December 1998
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by Justin Felix

Rating: *** (out of five)

Screenplay by Don Jakoby.
Based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell.
Rated R (contains violence, nudity, and profanity) 107 mins.

Synopsis: Swearing, cigar-smoking professional vampire slayer Jack Crow leads his buddy Tony, a prostitute, and a Catholic priest into battle against Valek, the world's first vampire, who is searching for the means to be able to live in sunlight.

Comments: As I write this, Halloween 1998 is a three-week old memory, and Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. Hollywood released a slew of horror and horror-related movies right before and closely after Halloween, and these movies are now slowly making their way through second-run, cheap theaters. The season brought us the campy Bride of Chucky, the Screamish Urban Legend, and the more serious Apt Pupil, based on a short story by Stephen King. A latecomer, the sequel , came out on November, Friday the 13th (aren't they just so clever marketing a slasher movie on Friday the 13th?). Having seen all these films except the last (which has been slammed by most critics), I can safely say that John Carpenter's Vampires, released the day before Halloween, was the best horror film created for the holiday. This does not necessarily mean it was a great film--the aforementioned flicks were mediocre at best--but it is entertaining, especially for horror, action, and "B-movie" fans.
John Carpenter has done a number of film classics in his long and varied career (however, he's also produced some turkeys). His chief accomplishment, so far at least, is the little 1978 film Halloween, a film which became a huge hit and launched the teen slasher genre, including the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street cycles. He's also done a number of solid horror and sci-fi movies: The Fog, They Live, Starman, and a remake of the 50s classic The Thing. Carpenter, unfortunately, seemed to be losing his touch recently. He directed Kurt Russell through the bad escape from LA and Christopher Reeves through the even worse Village of the Damned (a lousy remake). Carpenter somewhat needed a film to resolidify his standing as a premiere talent. John Carpenter's Vampires, at least, is a step in the right direction.
Vampires, throughout film history, seem to be very popular with movie audiences. From Bela Lugosi's classic turn as Dracula in the successful Universal classic to Christopher Lee in England's Hammer cycle to recent big budget epics like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Interview with A Vampire, these creatures of the night continue to rake in profits. Subtle changes in the vampire myths as they get translated through the decades may allow for enough variety to keep people interested. This year, for example, Wesley Snipes played Blade, a vampire slayer from Marvel Comics, combining the vampire with the comic book hero. John Carpenter's Vampires, similarly, combines vampires with another genre, the Western (interestingly, the Western had just been combined with another genre, science fiction, in Soldier). The results end up as an interesting mixed bag.
John Carpenter's Vampires begins promisingly. Within a beautiful New Mexico landscape, Jack Crow leads his motley crew of vampire killers into an infested, dilapidated house far removed from civilization. Apparently, Crow's crew kills bloodsuckers in a unique manner: they pierce them with cables attached to a running truck outside. The vampires are thus yanked from the darkness of their abode and into the sunlight, where they quickly flare up into ashes. The scene is effectively scary yet sets up the film's darkly humorous tone as well. After this beginning, however, the movie slows to a crawl for about half an hour as the major conflict between Jack Crow and the original vamp Valek is set up.
Whether you like John Carpenter's Vampires or not will largely depend upon whether or not you like the actors. James Woods does a wickedly fun turn as the lead vampire slayer. He brings a manic energy which fits the character perfectly. Thomas Ian Griffith deserves an equal nod as the very effective Valek. He informs the vampire with a menacing quality equal to that of other classic actors like Bela Lugosi. If you do not like these actors, especially Woods, however, you probably won't like this movie, as it serves almost like a vehicle for the two. As a side note, the highly respected Maximilian Schell does a supporting role here -- this makes *two* so-so Hollywood movies he's appeared in this year (the other being the somewhat cheesy Deep Impact).
John Carpenter's Vampires is remarkedly different from the other horror movies released this past month and a half in that not even a single teenager graces the screen. ... all of them center upon teenagers. John Carpenter's Vampires features an entirely adult cast. This doesn't necessarily mean the behavior of these characters, however, is any more informed by intelligence. People do stupid things in this movie just like any other horror movie. One of the reasons, though, that I only give this film three stars is the attitude the main characters have. Jack Crow and Tony Montoya are uncomfortably misogynistic. They kidnap a prostitute who has been bitten by Valek and treat her like absolute crud. Although she is turning into a vampire, their treatment of her still seems cruel and passionless. The storyline's only major fault is to suggest that Montoya falls in love with her. Crow's treatment of members of the Catholic priesthood will probably offend some too. In one scene, for instance, Crow kicks the crap out of a priest to get information, then asks the priest whether he was turned on by the abuse or not.
Despite these faults, the final hour of John Carpenter's Vampires picks up speed and is highly entertaining. Not much more may be said without giving away some of the plot's resolution; however, the final showdown between Crow's "gang" and Valek's "posse" in a deserted town combines the genres of the Western and horror quite well. Ultimately, sitting through the first half-hour is rewarded by the finale. John Carpenter's Vampires is deservedly rated R. It contains many scenes of graphic violence, some nudity, and several words and phrases which will never make it to commercial network TV. This one's worth catching before it comes out on video. You could probably still see it at a second-run, bargain theater for the next several weeks.

Other reviews by Justin may be found at The Internet Movie Database index

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