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John Carpenter’s Vampires – film review

December 27, 2014

JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES

Bad-ass James Woods kicks vampire butt.

vampires - team crow

Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Don Jakoby, based on the novel ‘Vampire$’ by John Steakley. Starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith and Maximillian Schell. Year of release: 1998. Running time:     108 minutes.

It’s no great secret that John Carpenter has always wanted to make a western. Indeed, Carpenter himself would argue that westerns have been what he’s been making along – albeit in the guise of different genres (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and Ghosts of Mars being the most obvious examples). Carpenter would even cast spaghetti western icon Lee Van Cleef in a supporting role in Escape as an unabashed homage to Sergio Leone. While both Precinct 13 and Ghosts are clearly retellings of Carpenter’s most beloved western: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo,     the closest he’s ever come to making a bona fide western was co-writing; along with Tommy Lee Wallace and Bill Phillips (and executive producing) the 1990 HBO Anthony Edwards-starring cable TV movie El Diablo (directed by Peter Markle) – Carpenter’s long-time passion project; which he himself had hoped to helm for the big screen (with his pal Kurt Russell in a major role) – after completing work on The Fog in 1980. As Carpenter revealed to journalist Tony Crawley at the time, “It’s like The Searchers. A revenge story with some gothic elements. A traditional western.”     Much to Carpenter’s disappointment, the project was shelved indefinitely following the release of Escape from New York – due to the production company EMI deciding against Carpenter’s casting of Kurt Russell. It’s a real shame this project wasn’t ultimately realized the way Carpenter had envisaged – as the spectacular native cliff dwellings of the Mesa Verde National Park would have featured prominently in the film. And from all accounts, Carpenter’s original vision for El Diablo was a lot darker in tone to the version which was eventually filmed.

Fast forward sixteen years, and Carpenter finally gets the opportunity to make the western he always wanted (albeit under the pretense of being a vampire movie). There are several stylistic nods to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West     in Vampires, (particularly in his use of back-to-back reverse-angle zoom shots) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (the group shots of Crow’s team approaching the farmhouse nest). In fact, Carpenter himself describes Vampires as “The Wild Bunch meets Vlad The Impaler.” There are also nods to Carpenter’s hero Howard Hawks scattered throughout – particularly in the relationship between Baldwin and Woods, which is a direct nod to Hawks’ Red River.

vampires - entering the nest

Adapted from John Steakley’s 1990 novel Vampire$ by Blue Thunder and Invaders from Mars co-writer Don Jakoby, the movie departs quite considerably from the source material (the dollar symbol in the book’s title, incidently, is a reference to     the mercenary nature of the vampire hunters; who go by the name Vampire$ Inc – renamed Team Crow in the movie). The screenplay had been in development for some years (with at least two different drafts by two different writers in existence). However, for whatever reason, it wasn’t until Carpenter came on board that the film was finally produced. Carpenter had been firmly ensconced in preproduction on The Mutant Chronicles at the time – but the sudden collapse of that project left Carpenter free to make Vampires. From what I understand (not having read the novel) – the opening nest infiltration scene and Valek’s subsequent attack on the team in the motel are indeed in the novel, but from then on it pretty much departs from the source material – with Carpenter introducing The Black Cross of Berziers as the McGuffin which would allow Valek and his vampire horde to survive in daylight. In a letter posted on his website shortly after visiting the set in 1997, Steakley stated his position on the changes to his story, “I am only disappointed in John’s script in the sense … well, if I’d have wanted to write that story …. I would have written that story. Yet, I do, rather more than a little, like Carpenter’s version of vampire hunters.” If truth be told the title Vampires is actually something of a misnomer, as Carpenter’s film is less about the fanged bloodsuckers themselves and more about the slayers who are hunting them.

Carpenter’s film tells the story of a bad-ass band of vampire hunters who are secretly in the employ of the Vatican; charged with systematically wiping out hidden vampire cells operating within the United States. After a successful raid on a vampire nest in New Mexico, Team Crow (as the slayers call themselves) – under the leadership of grizzled veteran Jack Crow (James Woods) – are in a motel room partying with hookers when they come under attack from an all-powerful 600 year-old master vampire named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) – seeking payback for the decimation     of his clan. With virtually the entire team wiped out within minutes, Crow narrowly escapes, along with his right hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and a hooker named Katrina (Sheryl Lee). Realizing Katrina has been bitten by Valek during the attack, thus giving her a psychic link to the master vampire before she turns into a fanged bloodsucker herself, Crow decides to take advantage of this link in a bid to track down Valek and take him out before the vampire is able to recover an ancient Vatican relic which will enable him to walk in the daylight – thus becoming virtually invincible.

vampires - james woods as jack crow

With the exception perhaps of The Fog, The Thing and Prince of Darkness (which   are more ensemble pieces) – Carpenter’s films have, more often than not, featured disenfranchised loners as heroes: Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13, Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, the titular Starman, Nick Halloway in Memoirs of an Invisble Man, John Nada in They Live. And Vampires is no different – although James Wood’s Jack Crow is perhaps the most outwardly aggressive of all of Carpenter’s leading men.

Genre fave James Woods (Videodrome, Contact) gives one of his most memorable performances – his acerbic jibes and put-downs (mostly improvised on set) very much recalling his character from Michael J. Fox-starring action comedy The Hard Way. Carpenter made a deal with the actors that if they gave him one take reciting the dialogue as written, then he would give them a couple of additional takes to improvise their lines. Which is why we end up with so many terrifically humorous asides in the movie. The most memorable being the following from James Woods when he is describing vampire lore to his new recruit Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee) – “Well first of all, they’re not romantic. Its not like they’re a bunch of fuckin’ fags hoppin’ around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? Forget whatever you’ve seen in the movies: they don’t turn into bats, crosses don’t work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata WHILE he’s suckin’ the blood outta your neck, all right?”

sheryl lee - vampires

Much was made in the press at the time of the film’s release of the apparent misogyny of Baldwin’s and Woods’ characters – especially with regards to their     rough treatment of Sheryl Lee’s character. Carpenter responds to his critics on the commentary track, “I think Woods’ character Jack Crow is an equal opportunity abuser – he abuses priests, women, other men, vampires – everybody. He doesn’t pick or choose. I feel as long as he’s fair to everyone – there’s nothing wrong with it.” The criminally underrated actress Sheryl Lee (best known for her role as the troubled Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks) here plays Katrina. As evidenced by her incredibly sassy, sexy and movingly sad performance in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – she is not only very talented – but she is also fearless when it comes to putting herself out there. She really does give it her all in this part and completely sells it. Carpenter cast Sheryl Lee as she is able to play both tough and vulnerable and switch effortlessly between the two. Lee gives a truly remarkable and convincing performance here; particularly during the scenes where she is reacting to visions due to her psychic link with Valek. As an aside, this psychic link between Katrina and Valek is remarkably similar to a concept found in an early Carpenter script called Eyes (which was eventually lensed – heavily rewritten – by director Irvin Kershner as The Eyes of Laura Mars) – in which the heroine has the ability to see through the eyes of a killer. It’s interesting that Carpenter has employed the same idea here.

vampires - stake

Vampires absolutely has the unmistakable signature look, sound and feel of a John Carpenter movie (more so than say Memoirs of an Invisible Man or Village of the Damned or even the earlier Starman for that matter) – the staging of the mayhem which ensues, for example, during Team Crow’s infiltration of the vampire nests,       is very reminiscent of scenes in Carpenter’s The Thing. While the anamorphic widescreen cinematography by Gary B. Kibbe – perhaps the DP’s best work on a Carpenter film – truly captures (for the first time) the classic Carpenter look of the director’s earlier films established by Dean Cundey. There are also many other stylistic flourishes which make their first appearances here. Carpenter’s use of slow motion and dissolves for instance. The dream-like quality of Valek’s attack on the slayers during their post-raid party in the Sun God Motel was shot at 36 frames per second (just enough to slow the action down slightly) and employs dissolves between shots in order to give the impression that Valek can be everywhere at once and is virtually unstoppable.

Then of course there’s the indispensable Carpenter score. As the members of Team Crow consider themselves rock stars (albeit away from the public eye) – with their predilection for hard drinking and whoring; it makes sense that Carpenter should infuse his music with a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. And the eclectic R&B-centric score composed by Carpenter himself (his 16th score) is one of his most memorable; featuring southwest blues influences, with contributions from Donald ‘Duck’ Dunne on bass and Steve Cropper on guitar (both members of legendary 60s R&B Funk band Booker T. & The M.G.’s and later The Blues Brother’s Band) – who, together with Carpenter on rhythm guitar, Jeffrey ‘Skunk’ Baxter on electronic guitar and dobro, Bruce Robb on the hammond B3 and Rick Shlosser on drums; gave themselves the moniker The Texas Toad Lickers specifically for the film. As Carpenter candidly remarks in the liner notes of the Intrada release of the soundtrack album, “I got to play with legendary musicians. I also got shit-faced drunk with them one night. It wasn’t pretty.” One of the tracks on the album – ‘Stake And Burn’ – also features heavy guitar riffs by Carpenter’s godson Daniel Davies (son of legendary frontman Ray Davies from UK band The Kinks). I should also make mention of just how good the overall sound design is for this film. Carpenter regular John Dunn again excells himself here; particularly in his use of creepy atmospherics during the nest sequences; greatly heightening the general unease.

This is perhaps Carpenter’s most gruesome film in terms of blood-letting (even more so than The Thing) – particulary evident during the ‘stake and burn’ sequence where Woods stakes and decapitates his dead compatriots in the aftermath of the motel massacre. And the massacre itself contains the single most gruesome image ever seen in a Carpenter film – where one of Crow’s team is literally ripped in half from crotch to shoulder – amid gouts of spurting blood (Carpenter again employs KNB Effects to carry out the gruesome practicals). As well as being the most graphically violent of Carpenter’s films, Vampires is also perhaps his most overtly sexy. The scene where Valek bites Sheryl Lee on the inner thigh has to rank as one of the most sensual scenes ever in a Carpenter movie – a scene which Carpenter gleefully states on the commentary track as being a real hit with the ladies. To Carpenter’s credit, he chose not to use any CG effects whatsover in Vampires – even going so far as to employ old-school in-camera tricks – such as moving painted backdrops behind actors to create a sense of foreground movement (as in the elevator scene towards the end) and, in the same sequence, even reusing the ‘hanging beneath an elevator’ gag (where the actor is laying horizontally on a hidden support) – which he employed in his very first film Dark Star. Thanks to the talent of Carpenter’s regular editor Edward A. Warshilka these effects shots blend seamlessly so as to be entirely unnoticable.

vampires - valek

If I have a single issue with Vampires, it is that the vampires themselves aren’t particularly scary. Carpenter could easily have gone with portraying the titular creatures as being monstrous and beastly, but instead opted for a more classical Victorian portrayal of them as being alluring and sensual. While I understand his decision to steer away from using prosthetics on the vampires (which, with films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys, had become something of a genre convention by then) – giving his vampires superhuman strength and the ability to punch their fists through victims’ chests and decapitating people with their finger nails isn’t necessarily scary in itself and was perhaps something of a miscalculation on Carpenter’s part.

Being a product of 60s hippie counter culture, Carpenter has always harbored a healthy disdain for authority. And if They Live (perhaps his most subversive film       to date) is his commentary on the rising cult of consumerism and how it relates to     the systematic dumbing down of society and Escape from LA is his commentary on the inherent dangers of merging of church and state, then Vampires is clearly an expression of his distrust and contempt for the self-serving nature and blatant hypocrisy of The Vatican (something which was less overt, but still clearly present,     in Prince of Darkness). This disdain is clearly evident not just in the way Crow continually belittles and mistreats Father Guiteau – but also in the reveal that his boss Cardinal Alba (Maximillian Schell) has been concealing a hidden agenda all along with regards to the Vatican’s pursuit of Valek.

There are some who feel that 1988’s They Live marks the last truly great John Carpenter movie he has made and that everything after this basically sucks. Sure, the period following They Live contains a few of my least favorite Carpenter films: Escape from LA being the one I have the most issues with. But films from this later period such as Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Ghosts of Mars are still worthy entries in their own right. And after the bland mediocrity of Village of the Damned     and the ridiculous goofiness of Escape from LA, Carpenter here demonstrates with Vampires a hugely entertaining and fun return to form.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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4 Comments
  1. Great review. I haven’t seen this film in years, I really should dig it out. I remember I got quite a kick out of it back in the day. I absolutely agree regards Sheryl Lee- I thought she was fantastic in that Twin Peaks movie and really deserved a better career. I guess she could never shake off that whole Laura Palmer thing.

    Regards Vampires,yes it has a stonking soundtrack score, but I always rather thought it should have been a ‘period’ film, say set in the ‘sixties or ‘seventies, with a corresponding soundtrack of source music. I think because it has such an old-school feel to it. James Woods doing his stuff to Isaac Hayes beats, say, would have been so cool.

    On a purely selfish note, I wish John Carpenter could get that fire back in his gut and get back to making great ‘b’ movies, I used to love looking forward to his next movie, but the man has paid his dues. Some great films on his CV.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Ian! Yeah, for a sixteen year-old film – it still holds up remarkably well – most likely due to the distinct lack of awful 90s CGI (unlike ESCAPE FROM LA – which just looks awful). And yeah, it’s a real shame Sheryl Lee’s career didn’t hit the heights she deserves. Lynch made FIRE WALK WITH ME with the express purpose of showcasing her abilities – and she is brilliant in that film. She was also really good in BACKBEAT too. I guess if FIRE WALK WITH ME hadn’t have had the critical backlash it received upon initial release – then Sheryl may well have been offered more substantial big screen roles. At least with the announcement of Lynch bringing TWIN PEAKS back to television, she will be back on our screens real soon.

      • Crikey- TWIN PEAKS… I can’t believe I’ve had that Blu-ray set for the past few months and haven’t watched any of it yet. Must fix that in 2015…

        Happy New Year by the way (I guess you’ve started it ahead of us here in old blighty).

  2. gregory moss permalink

    And a Happy New Year to you too, Ian. 🙂 I’ve really enjoyed your comments during the year (and in fact – everybody’s comments) – and look forward to another great year! 🙂

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