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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 Machinist (2004)

This is a unique film.  Helmed by Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, and written by Scott Kossar, screenwriter of the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror.  I’ve never seen Anderson’s work before, but I’ve heard good things about it.  Whatever the case, The Machinist pulsates with rare talent and dedication for a style of film that few venture into.  The most shockingly impactful display of dedication comes from Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) who shed 63 lbs for this gaunt, troubled role leaving him at a frail 120 lbs.  The scenes showing his skeletal physique will just blow your mind.  With this being such a unique film, a plot synopsis cannot go into details without spoiling anything.

Simply put, there is something wrong with Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), but what it is, even he doesn’t know.  Trevor is a machinist that has wasted away to the point where “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”  But what happens to be worse is that Trevor has not slept in a year.  Trevor is in such bad shape that his machine factory co-workers believe he’s doing drugs, but it’s hardly the case.  Still, the deterioration of his physical and mental state beg the question, “what the hell happened to him?”  On the brighter side, Trevor has two women in his life – the lover and the mother.  The lover is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a very warm and affectionate girl who happens to be a prostitute, but is certainly more to Trevor than that.  The mother is Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who is a mother to a young boy, and gives Trevor some company while drinking coffee in the late night hours.  Still, Trevor has recently become very interested in a supposed co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) who he’s never seen before, and comes off a little creepier than anyone would be comfortable with.  But what’s even creepier is that no one at the factory seems to know who he is – it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  Although, to Trevor, he is very real, and Ivan continues to haunt Trevor to no end.  Then, there’s the mystery of who’s leaving post-it notes on Trevor’s refrigerator door – taunting him with a game of hangman.  Paranoia is only the beginning as Trevor tries to decipher this bizarre mystery, and ultimately, discover what secrets are buried in his scattered, tired mind.  Like the tagline says, How do you wake up from a nightmare when you’re not asleep?

The sparkling gem in this film is truly Christian Bale.  Beyond any other performance of his, this is the one that demonstrates the extremes Bale will goto for a great role.  His dedication is full heart, body, and soul.  He has a passion for film and acting that is just as unique and rare as this film.  Bale practically starved himself to reach this striking physical goal, and believe me, you won’t be able to understand how anyone could live in this condition.  Trevor’s a bit lighthearted about it all, and doesn’t really let it bother him (frankly, he’s got much more pressing matters at hand).  Bale’s performance here is powerhouse indeed, treading through a flood of emotions over the course of the film.  I simply cannot praise Bale’s acting talents enough, there aren’t the words for it.  He is truly one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m glad to be a witness to it.

The rest of the cast is very complementary as well.  Michael Ironside’s role as Miller, a co-worker of Trevor’s that suffers an unfortunate mishap at the factory, is small but interesting.  Ironside’s always so typecast as a villain or a hard-ass tough guy, it’s nice to see him as someone more light-hearted.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is, as always, a wonderful talent.  She’s done some fantastic roles in the past, and while this role as Stevie is more understated, she has heart and sympathy.  Leigh is still a beautiful woman, and brings a needed bit of consult to Trevor’s troubled mind.  Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (pronounce it if you can) is the overnight waitress at an airport coffee shop that Trevor visits every night.  She’s also a mother with a son named Nicholas (gives me a smile) that Trevor befriends on Mother’s Day.  And probably the capper is the mysterious and creepy Ivan as portrayed by John Sharian.  He essentially haunts Trevor throughout the movie, and makes himself very suspect by the fact that he comes off as overtly suspicious.  He seems like a sociopath, but there’s something far more unforeseen about him than that.  Furthermore, his look is great!  It was augmented to make him appear creepier than normal with a false set of larger teeth and a mangled hand (which is exceptionally freaky).  Sharian plays up the role, but not too much.  His look takes a lot of credit for Ivan’s effectiveness, and Sharian really has quite the Brando mojo going here.

Another striking element here is the cinematography and the entire visual design of the film.  There are a lot of filters used, making the film take on a cold, monotone feel, but there is one or two scenes with a warmer look.  Though, the surreal, unwelcoming visuals are what dominate the film.  And while the story is set in L.A., it was actually shot in Spain, and I feel that the visual style applied here really pushes the film towards a more European look.  The pitfalls, but I think it helps the film seem more surreal.  The cinematography is absolutely wonderful, very inspired – admittedly – by Hitchcock among other things.  It’s amazing work that is rarely seen these days.  I mean, this is photography where the entire film is a large canvas that is painted on with great care.  That’s much like how the script is with many layers, details, and textures that are slowly put together before we ultimately see the entire masterwork.  The score also blends these elements together.  It’s another Hitchcock-inspired detail, and has a very special, unique quality.  Some films don’t utilize the score as a storytelling device, but here it is used to perfect potential.  It definitely enhances all parts of the film with the eerie, mysterious qualities being in the forefront.  Roque Baños has a rare talent for a style of score that isn’t heard enough any more.

Now, where everything really connects is director Brad Anderson.  Again, I’ve never seen any of his other work, but I have to believe it’s just amazing.  The talent he displays in this film, between subtle and obvious, is remarkable.  Not a whole lot of directors develop their own personal style, but when they do, it makes them that much better.  Anderson definitely leaves his mark with The Machinist.  Whether it’s driving the actors, planning out the action in a scene, or what have you, he delivers a wonderfully crafted work of film.  It would certainly take a very competent and highly skilled director to make this script work, but not only does it work, it lives, it breathes.  Brad Anderson really made a potentially very confusing story and made it compelling, intriguing, thrilling, and engaging.  He slowly reels you in, and you have no desire to pull away until the very end.

All in all, this is a great film.  It’s strong, eerie, and by the end, will definitely have you in an array of emotions.  It’s somber and strange, but Brad Anderson makes sense of it all.  The entire cast is a pleasure with Christian Bale putting in everything he had, and showing his dedication and devotion on every single frame.  The photography is something not seen since Hitchcock, and the score resides in that same class.  Simply put, everything and everyone here makes this film everything it was meant to be and more.  This is one great piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend everyone check it out sooner than later.  A pure 10 out of 10!