, and sells the terrible reality of the horrific situation she faces.

There is a fine, understated performance by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman.  He investigates the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, the drunken director of the film Chris MacNeil was involved with.  Cobb walks a fine line between earnest, probing investigator and kind-hearted soul.  He surely makes assertive inquiries about this unusual death, but treads cautiously amongst these people.  He questions as much as he observes them trying to decipher the deeper reality of what’s happening.  This made the character very intriguing and just endearing enough to connect nicely with an audience.  Cobb passed away less than three years after the film’s release, and was succeeded in the role in The Exorcist III by the acclaimed, powerhouse actor George C. Scott.  Cobb laid a solid foundation that Scott strongly built upon in that excellent film.

However, the most understated, yet immensely captivating performance comes from Max von Sydow.  While I feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent delving into Father Merrin, what von Sydow brings is substantially strong on its own.  Merrin himself is a few decades older than von Sydow was at the time, and his acting as a frail elderly man is pitch perfect.  He has a cautious grace in his movements and a sophisticated sensibility that comes with wisdom.  The calmness and power he brings forth in the final act tell much about Lancaster Merrin’s soul.  While he has his battle scars from a previous exorcism, his weathered soul still holds his faith and will solidly.

It’s also shocking and amazing what Linda Blair did in this role.  She easily endears herself to an audience with her innocence and playful nature.  She worked beautifully with Ellen Burstyn as a very natural mother-daughter relationship.  Of course, it’s easy to overlook the performance after the possession since all her lines were overdubbed by the grizzled voice of Mercedes McCambridge, but what she physically does is immensely impressive.  She was put through a lot of long hours in pain and deep cold to achieve what she needed to.  Even the make-up prosthetics were a challenge that she would not subject herself to for the sequel.  For being so young, only fourteen at the time of filming, she dedicated herself with a strong stability that should be highly admirable to any actor.  The overall performance is quite amazing, and in the darker areas of the film, rather disturbing.

I find the make-up effects work to be very effective.  As the possession gets worse, Regan’s flesh becomes cracked with open sores and discoloration.  It looks like she’s almost rotting away due this demonic evil within her.  The visuals of this can be disturbing to many viewers.  While times certainly have changed greatly since the early 1970s where this had people fainting and throwing up during screenings of this film, it can still hold chilling weight today.  It was a startling motion picture that blindsided audiences, and much of that is due to both those grotesque make-up effects and the style of editing.  Quick flashes of the demon face are what frightened me for the longest time.  It’s a face that sends chills all over me still.  It’s something that nightmares are made of, and a haunting vision that would be terrifying to see peering out of the darkness at you, which is exactly what it does.  It’s immensely effective, near subliminal trickery.

The Exorcist does give us a few sequences that establish something sinister or malevolent looming over these characters.  Father Karras has an ominous dream sequence about his ailing mother that does haunt him.  Also, Father Merrin staring down the stone statute of Pazuzu in Iraq has a fierce, raw unnerving quality which sets a foreboding tone early on.  It’s also your preference whether to watch the original theatrical or extended edition.  However, the extended cut does add in a couple of editing effects that throw that demon face into a few unsettling scenes.  Lights are flickering in the MacNeil house, hinting that a powerful force is at work, and that fearsome visage does make a small appearance.  Regardless of which cut you choose, the film truly is ripe with chilling moments that demonstrate the skillful quality of William Friedkin.

I will say straight out that I have no religious beliefs.  However, I can still perceive and appreciate how deeply this film’s subject matter penetrates into an audience with them.  In the least, it’s a film that explores a pure embodiment of evil that is able to corrupt even the most innocent among us.  If this timeless, demonic evil could possess this pure of heart young girl in the context of such a grounded, hardened reality, many audiences easily could be rattled to their core.  The Exorcist is just as much of a film that frightens with its visuals and sound as it does with its ideas.  William Peter Blatty truly constructed a deeply detailed screenplay built off a novel written with the help of a real life priest.  Everything was well researched and discussed where the church is concerned to understand exactly who these men of faith were, and the depth of knowledge with demonic possession and exorcism.  All of that detail comes through in Friedkin’s film who even cast several real life priests in key roles.  That casting was smart as they carry a certain weight and aura about themselves that is very natural.  They truly added to the realistic strength of character through the picture.

I suppose my only criticisms upon the film are that I do feel that Lancaster Merrin could’ve been fleshed out more for us to have a better context and perspective on the man himself.  He’s given a perceived poignancy in the film, but he ultimately has little poignancy to the story.  I also believe that the ending feels a little shorted.  With the grueling battle that Merrin and Karras were waging in that room during the exorcism, the conclusion did feel a little lacking in substantive pay-off.  The ending to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III would end up being very grandiose, almost seeming a bit too over-the-top, but still, it had enough direct, dramatic pay-off to feel like a satisfying conclusion.  With this film, there almost seems to be a lack of dramatic build-up to the very final moments.  It surely doesn’t end how one would expect it to, which is a good thing, but let’s just say that the Merrin character again seems to be slighted.  I can surely understand the idea that the film is more about Damian Karras, but Merrin is surely meant to be the climactic difference maker in this plot, yet he is dispatched with most unceremoniously.  He is supposed to be the title character of the movie after all.  Max von Sydow gave the character such immense depth with little to no dialogue that I felt he should’ve been a more purposeful element in the overall film, and given a proper story arc.  He’s given enough setup and build up to support that idea, but ultimately, he’s not given that weight of relevancy.  It’s just something that has regularly nagged at me with the movie.  A little more time spent with Merrin could’ve helped create a more gradual transition into the third act, and perhaps, motivated Blatty and Friedkin to actually conclude his story on-screen.  As it is, Father Merrin is more of a plot facilitator than a character with his own story to tell, and I believe that to be a negative mark against the screenplay and film.

While I supposed my skin has thickened over the years where horror films are concerned, I cannot discount the strength and quality of this film.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the horror elements here in the least.  However, it can be difficult to judge if people still call this “the scariest movie of all time” due to just blind reputation, or because they truly, personally feel that way.  Since the effectiveness of this film has lessened with me over time, and I have found new horror films that scare me more profoundly than this, I would have to question whether current audiences genuinely believe The Exorcist to be the scariest of all time.  So, I suppose this makes for an unusual review.  The Exorcist surely is an exceptionally well made film with intelligent themes and deeply frightening elements that have immense impact on a visual and auditory level.  Yet, it doesn’t affect me remotely as much as it once did.  Regardless, I cannot deny that it once did have a powerful effect on me, and likely still does on countless others.