VAMPIRES is a cocky asshole of a horror-western strutting into John Carpenter’s filmography late, not giving a shit, rubbing everybody the wrong way. I’ve always dug it, though, and I think these days it’s more widely appreciated than it used to be.
The premise, taken from the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley, is that a team of vampire hunters funded by the Vatican travels the southwest tracking nests of vampires and exterminating them with professional grade equipment. James Woods (THE GETAWAY) plays the leader of the team, Jack Crow, maybe the only time he gets to be the leather-jacket-wearing asskicker. The Kurt Russell. The guy who struts around and shoots crossbows and punches people and never once wears a suit.
We see how their job works as the team raids a boarded up old house somewhere in the sunny desert, busting in like a SWAT team, sweeping it room by room to find the bloodsuckers, using a spear and pulley system to drag them out into the sunlight where they flare up and explode (all practical fire effects, from the looks of it). Montoya (Daniel Baldwin, KING OF THE ANTS, PAPARAZZI) mans the Jeep and winch, using a hunting knife to pull the charred skulls out of their kills and line them up on the hood as trophies.
After the procedure, the party: they’ve rented out the Sun God Motel for a private celebration with lots of girls who think they’re joking about their occupation. They’re drunk and off their guard when Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, EXCESSIVE FORCE, KULL THE CONQUEROR), the Master Vampire who was a notable no-show during their raid, walks right in, splits Mark Boone Junior in half with one hand, and massacres the whole team except for Jack and Montoya. It’s kinda like the beginning of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE where the whole team gets killed, except instead of Emilios Estevez it’s Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and instead of fleeing to a safe house like Ethan Hunt did, Jack Crow has a montage of chopping up the remains of his team and burning down the motel. He does get to walk casually away from an explosion, standard action hero shit, but then he has to carry a bag of his friends’ heads out to bury at the side of the road. And there’s a matter-of-factness about it like either he’s done this before or he always knew that this is what you do in that particular situation.
Jack and Montoya – who always cite numbered vampire hunting rules at each other like The Transporter – end up picking up the young new-to-this-shit Father Adam (Tim Guinee from BLADE) and bitten-party-girl Katrina (Sheryl Lee, WILD AT HEART) as their Dracula-style telepathic link to track Valek. She desperately tries to stay human, but is torn between two sides, smiling lustily at Valek’s successes even as she’s spying on him. Montoya also hides that Katrina bit him and that he too is trying to do the right thing before changing into a bloodsucker.
Father Adam’s un-self-conscious wimpiness contrasts humorously with Jack and Montoya’s over-the-top masculinity. At one point he tries to vouch for his toughness by bragging that he used to play soccer. I love when he goes to break up a big-dumb-asshole fight between Jack and Montoya and just gets tossed to the ground like a bug getting swatted away. There’s at least one funny moment that implies Jack doesn’t totally hate this goofball – when Adam goes in to kill a vampire he waves to Jack through a security camera, and Jack finds himself reflexively giving a small wave to the monitor, making him for the moment the bigger dork.
One way this differs from other vampire pictures is its emphasis on bright, sunny scenes as the slayers track their foes. Even sometimes when the vampires are out – like the great scene of the seven Masters coming up out of the sand they’ve apparently been buried in all day – it happens at dusk, so it still looks more western than gothic. And some of the sets, like the little Mexican church with a fountain in front, may very well have been built for westerns.
It’s also a movie that takes place almost entirely outside of human civilization. There are some civilians killed at the motel, but for most of the movie we only see the hunters and the vampires out in the middle of nowhere. We don’t really see regular people witnessing the supernatural, or having to be convinced that there’s such a thing as vampires. We only hear that after the massacre “local authorities reported it as a terrorist event.”
Stylistically it reminds me a little bit of another arguably-undervalued and western-influenced movie from a few years earlier, Robert Rodriguez’s DESPERADO. There are many dreamy dissolve edits and sequences that are more about the imagery grooving with the music than advancing the plot. The sound of the score is clearly Carpenter, but more rockin than almost any of his other ones, sounding most similar to the blues-rocky THEY LIVE. Carpenter still plays keyboards and other instruments, but this time jamming with an all star band of veteran studio musicians credited as The Texas Toad Lickers. On guitar and bass he has Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, who were in both Booker T. and the M.G.s and The Blues Brothers. Also on guitar is Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who was a Doobie Brother and a Steely Dan and now is a missile defense consultant (look it up). Rick Schlosser (who played with Van Morrison, Cher, and on Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”) plays drums and the Robb Brothers play organ and saxophone. It’s just the right type of dorky-cool white dudes to join an allegedly-past-his-prime Carpenter in showing the kids he’s still got some rock ‘n roll left in him.
There’s a scene where Jack explains the movie’s vampire rules to Father Adam, saying to “forget whatever you’ve seen in the movies” because these vampires aren’t “hoppin’ around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents.” The old commentary track and making-of featurette on the DVD (and the Twilight Time blu-ray I was sure to snatch up) really emphasize that these are monsters, not broody Anne Rice types. But that’s funny because Valek does have kind of a Lestat fashion sense, and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN had already brought back “vampires – no interviews” two years earlier. Also, Valek is a seducer – the bite is portrayed as a sexual, orgasmic act. And he aims to please. He bites her in the inner thigh as an obvious allusion to cunnilingus. There’s a little bit of Fabio in him.
That said, Valek doesn’t have a huge amount of dialogue, and I don’t think any of the others talk. They just hiss and attack and leap and get stabbed and dragged and set on fire, and there is some serious blood squirting and dismembering. It seemed refreshing on release because it was a gore-light time in the horror cycle, and again now because it’s done with latex and liquid, not computers. So I think in spirit it lives up to the promise of a balls-out monster vampire movie.
Despite the team’s religious backing, this is not the clean cut good vs. evil, God vs. the Devil conflict of, say, most exorcism movies. First of all, Jack is a total fucking asshole, and his whoring, hard drinking team don’t seem to have any interest in religious tenets. They seem to be the dirty secret, off-the-books, black ops side of the church. And they have to deal with vampires because they’re blowback from their own activities – we learn that Valek was the first vampire, created accidentally by a “reverse exorcism.” Also, a Cardinal (Maximilian Schell, ST. IVES) turns out to have sold out and is helping Valek obtain an artifact that could be used in a ritual to turn him into the white Daywalker. The nicest guy in the movie is Father Adam, but I think we’re supposed to agree with Jack that it’s awesome when he mans up, blows away both vampires and humans and tries to fit in by repeating Jack’s boner talk from earlier. He’s finally cool when he stoops to their level.
To me that is the biggest laugh in the movie though, seeing Jack’s delight when Adam pops up out of nowhere to shotgun the Cardinal and then threaten to blow off his own head to thwart the ritual. “That’s it Padre, fuck with ’em!”
In 1998 this was a movie that seemed kind of out-of-step with the times. It had to be slightly cut to avoid an NC-17 and it came out overseas (where it did pretty well) months before here (where it only broke even). It wasn’t very well reviewed, but Gene Siskel loved it and said that Woods should be nominated for best actor. (Maybe he would’ve been the one to beat Robert Benigni.)
From what I’ve read, Carpenter wrote the script himself using elements from two different scripts and the book (which I read a long time ago and I remember it was totally different, but that’s about all I remember). But the credit went to one of those other screenwriters, Don Jakoby. That’s Dan O’Bannon’s sometimes-writing-partner who wrote BLUE THUNDER, LIFEFORCE and DEATH WISH 3. The very best DEATH WISH to have written. He also has a story credit on ARACHNOPHOBIA and more importantly on DOUBLE TEAM! What I’m saying is we’re dealing with an American hero here.
I can’t imagine a hyper-macho movie like VAMPIRES could be made anymore. Woods (who got to improvise alot) throws around some gay slurs that I didn’t like so much at the time and that are completely taboo for reasonable people today. But I think people would be more upset about the scene where Katrina wakes up to find she’s been abducted by our heroes and tied naked to a bed. A little later, when she bites Montoya, he hits her hard in the face, knocking her to the ground. Within the world of the movie these actions are justified by her being a dangerous monster who he’s trying to save. But of course they’re also designed to make us uncomfortable because this would be so wrong in the real world where she’d just be a woman being abused.
And then you got the standard trope that they end up falling in love after this harsh treatment. And before that he’s calling her “honey” and “baby.”
Jack saves his manhandling for men. When he thinks Father Adam is holding out on him he starts pushing and hitting him. This is not some tough guy who’s gonna try to defend himself, it’s a man of the cloth, it’s so unfair. Jack even cuts him with a knife and threatens to kill him. After Adam gives in and admits what’s going on Jack acts like they’re buddies again. Harsh interrogation techniques on his own team member. I might hate this if it was played just slightly more LETHAL WEAPONy, like it was supposed to be funny and cool that Jack is doing this. But to me it seems so out of line, like there’s something unhinged about this movie and its sick view of heroism, and that has a certain thrill to it.
If most movies were like that it would be gross, but I think this one gets away with it because it’s novel. I don’t want to invite Jack Crow over for dinner, or vote for him for political office, or stay in the same motel as him, but it’s interesting to watch him do his job. And in the end it’s a western, and he’s not a role model, he’s some wandering gunfighter with alot of kills to his name. If it was a normal vampire movie he’d have to kill Montoya when he finds out he’s turning. In this he gives him a head start in the name of honor and brotherhood. He tells him he’s going to find him and kill him, and then they hug. Who could hate a movie like that? Definitely not me.