Written by Don Jakoby
Directed by John Carpenter
The name John Carpenter, much like Wes Craven, is synonymous with the horror genre. Few American filmmakers have a filmography so thoroughly steeped in horror that their names instantly come to mind of rabid fans of the genre whenever asked to list their favourite directors, or at least those that left an indelible mark on horror cinema. From all the way back in the late 1970s with films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween to as recently as 2010’s The Ward, Carpenter is one of the iconic directors having attained legendary status. If Assault, which is more thriller than horror, is any indication, he can also direct action scenes with relative aplomb. 1998 finally saw him meld horror and action with Vampires.
Opening in a sleepy New Mexican town, vampire exterminators Jack Crow (James Woods), Anthony Montoya (Daniel Badlwin) and their troop infiltrate a glum looking house during the day. Equipped with pistols, shotguns, stakes and harpoon guns that relay back to their truck that can drag vampires outside and into the sunlight, Jack’s team successfully liquidates what they refer to as ‘goons’. The celebrations later that evening are short lived, as a master vampire, Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) assaults their motel, killing most of Jack’s crew and the hookers they rented, save for Daniel and Katrina (Sheryl Lee). The Vatican, Jack’s employer, has its representative Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) order that they take inexperienced Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) under their wing to form a new team and discover what Jav Valek is after. With Katrina falling under the vampire’s spell by the hour following a bite, Daniel falling in love with her, and a smart but nervous priest by their side, it’s up to no-nonsense Jack to muster up some gusto to face off against the most powerful vampire ever.
Many argue that 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness was John Carpenter’s last great movie. Of course, discourse like that is always open to interpretation given how subjective the appreciation of film is, but is it noteworthy that since Madness, none of his pictures have garnered the acclaim many are always ready and willing to shower him with. Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires, Ghosts and Mars and The Ward carried no clout at the box office and none were especially well received critically, a couple of them proving to be full on duds in fact. It appears, therefore, that 1998, when Vampires was released, was right around the time when John Carpenter’s limelight began to dim. It would be harsh to mindlessly lump Vampires in the same category as films such as Escape from L.A. and The Ward, however. The reality is that the picture is a decent romp, one that juggles obligatory vampire movie tropes with a more modern twist or two and some action scenes befitting of a western, incidentally a genre Carpenter himself is on record for being quite fond of.
It should be pointed out that Vampires does not feature a barrage of crazy action sequences. Rather, the guns go blazing and the stakes are viciously thrust mostly during the opening scene and the climax, with the middle portion reserved for character development and advancement of the plot. What high-octane delights that are featured are presented with a fun sense of joie de vivre as is typical of Carpenter’s films. They aren’t the most sophisticated set pieces, with several visual cues hinting that everything is being pulled off with relatively modest means. With the exception of the Escape sequel, Carpenter was never one to produce films that cost exuberant amounts, the result of which are movies that not only feel a bit more grounded, but force the production teams to pull out all the stops to make the best monsters and action scenes they can, using every last penny. In that respect, the action in Vampires falls very much in line with the director’s vision. In an age when digital enhancements were becoming all the craze, there is something decidedly old school about the physicality the vampires possess as well as the fisticuffs the actors get into. Better still, the climax is staged exactly like a siege sequence one would find just as easily in a western. It’s fun to watch and looks as though the filmmakers themselves were having barrels of fun while making it.
Anchoring the picture is the incomparable James Woods. The actor never shied away from playing either creeps or anti-heroes, and the role of Jack Crow suits him perfectly. Haunted by a tragic past in which vampirism played a role, Jack is tough as nails, foul-mouthed, gun-toting, stake-wielding vampire killer that doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to slaughtering his mortal enemies. There is a fiery passion when Jack kills vampires, an anger that can barely be controlled. Woods brings out this gusto with relish, delighting in the possibility of insulting just about anyone that disagrees with him and yelling obscenities with jubilation when a vampire’s eyes finally roll back its head or is savagely burned by sunlight. Daniel Baldwin is not as accomplished an actor as Woods, and in no shape or form is he as magnetic as his more popular Vampires co-star, but whatever limited acting chops he has are put to decent use by Carpenter. They play off each other reasonably well, two macho guys that respect and even like each other, but will demonstrate said appreciation for one another with a cuss word rather than anything gentile. Tim Guinee, whose role grows more important as the plot moves along, is also a lot of fun as the initially queasy Father that eventually gets down and dirty with Jack in their slaying quest.
What it comes down to when judging Vampires is that it has to get by on its aforementioned strengths because there is not much else worthy of recommendation. Sheryl Lee is devoid of any charisma as Katrina, which might come off as a harsh criticism considering the role she is playing (essentially a comatose soon-to-be vampire), but a good actress would bring something to the role, anything at all. Worse still is Thomas Ian Griffith, arguably the least interesting villain of any Carpenter film, which is saying something seeing as Michael Myers spends the entire Halloween film speechless and behind a mask. Jan Valek’s presence is built up a lot by how other characters talk about his evil exploits, but it requires an actor to bring about that sort of terror onto the screen. Thomas Ian Griffith is no such performer, thus making Jan a blander than bland ultimate baddie. There is also the matter of the plot, which is extremely convoluted and long-winded for something that could be explained in a few sentences in order to keep a good pace. Jan Valek basically wishes to walk by day, thus making him and his minions an even greater threat to humanity than they already are. The screenplay, from scribe Don Jakoby, goes to extraneous lengths to explain Valek’s past, what the Vatican has done to subdue him, something about a black cross, a reverse exorcism of sorts, etc. It goes on and on and on and, frankly, the exposition feels interminable at some points. Neat and to the point is something Vampires most certainly is not.
Ultimately, Carpenter’s film makes for an odd viewing experience. For a director that knows how to cut to the chase of his plots, it is rather surprising to see Vampires slow down to a crawl during its middle section. Woods and Guinee are exciting enough to get the viewer through to the climax, but only just. That said, the movie opens with a bang, ends terrifically, and offers some hilariously macho exchanges between Woods and Baldwin. It isn’t the most glowing recommend, but there is enough here for Carpenter completists to sink their teeth into.