I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Vampires

tn_vampiresVAMPIRES 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 c-htwhole 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.

still_vampires
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.

mp_vampiresThere’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.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 at 10:19 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

42 Responses to “Vampires”

  1. I never figured out where this one stands in Carpenter’s filmography. I liked it (even saw it in theatre, although admittedly it was a surprise sneak preview) and for every review that called it “Carpenter’s best in years and a return to form”, I found one that called it “an emberassing failure of a director who should have stopped years ago”. And today nobody talks about it anymore at all.

  2. I could hate it, I really hated this one when it came out and never went back. I’ve been meaning to give it a re-watch since you’ve been vouching for it for so long but could never muster up the interest or want due to how disappointed I was when I saw it at the preview screening. I guess out of loyalty and brotherhood I can try and put my bias aside and give this a watch for my October viewing (which other than the first episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, has been going really good so far). I hope, like THE BEYOND last year, I can finally learn to like this one.

  3. I need to actually read Vern’s review but I didn’t like it when I saw it in the theaters. I liked it a lot better when I re watched it years later.

    John Carpenter is my number one favorite director ever. However, my biggest criticism of him is that his endings tend to be terrible. He usually makes up for it with last shots or moments but the climax usually is below average. I think that is why I don’t love this one because I feel the climax is a big let down. What do you guys think about his endings?

  4. Also, Vern, why the heck have you never reviewed Excessive Force? It’s awesome and it has James Earl Jones, Lance Henrickson and Tony Todd. Seriously, watch that and Intruder. Thanks.

  5. caruso_stalker217

    October 5th, 2016 at 11:57 am

    “Fucking pole-smoking fashion victim” is still a great line. Although it’s not Woods’s best asshole performance (*cough*COP*cough**cough*VernyouneedtoreviewCOP*cough*) it’s definitley up there, and you can’t accuse him of not going full Woods.

  6. caruso_stalker217

    October 5th, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    But really this is the best thing in the movie.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=95-cZVZwah8

  7. I like this one despite Carpenter’s overuse of the dissolve montages. They completely ruined the motel massacre for me, and I was thankful when they dropped away for the final act of the movie. I figure they were a cost saving measure, but man I wish he’d figured out another workaround. While they didn’t tank VAMPIRES I do think they were a factor in GHOST OF MARS sucking so much.

    Still, I’m a loyal recruit to the Carpenter army. A few bad techniques won’t kill my love (although the CGI in ESCAPE FROM LA . . . that’s pushing it).

  8. You know what’s the best part of Ghost of Mars? The flashback within a flashback within a flashback.

  9. Great review, Vern. I unabashedly love this one (as well as Ghosts of Mars). Woods is awesome in it. If you liked Thomas Ian Griffith in Vampires, you need to check out Karate Kid 3. He gives one of the greatest villain performances of the ’80s in that one. I swear you’ll be quoting his dialogue for days after you watch it.

  10. Like Jack Burton above me, I unabashedly loved this and Ghost of Mars (a fucking cowboys and indians movie on Mars! Come-the-fuck-on!) upon release and found myself in a very, very, very, very small minority.

    It’s been awhile since I peeped GoM, but I re-watched this one one cable about a month ago, and can absolutely say I wasn’t high or crazy with a full throat and loud tone. It’s awesome.

    The strangest thing about Ghost of Mars, is while walking out of the screening, my friend and I were conversing about how much we loved it. This caused a guy in front of us to go into some sort of nerd-rage. He began quite literally screaming at us about how it was one of the shittiest movies he’s ever seen, and how we were complete morons for liking it. That’s never happened before or since. So, say want you want about GoM, but it seems to elicit some very strong reactions.

  11. Jojo, I encountered similar responses when I put Ghosts of Mars on my Employee Pick shelf when I worked at a video store. I honestly don’t understand the hate as it’s basically Assault on Mars 13.

  12. Sternshein – i actually came across Vern’s Excessive Force review yesterday when I was discussing the crown jewel in Thomas Ian Griffith’s Filmography – Terry Silver in Karate Kid III. Not sure if he reviewed the incredibly titled “Excessive Force II: Force on Force” however.

    Excessive Force

    EXCESSIVE FORCE is a pretty generic cop-who-can-kick action movie from Jon Hess, the director of ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION. That would be funny if it was the same guy that did NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, but I guess that was Jared Hess. It’s written by and stars Thomas Ian Griffith. Griffith reminds me a li…

  13. This movie is briefly featured in Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER (Tim Robbins’ character is watching it on TV), a part taken from Dennis Lehane’s novel which references it.

  14. I think everyone being such an asshole to Sheryl Lee’s character rubbed me the wrong way on my first viewing. It seemed very much like blaming the victim. It’s about time for a re-eval, though. Carpenter’s stuff generally gets better with age.

  15. I always liked the banter between Woods and Guineee in this one. But I also always wondered why James Woods was in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, he does a badass job and I love it, but I feel like Woods would feel this was below him.

    Still, love the theme to this one.

    And I am an unabashed Ghosts Of Mars fan. Love it. Convinced my boss at the movie theater I worked at to play it in the biggest house we had when it opened. (He quickly swapped it out after that first night) But I was all about it. Don’t get the hate. Especially from Carpenter fans. Desolation Williams and Jack Crow are great badasses to add to the pantheon.

  16. Oh man, I just love how goddamn ANGRY these vampires’ very existence makes Woods’ character. He’ll start screaming obscenities and kicking the wall AFTER they’re all dead. It’ll never fail to put a big ol’ grin on my face. Apologies if this is discussed in the review…I got excited.

  17. Loved this movie when I saw it in a theater, and yeah, when the Twilight Time Blu-Ray was announced, I snapped that shit up. I think it’s got a decent cult following, too, ’cause TT says they’re almost sold out of it.

  18. Thanks Neal – I honestly forgot that I had seen EXCESSIVE FORCE! Link added.

  19. There’s a lot to like in Vampires, but it loses me with the shitty dissolves in the hotel massacre, and then never really picks up momentum again.

    Vern, you mentioned Desperado, but I think the clear influence here (if we’re being charitable) is From Dusk Till Dawn, which does everything this movie tries to do better and more effectively.

    It’s still not bad, but Carpenter’s direction is not up to the level of Woods’ performance, and I say that as a major Carpenter fanboy.

  20. Sternshein: Even better than that. It’s a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback ― he goes five levels down. For a movie that gets written off too often as Carpenter spinning his wheels, GHOSTS OF MARS has some crazily inventive stuff.

  21. Just re-watched this one and unfortunately I agree with my immature 1998 self, I continue to not like this one and feel it is Carpenter’s worse. I feel the unrelenting unpleasantness of James Woods and Daniel Baldwin kill this one for me. I’m not one of those guys who needs to like main characters/heroes but man I did not care if they lived or died. As Zeke said, the stuff with Lee adds an extra layer of nastiness to it all. I’m not able to articulate why these guys rub me the wrong way but I can watch Tarantino films no problem (HATEFUL EIGHT was my favorite non-MAD MAX: FURY ROAD movie last year) and defend 3,000 MILES TO GRACELAND. I know you mention it in the review, but it still bugs me that they give Woods this whole monologue about what Vampires really are and then almost immediately introduce the chief villain who is all those things, was it supposed to be joke? I’m part of the problem, but I cannot get behind this one.

    Funnily I enjoy GHOSTS OF MARS. I don’t love it but I think it’s stupid fun. Friends and I used to call it the unofficial DOOM movie, the DOOM did get a movie and we called GHOSTS OF MARS the better DOOM movie. Re-watching it a few years back, it’s not too much like DOOM other than the Mars setting (yes I know the original DOOM didn’t take place on Mars) but screw it.

  22. But DOOM had some cool effects and a FPS- sequence that was quite fun. GHOSTS OF MARS lacks all sorts of fun.

  23. I ran into the Twilight Time website. I had no idea they existed and they have a lot of really good films but I’ve never heard of Twilight Time. Is it like a UK company or something?

  24. Late period John Carpenter is fascinating because they often come close to being great but just aren’t quite able to pull it off completely.

    For example there’s a lot to like about ESCAPE FROM LA, it’s a weird and very unique blend of 80’s action movie and 90’s culture, Steve Buscemi is a lot of fun in it and then of course you have the excellent ending, but the horrendous CGI mars it.

    Then there’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS which I honestly think has one of the best premises for a horror movie ever (“What if Stephen King got his ideas from the Lovecraftian Old Ones?”) and while it’s a solid movie I don’t think it quite fully lives up to that fantastic premise.

    As for VAMPIRES I’m afraid I’ve never seen it, but it’s one I’ve been curious about, pity the blu ray is a Twilight Time release which basically translates to “absurdly rare”

  25. Sternshein – re Twilight Time, for anyone lucky enough to own a multi region blu-ray player (and there are heaps of inexpensive ones floating around), most TT releases are available overseas in borderline identical, non-limited edition, exponentially cheaper runs.

  26. Shoot: I have a weakness for DOOM, it’s a forgettable and really (really) dumb monster movie and then the FPS sequence comes up and it comes alive and then it ends and becomes nothing special again. I can’t fully hate it though because it gave something I bring up to friends all the time: The Rock walks through the door syndrome. I use that purposely long-winded term to describe any character in a piece of fiction who makes a complete 180 in the character motivation/behavior department. The Rock is depicted as a stern but fair leader the entirety of the movie, until the movie needs him to then be evil and all of a sudden he is a completely different character. I guess we are supposed to surmise that the place corrupted him and made him evil (I guess) but it doesn’t work and their is no build up to it and it has always made me laugh. Thus: The Rock walks through a door and becomes evil.
    Another example would be the wise old holy guy in HEAVY METAL 2000

    Stern: I think they are a US company? Regardless they put out releases that are big enough to have a cult following but too small for the big conglomerates to care about. I guess they are independently run because all of their releases are limited and they tend to sell out fast and then if you want them after the fast you best plan to pay a lot of money for the privileged. They are the Mondo posters of Blu-ray basically.

  27. Let’s be honest, EVERY character in DOOM is badly written to the point of complete senselessness. I mean, the marines are a bunch of corrupt, drug addicted, psychotic assholes who simply sucked at their job! Why did it take some monsters to kill then all? They shouldn’t have made it that far in the first place!

  28. With the exception of Keith Urban of course.

  29. I haven’t bought many Twilight Time releases, but they put all kinds of cool stuff. I think part of the reason they’re limited edition is that they can get the rights from the studios at more affordable rates. Unfortunately I didn’t decide I wanted THE BLOB (1988) until it was too late and I didn’t know about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) in time.

  30. I always felt this movie was a mixed bag. It starts great — the initial vamp hunting scene and then the motel massacre are both fantastic — and then it falls off a cliff after that, with a few good moments sprinkled in.

    It’s in no way Carepenter’s worst, though, which will always be VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, followed by THE WARD.

  31. geoffreyjar – DOOM is ponderously stupid, which I am quite fond of in movies. Something about it makes me smile. I think I have a review of it somewhere.

    Vern – I’ve had the exact same experience Twilight Time. Doesn’t this release sound great? Too bad, it sold out a week before you heard of it.

  32. bonze: I am team Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED isn’t that bad.

    Zeke: Clicked the link on your name and looked up your DOOM review and I pretty much agree with it. It’s not good but strangely watchable.

    Sorry for derailing this thread into a DOOM thread.

  33. You can try to convince me but The Ward is definitely his worst movie. Though I haven’t seen Memoirs of an Invisible Man yet.

    Was The Blob release like a special edition with like extras and everything, Vern?

  34. Dude, why am I just hearing about this company and how shitty is it that you can’t get The Blob for less than 50 on ebay.

  35. If any of you guys have a multi-zone BR player, there’s an Aussie company called Umbrella Entertainment who specialize in all kinds of cool cult films. Recently they released Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, next month they release Chuck Russell (the Love-Muscle)’s THE BLOB and Trenchard-Smith’s THE MAN FROM HONG KONG.

    From my experience they have pretty long licenses to keep their titles available. I’ve bought some great stuff off of them over the years – De Palma, Argento, Fulci. And they are usually under $20aud. Don’t know if they ship to the US…but they might be worth a gander….

  36. Oh shit, I just remembered, their BR releases are all encoded for regions A B & C, so you don’t need multizone players. See, Australia does love you…

  37. Ah man, they released blu ray of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990? I love that movie.

    Curse you Twilight Time!

  38. For not making your movies more widely available, not for releasing them in the first place, you see.

  39. Poeface – plus Umbrella’s release of 90TLD doesn’t have a dark blue tint slathered all over the image for the first half of the movie like the the Twilight Time blu does.

  40. Yes, great transfer on NOTLD, 1900! I could also add that their BR releases of both NOTLD and THE BLOB come as double-features with their respective originals, but that would just be rubbing it in to our stateside amigos :)

  41. Why is that 1990 remake of NOTLD so underrated? You don’t think the 90’s when you think zombie movies and that’s precisely what makes it unique and different from any other zombie movie.

    I also really love that brief window of early 90’s horror where they had a particular gritty feel, think movies like JACOB’S LADDER and CANDYMAN, NOTLD 1990 fits right in with that look and feel of that era.

  42. I actually saw the 1990 one before the original on TNT while staying in a motel one night back in my youth. Scared the shit out of me and I always loved how it ended, Barbara runs away to an uncertain fate and Ben boards himself in waiting for the inevitable. Then years (about 10) I bought the DVD and learned that was not the end, it actually went on longer and was pretty bad (the worst being Barbara practically looking into the camera and tells the audience what the moral of the movie was/how to feel). I do not believe I’ve made it known here, but it really bugs me when fans of anything hold on how they saw something when they were young (example: that terrible dub is actually good because that is how I first saw it) so hypocrite-time: when I was 8 or something and the movie cut to commercial and I was convinced that that was the end, it was better ending than the actual ending to the movie.

    I can understand why they would want to change the perfect ending to the original but their alternate was no good (in my opinion) and that is a shame because the 1990 NIGHT actually improves on the original in many ways.

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