John Carpenter’s career ebbed and flowed though the eighties and nineties, but audiences might have paid a bit more attention to 1998’s Vampires if they’d known it would be the director’s last substantial hit to date. Carpenter was disillusioned with the industry coming of the back of Ghosts of Mars, and Vampires gave him the welcome chance to fuse his love of Westerns with his love of horror. The result got a mixed reception at the time, but Vampires looks far better now than then, and worth considering alongside Carpenter’s best work.
Jack Crow (James Woods) works for the Vatican, but in a covert fashion; he leads a team of fearful vampire killers who search out ‘nests’ and then massacre the bloodless creatures inside. These are not, Crow explains, Euro-trash romantics, can’t be stopped with garlic and crosses, and kill like rabid animals, only with super strength. The opening shows just how tough an adversary the vampires are, a protracted, gory set piece in which Crow’s use of a harpoon and winch proves vital in dragging the creatures out into the New Mexico sunlight.
Crow metes up with Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) to discuss what’s next, but without guessing that his team are in the sights of vampire master Valek played with considerable power by Thomas Ian Griffith. The action is hard and fast, and there’s an elegiac, weary mood that makes this film stand out from the horror crowd. Valek easily massacres Crow’s team, and looks set to transform himself into a more deadly incarnation if Crow can’t stop him. Together with side-kick Montoya (Daniel Baldwin!), Crow tracks down Valek with the help of Katrina (Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee), a woman who has recently been bitten and will soon evolve a telepathic link with their quarry…
Woods is great as Crow, who has the tough delivery of a John Wayne, but updated for a violent 90’s vampire genre flick; the inspiration seems to be somewhere between Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. ‘How’s that syntax for you?’ and ‘This give you mahogany?’ are two of the unexpected questions from Crow that keep Vampires on track. The action is hard and fast, and the result could easily be in the same universe as From Dusk Till Dawn or even Salem’s Lot. Perhaps the pulp-fiction feel wasn’t fashionable at the time, but as a slice of 90’s universe building, Vampires really should have been a franchise rather than the two film stutter that followed. It’s not too late to dig this one out.