John Carpenter would be directing a western-flavored vampire film. Based loosely on John Steakley’s novel of the same name, Vampires (1998) tears down and stomps all over the brooding gothic bloodsucker cliché in order to portray them as vicious killers hunted by men who aren’t that much better. Even though the film takes place in a contemporary setting – the American southwest – it looks and feels like a western right down to James Woods as a no-nonsense gunslinger-type vampire hunter. Vampires turned out to be one of Carpenter’s most commercially successful films in years despite the mixed critical reaction. To be fair, the film has its flaws, as a lot of later of his work does, but Woods’ ferocious performance, unapologetic politically incorrectness and the use of vampirism to expose the hypocrisy of organized religion, makes Vampires an entertaining horror film.
The film starts off promisingly as Carpenter’s brooding score plays over a montage of desolate New Mexico landscapes before the camera swoops over an abandoned farmhouse. Observing it from afar is Jack Crow (James Woods) and his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). They assess the situation and deduce that the house is a nest for vampires. Carpenter’s heavy, twangy spaghetti western-flavored score kicks in as Jack and his group of badass vampire hunters move in. The director sets just the right no-nonsense tone as we see this heavily armed motley crew get ready to wipe out a nest of bloodsuckers like an exterminator would take out a hive of troublesome insects.
The build up and then actual extermination of said nest has a The Wild Bunch (1969) by way of Walter Hill vibe to it as Carpenter shows professional men of action plying their trade. This scene not only establishes Jack and his team’s tough guy credentials but also presents the vampires as very strong, almost feral creatures. There is nothing elegant or romantic about these bloodsuckers. More importantly, we also see the efficient way Team Crow works: one by one the vampires are dragged out into sunlight where they burst into flames. In the end, nine vamps, or goons, as they are referred to by Jack, are destroyed but they don’t find the master, the leader who always protects its nest.
Team Crow not only works hard but they also play hard, taking over a motel loaded up with alcohol and hookers. Yet the lack of a master still gnaws away at Jack, that is, until a beautiful prostitute named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) distracts him with an invitation for sex. While he gets her a beer she waits for him in his room. However, a master vampire is already waiting in what is probably the film’s most striking visual as the camera pans up to show the bloodsucker hovering at the height of the ceiling, unbeknownst to Katrina. He quickly seduces and bites her on the inner thigh in a very sexually-charged scene. The master then proceeds to crash the party and kill Jack’s entire team. His assault starts off promisingly as he brutally splits one hapless vampire hunter (Mark Boone Jr.) in half! But then Carpenter makes the unconventional choice of depicting the hotel room massacre through a series of dissolves, which robs the sequence of its visceral impact. We are supposed to be awed by this master’s power as he easily dispatches Team Crow but much more of an impact could have come from quick edits and hand-held camerawork to convey the chaos of the scene, not a montage of dissolves which lessens the shock of the vampire’s attack.
Backed by the Vatican no less, Jack meets with his superior, Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) who assigns him church archivist Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), a well-intentioned if not hopelessly inexperienced priest. Father Adam tells Jack that the master who wiped out Team Crow is named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a 600-year-old vampire – the first and most powerful, accidentally created by the Catholic Church.
Jack grudgingly takes Father Adam along and quickly lays down the law with the young priest as he gives him a crash course in vampires: “First of all, they’re not romantic. It’s not like they’re a bunch of fags hopping around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents. Forget whatever you’ve seen in movies.” This doesn’t just apply to Father Adam but to the audience as well. Carpenter is saying that the bloodsuckers in Vampires aren’t going to be the angst-ridden vampires we see in films like Interview with a Vampire (1994) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Woods delivers this monologue with the consummate skill of a pro but with the enthusiasm of an actor having fun with the role as he can’t resist adding a little zinger in the end which causes Father Adam to get flustered. Being a fan of both Woods and Carpenter for years, this is a dream pairing and it is great to see the actor playing a man of action. Woods is known for playing pragmatic protagonists and his portrayal of Jack Crow is a great addition to Carpenter’s roster of uncompromising heroes.
James Woods plays Jack Crow as a tough-as-nails vampire hunter not above beheading and burying his slaughtered teammates and the hookers that were unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. Carpenter uses the dissolve montage technique here again only much more effectively. And to show what a tough guy Jack truly is, he torches the motel for good measure and Woods looks cool as he fulfills and tried and true action film cliché of walking away from a gigantic explosion. Woods displays intense steely-eyed determination, especially after his team is killed as he makes it his mission to find out why it happened and track down the vampire responsible.
Carpenter also sets up the mercurial Howard Hawksian relationship between Jack and Montoya who doesn’t approve of his boss burying the team on his own. You can see Carpenter trying to set up the same kind volatile thing that we saw in previous male-dominated films like The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) but he’s just not as successful here because in those films you really felt that those guys were a legitimate threat to each other. In Vampires, you never get the impression that Montoya would really truly challenge Jack and so their friction, at times, feels forced, or in one scene where they are actually about to get into it, Carpenter pulls things back. Daniel Baldwin brings a beefy physicality to the role of Montoya and acts a decent foil to Woods’ hard-nosed head vampire slayer. He has the look and demeanor of a classic Hollywood tough guy.
Carpenter is less successful at depicting the relationship that develops between Montoya and Katrina. It starts off very antagonistic as he views her as nothing more than a tool, an end towards a means, but I just don’t buy how, over time, he begins to care for her. This aspect of the film is one of the things that makes it unapologetically politically incorrect. Katrina is thrown around by Jack and Montoya like a rag doll. When Montoya and her take refuge in a hotel, he bounds and gags her naked to a bed. I understand the restraints – so she doesn’t escape – but naked? I certainly don’t have a problem with Sheryl Lee’s gorgeous body but it doesn’t make much sense. The actress doesn’t have much to do initially as she gets slapped around by Woods and Baldwin, but once Katrina develops a telepathic link with Valek she becomes an important conduit of information. However, it’s not until the climactic showdown when Katrina finally becomes a vampire that Lee gets to cut loose and have some fun with the role.
Nine days after John Steakley submitted his book Vampire$ to his publisher, the film rights were sold in January 1990. Several directors were attached to the project over the years where it languished John Carpenter was approached. He had just finished making Escape from L.A. (1996) and was contemplating quitting the movie business for a while because “it stopped being fun.” However, Largo Entertainment offered him with the project. They had two screenplays, one written by Don Jakoby and the other by Dan Mazur. Carpenter took the book, the two scripts and read them. Afterwards, he thought, “it’s going to be set in the American Southwest and it’s a Western – Howard Hawks.” For years, he had thought about vampire films but never wanted to make one because he didn’t think there was a new way to do it: “They’re just such generic creatures, and they’ve been done so many times.” He was drawn to the western elements in Steakley’s novel: “I’ve always loved westerns and one of the reasons I’m doing this movie is that this is the closest I’ve come to being able to do a western.” He ended up combining the two scripts, utilizing elements from both, a little bit from the book, and some of his own stuff.
In casting Team Crow, producer Sandy King “tried to cast men who have a certain kind of charisma.” Actor James Woods concurred: “These are really dangerous vampires, and you like to know that they’re hiring real men for the parts – not the sort of ‘Hollywood’ version of men out hunting vampires.” He was drawn to the film because it gave him the opportunity to play an action hero. When the actor accepted the role, he told Carpenter, “I want to make this hero the baddest guy ever.” Woods has a reputation for being difficult to work with but Carpenter had an agreement with him that he could improvise a take if he did another one as it was written in the script. Carpenter had not seen Daniel Baldwin’s television work (he had been on Homicide: Life on the Street) but when they met, he “loved his whole nature and personality.” The director cast Sheryl Lee based on her work on Twin Peaks while Thomas Ian Griffith was chosen based on several action films he had done, including one called Excessive Force (1993).
Carpenter’s keen visual sense is still as strong as ever in Vampires. There’s a great shot of Valek and seven master vampires coming out of the ground, like zombies, at dusk. The lighting and Carpenter’s minimalist score create just the right atmosphere of dread. For this scene, the actors were buried under about a foot of sand and had to wait until they were called to rise from their graves. Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada devised a breathing system whereby each actor used a small box placed over their mouth to provide a short supply of air as they waited to be called to rise from the ground.
Not surprisingly, Vampires was not well-received by critics – par for the course for a Carpenter film. In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “ridiculous without being awful enough to be hilarious, Vampires is chock full of exhausted lines.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “making a cowboy yarn should mean more than just setting the carnage amid adobe buildings.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “the story itself can’t seem to decide whether it’s Rio Bravo or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is not scary, and the plot is just one gory showdown after another.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Kim Newman addressed the film’s treatment of women: “The treatment of women – we only see whores and vampires, and the ‘heroine’ gets to be both – is especially reprehensible.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “After a promising opening … this gummy mix of fake-Catholic mumbo jumbo and teeth-in-neck horror goes limp.” The lone dissenting voice came from the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey who gave it three out of four stars. He said it was, “deliciously twisted throughout, adding some fresh kinks to a well-worn old movie fetish.”
Vampires expertly cruises towards the inevitable showdown between Jack and Valek where we find out just how culpable and complicit the Church is in all of this. Towards the end it feels almost like Carpenter ran out of steam or money or both as the finale is strangely anticlimactic. He leaves the antagonistic relationship between Jack and Montoya tantalizingly unresolved in a tribute to Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), begging for a sequel that was eventually made but without Carpenter’s direct involvement and with it the film’s stars as well. Vampires is certainly not without its flaws and not up to par with his classic films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the film does have its merits. Over the years I enjoy it more with every subsequent viewing.
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