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John Carpenter’s Vampires

****
1998

‘…The action is hard and fast, and there’s an elegiac, weary mood that makes this film stand out from the horror crowd…’

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.

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    • Woods isn’t exactly a staple of horror movies, and was somewhat typecast in Salvador/Cop-type roles at the time. He’s no Chuck Norris when it comes to being a bad-ass leading man, but it’s certainly a variation on his usual type of anti-hero. Thanks for the comment!

  1. Carpenter could be quite up-and-down both artistically and commercially, but his was a good one with an interesting cast. The last person you would have thought of ending up at the Vatican was Woods by hey-ho it’s Hollywood anything can happen.

    • Can’t imagine Woods being the Vatican’s first choice, but he gets the job done. Nice seeing Carpenter being a bit more referential than usual, paying tribute to classic Westerns.

    • Stakes do work, but they really have to be jammed in. It’s a kind of non-Dracula world where vampires have no disguise. Carpenter did the disguise thing well in They Live, and kind of inverts that to good effect here.

  2. Wow, what a blast from the past. I watched this movie so often it broke the vhs player…😂 This is one of the favorite no bs vampire movies i am always up for re watching.

    • I remembered it being good, and very rewatchable, and that’s exactly how it seemed when I returned last weekend. It’s a treat!

  3. “elegiac weary mood” line so good you used it twice! Hey, at least you know I read! I was marveling — but at the third read (adding in the headline use) I had to go look up what Elegiac meant! :p

  4. Napalm. the universal solvent for vampires. Not as cool as cutting off their heads with old ninja swords though.

    And I’m glad John listened to me about hollywood. If only more directors and actors were as wise as him.

      • You know me, Mr Calm and Collected.

        That’s why you and I have such a good rapport even though we’re on opposite sides of a lot of issues. I keep you from completely flying off the handle and you keep me from turning into cardboard 😀

        If you really want soothing, I’d recommend some haggis tea….

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