A Look Back At: John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES
John Carpenter is one of the greatest directors of all time, but you already knew that. Is there a more influential director that has transcended genres with such ease, all the while creating massively iconic characters and becoming a “master of horror” in the process? A director who’s scores you can play on loop and never tire of, or films you can seasonally watch year after year with the same delight as the first time? Carpenter is the definition of an auteur, which is highly evident throughout the majority of his oeuvre. Director; producer; writer; actor; composer; editor; it’s this unity that makes his vision truly realized to create the masterpieces we hold so dear still to this day. However, that doesn’t mean the now 66-year old director hasn’t had his share of missteps. For every shining diamond, there exists something not quite so lying in the rough. John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES is that something.
Apart from some highlights, both minor and major, the 1990’s were equally unkind to the horror genre and John Carpenter. Sure, Carpenter’s films were mostly always grossly misunderstood and received negatively, but the 90s in particular were quite harsh on him. It saw the master of horror try his hand at comedy in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN; turning what was to be a horror anthology TV series into a single film with BODY BAGS; completing his “apocalypse trilogy” with the massively underrated IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS; directing his second remake with VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED; the less than triumphant return of Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM L.A.; and then closing out the decade with the genre-mash of VAMPIRES.
VAMPIRES wastes no time in introducing its’ slayers, a rag-tag group dubbed Team Crow after its’ leader, Jack Crow (James Woods, in one of his most audacious roles). Crow and his team raid “nests” with an assorted arsenal, fully funded by the Vatican to rid the Earth of the night stalking bloodsuckers. This awakens Valek, a centuries old master vampire in search of an ancient black cross that’ll allow him to walk freely during the day. Just as soon as we get to know the slayers, they’re quite literally ripped to pieces by Valek and his undead posse in a fantastically gruesome, hotel massacre setpiece that serves as one of the film’s highlights thanks to KNB FX. Only Jack, his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), and a prostitute (TWIN PEAKS‘ leading lady Sheryl Lee) with a psychic connection to Valek after being bitten, are left to stop Valek before obtaining the cross.
Based pretty loosely on John Steakley’s novel of the same name (well, it’s actually VAMPIRE$), it held enough weight to lure John Carpenter in, who by that point had been considering retirement. “It stopped being fun” said Carpenter in this very revealing interview from the November 1997 issue of Dreamwatch Magazine. “I got in this business to make Westerns. I didn’t get in to make horror movies. Once I got over that I was okay.” What kept him from leaving Hollywood? The ability to finally make his very own western. It’s no secret that Carpenter is an avid aficionado of the western genre, specifically the films made by legendary directors John Ford and Howard Hawks. With VAMPIRES, Carpenter would finally be able to mix a genre he helped define with one he’d admired. The results aren’t disastrous, far from it actually. Inspired misfire is more like it, one with great gore-gags, a nihilistic outlook, and one hell of a scene-stealing performance from James Woods.
Woods brings so much machismo as Crow, it’s hard not to love him. He chomps scenery left and right, with lines like “let me just ask you one thing, after 600 years, how’s that dick workin’, pretty good?” and “Hey, Valek! Why don’t you prove you can kick my ass! Come on, untie me, you prick! Fucking pole-smoking fashion victim!” making me howl earnestly. Woods is clearly having a ball, and dare I say rightfully stands among Carpenter’s other sarcastic-badasses. VAMPIRES is lower-tier Carpenter, I’m not disputing that. The second act is a total slog, and in the grand scheme of his filmography it unfortunately does pale in comparison. But Carpenter working at half his capacity is still better than I can say for most, and you can’t fault the guy for trying to step out of the box a little by making a western hybrid.