Overlooked Movie Monday: John Carpenter's Vampires

by Phil Fava on October 25, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

James Woods Vampires 1998“Vampires” (often known colloquially as “John Carpenter’s Vampires”) is about what one might expect in a vampire movie from the director of “They Live” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” Starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, and Thomas Ian Griffith (the villain from “Karate Kid III”), the film is loosely based on a novel of the same name, “Vampire$,” written by John Steakley in 1991.

Fortunately, however, according to Wikipedia, the similarities between the book and film end almost completely after the first few scenes. And based on what I’ve read of the novel’s storyline, it’s safe to say the film is all the better for it.

Woods stars as Jack Crow, the leader of a team of vampire-killing mercenaries who operate out of the American Southwest. His second-in-command is Montoya (Baldwin), whose mark of macho bravado so delightfully predictable in the context of a John Carpenter movie is deliberately burning himself wherever he has an open wound, once with a lighter, once with a machine gun.

The film’s visual strategy is purely and dutifully western, full of dreary browns and skin tones and sprawling desert highways, contrasted with a lot of blood and a lot of anemic vampires dressed in black. All of which, by the way, contributes to a self-seriousness the film harbors that comes across as a bit heavy-handed at times.

Heavy-handed and unapologetic.

Further indication of the gumption with which “Vampires” was made is its rewriting of vampiric history and lore by replacing Dracula as the first vampire and inventing an entirely new character who predates Vlad Tepes by over a hundred years. This movie does to vampire mythology what “Inglourious Basterds” did to World War II a decade later.

Thomas Ian Griffith Vampires 1998Valek—played by Griffith as a 600-year-old Eastern European vampire without even a hint of an accent east of Staten Island—is first seen emerging from underneath the ground at dusk in the desert outskirts of a dilapidated farmhouse. Aesthetically, he’s one of the most unsettling vampires in recent film history. He’s wraith-like and demonic and speaks in aggressive, shivery whispers accentuated by his perpetually visible breath.

A lot of vampire movies fashion themselves as fairly traditional and embrace Christianity as a source of assistance in battling the undead, but “Vampires” is explicitly Catholic like no other of its kind. The mercenaries in question are employed and funded by the Vatican, and James Woods’ higher up is a Cardinal with a direct line to Rome.

And that fact becomes pretty ironic as the film goes on, as it also turns out to feature a fair amount of violence enacted against various individuals occupying various vocations in the Catholic hierarchy. Vampires decapitate priests and monks left and right, and James Woods seems to be constantly pummeling the young priest who’s been assigned as his new lackey. And, oddly enough, it’s these kind of incidences that give the film its charm.

John Carpenter crafts very specific testosterone-fueled, hyper-macho cheese-fests that are distinctly working class. His heroes are put-upon underdogs whose clothes are tattered and sullied by a hard day’s work, and they don’t come out victorious without a serious personal cost that usually leaves them with less than they had initially.

Sherly Lee Thomas Ian Griffith Vampires 1998With this film, you get a lot of over-the-top, enormously satisfying fluff with plenty of intrigue about vampirism and the daily lives of career slayers to spare. Because John Carpenter’s at the helm, it’s assuredly well-crafted, stylish, and crazily entertaining in a way you might not necessarily be proud of. It’s bloody and violent but sparing in its overall gore, and the action is interesting and well-staged.

The only thing you can really do is sit back and watch and wonder where Kurt Russell is in all of this.

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