There are times when I have a very conflicted relationship with John Carpenter. He has had a very long career as a director and storyteller, and is personally responsible for some of my very favourite films. I could call him “Hit or Miss” with me, but even his misses come from a place of genuine effort and inspiration, so I can't write them off completely. John Carpenter wants to make interesting films with unique concepts, and the execution either pays off or stumbles. Let's see how things go in John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)
The film opens on the dusky, red lit hills of southern U.S.A. as a jamming synth/drum beat plays over the opening credits, that you know Carpenter wrote himself. The camera settles on a run down mansion out in the New Mexico prairies that you just know is bursting with nesting bloodsuckers. But not to worry, because this movie has James Woods and that means we have James Woods too. Reportedly, Carpenter wanted to cast a “feral” lead actor that looked like he could chew off a man's leg if he had to, and boy does Woods qualify. I've seen a few vampire hunter movies in my day and nobody is pissed off at vampires like James Woods is pissed off at vampires.
Our vampire-hunting lead, the ridiculously named Jack Crow, is accompanied by his second-in-command, Montoya, as portrayed by one of the lesser Baldwins. After confirming that the place is crawling with “goons” as they call them, Crow and Montoya grab the rest of their squad, some nameless, inevitably disposable co-slayers that look like an assortment of shitty mall rats. There is a pretty interesting gearing up scene where they slap on body armour, get sanctified by their chaplain, grab spears with flashlights attached and stick on a pretty ingenious chainmail gorget to protect from neck bites. Heck, I'd wear one, and I bet you would too.
The point is to show that these guys are pros, and the scene pulls it off as they casually swap battle strategy and argue about who's turn it is to stick their hand in the spooky house and unlock the door. This early nest-routing scene feels like the squad from The Lost Boys really got their shit together, and is refreshingly smooth. Nobody dies or panics, even when a vamp attacks them from the ceiling, and they clear the place out by the numbers. Woods sets up the use for a hefty cross bow that he totes around through these scenes. The idea is, each bolt has a cable (Which is usually conspicuously absent until the moment of firing) that hooks up to the Jeep piloted by Montoya. Once they are speared, Montoya reels the thrashing vampire out into daylight to reduce them to a crispy critter. It's a pretty novel way of disposing of the undead, and will see a lot of use in this movie. Failing that, there's always the old favourite of a stake through the heart. And man, I could watch a swearing, thrashing James Woods kill vampires all day. Reportedly, Carpenter let Woods do one take by the script, and one take as pure improv. So all of this cursing probably pure Woods original.
One vampire-torching montage later, the group reconnoitres. 9 dead vampires, and no sign of the master, the head vampire that turned all of these acolytes. Jack is wary, but I guess it isn't enough of a red flag to stop him and the rest of the gang from calling it a day as the sun sets and heading off to party. As the last car drives away, a pair of upthrust arms reveal that the master was sleeping underground across the street. Oooh, that Wascally Wabbit!
The revelling slayers have gone full rock band at this point, getting hammered at a local motel and bringing prostitutes by the truckful. The whole set up gets a little surreal as Jack chats up the group's chaplain in the next room, revealing that they are mercenaries commissioned and trained by the Catholic Church. That's who's bankrolling this operation. This is a Vatican funded hookers n' booze orgy.
Things quickly go party foul as we are introduced to the master of the recently slain vampires and villain of this little picture.
This pasty, swishy, Kylo Ren, Severus Snape looking motherfucker just glides up to the party and starts tearing people to pieces as the drunken slayers scramble to defend themselves. But it seems that this particular vampire master has unique powers:
Super strength, bullets affect him even less than normal vampires and the uncanny ability to look like an absolute fuckwit in every scene he prances through.
Everybody, including the quickly-murdered preacher, empties every round they've got into the guy's chest without even making an attempt at a head shot. He's across the room! It can't be that hard!
Eventually only Crow and Montoya are left, and they quickly hightail it out of there along with a recently bitten prostitute, managing to lose their pursuer.
They drive straight into the morning, and almost immediately crash their truck. The two remaining slayers argue over their next step. Apparently, any old bite can turn you into a vamp, and these vampires form a telepathic link with their master. Jack plans to use that to track down the vampire that murdered his crew and find out how he knew things like Jack's name or where they were staying. He thinks it was a set up, and is out for blood and answers.
After stealing another car (during which Baldwin's character demonstrates his capacity for being a colossal dickbag) they head back to the motel so that Jack can salt and burn the dead bodies of his squad while Montoya salvages their gear and drives back into town. The shouted conversations between Baldwin and Woods stress a tense, MANLY relationship where they mostly just second guess and insult each other, with the occasional little kiss after the fact to keep the group dynamic going. Woods carts the decapitated heads of his compadres out of the motel before lighting it on fire, as Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions plays somewhere in the background. Screw whoever actually owned this place I guess. Unless he didn't die in the initial Orgy Massacre of '98.
Woods checks into a nearby church for medical attention and a patch job as the sun sets, and The Thin White Douche pops out of the ground, hopping a train to god knows where. Jack Crow talks things over with a visiting cardinal, who explains that his gang of Scoobies is not the first to be slain by this Super-Vampire. The guy's name is Jan Valek, and apparently, he's the progenitor of the vampiric affliction.
Wait, this guy? This black-velvet, proto-emo fashion victim is the First Vampire? The seed of darkness himself? Really?
Egh. Woods storms out of the meeting, wary of a potential mole in the organization as his replacement priest trails after him upon instructions from Cardinal Alba. We cut back to the hotel that Baldwin and the bitten prostitute are staying at and things take a turn for the creepy.
Man, waking up naked, duct taped face down to a bed and gagged is a pretty shitty way to start your day even without a sub-william Baldwin breathing down your neck, and the disoriented hooker is understandably freaked out. Baldwin cops a feel or two and then terrorizes her into silence, giving her the lowdown about how he did this for her benefit and her impending vampire-dom in the skeeziest way possible. I do not know why she had to be stripped nude for all of this...beyond the obvious reason.
The babbling priest that accompanies Jack back to town seems to be quite a fan of his, and immediately I start to suspect that he is the traitor that Crow has been worried about. Apparently so does Crow, who proceeds to stop the truck and beat him silly until he swears that he has no ulterior motive. It's actually a pretty cool scene and follows John Carpenter's trend of having his characters do exactly what most audiences would be shouting at the screen to do. Neat. The rest of the scene goes over the rules of our particular brand of vampire for the evening. Let's count them off.
Our wounded hooker (Who has finally identified herself as Kristina) gets creeped on by Montoya a bit more and has visions of Valek creeping around a church and murdering the attendees. Montoya awakens from his nap and sees that she's dressed herself and has tried to bail out the window, because of course she is. I wouldn't stay either. In the process of dragging her inside, Montoya is cut on the arm and Kristina attempts to feed, biting him in the process. He knocks her out with an angry backhand (charming) and cauterizes the wound with a lighter. I'm a little lost. Is she enough of a vampire to actually spread the infection? Is he trying to close or sterilize the wound? Will that work?
Once Jack and the Padre finally return to an amazingly unmolested Kristina, Montoya explains that he just cut his arm on the window. I guess it's time for Baldwin to be THAT guy in every zombie movie. You know the one.
Kristin manages to relay Valeks location and the Slayer Squad is on the move. They briefly investigate the massacre at the church while Valek continues to swell his ranks of the undead. Finally, Jack goes in for round two of interrogation with the priest, and he reveals that Jan Valek is the product of an exorcism gone wrong. It seems when you exorcise somebody who isn't possessed, they just turn into an undead monster and start wearing really pretentious outfits. Jan wants to take the crucifix used at his botched exorcism and complete the ceremony, which would give him immunity to the sun and make him unstoppable. This coincides with Valek and his thrall tearing up a holy site, throwing around a few monks and actually finding the damn thing. You'd think the Vatican would be a little more protective of such a dangerous artifact. Couldn't they have chatted up the priest who knew it's location first before Valek came a calling?
After a minor punch up over the fate of an increasingly vampiric looking Kristina, the boys are back on the move, following her visions to a small town that is inexplicably abandoned. Baldwin has become increasingly concerned with Kristina's well being over the course of this movie, and I think the film is trying to pass this off as a romantic subplot. I see a man developing an unhealthy obsession with a woman he kidnapped, abused and has not shared more than two lines of dialogue with that doesn't centre around wanting to see her butt. It could also be that he's so concerned with Kristina, because so long as she stays human, he might have a chance if they kill the master. It's still very self serving.
The group deduce that Valek has turned the whole town over the course of weeks as a huge trap and plan to whittle down the numbers that he's assembled, tracking him down to a mine shaft while daylight is still on their side. Padre suits up and heads in with them, abandoning his glasses because he's cool now.
They manage to kill a couple of vamps in the next big action scene. I do actually enjoy the messy, chaotic nature of these fight scenes, with James woods usually climbing over people of clinging to something like a monkey. They feel very improvised and real. The plan hits a snag when Montoya's bite starts to catch up with him and they have to fall back on the old crossbow-and-winch game to kill the rest of the first wave. As James Woods is dragged across the ground, struggling with and stabbing a vampire with a stake as he curses out a seamless string of profanity and gibberish, it occurs to me that this movie must have been very fun to film.
Unfortunately, the group runs out of time as the sun sets and Valek's minions rise out of hiding. Jack gets roughed up by Valek Von Vampire or whatever his name is, and a fleeing Baldwin gets his neck chomped open by Kristina, who has fully turned at this point. When Jack comes to, he finally discovers the leak.
It was the Cardinal! It was The Cardinal all along! I suppose it's really the only possible option at this point, as every other speaking character is either dead, dying, in hiding or already a vampire. Just once I'd like to see a hero get double crossed by a dude he's never met.
Cardinal Alba explains that his betrayal stemmed from a crisis of faith, and that he's in it for the immortality that comes with vampirism. But come on man, youre standing around a bunch of honest to goodness vampires (Vampires that arose from a botched exorcism no less) and you are flatly rejecting the existence of God or Heaven? Sounds like you'd rather just go for the sure thing rather than growing up and rolling the dice when it comes to the possibility of an after life, like the rest of us.
But Baldwin is still kicking! He actually cauterizes his neck wound with the heated barrel of a submachine gun he just fired, and he's back in the game! Meanwhile, Padre has taken shelter in a tavern and spotted a shotgun slung underneath the bar, so hope is not lost. Jack has been kept alive this whole time because Valek needs to drink the blood of a true Crusader as the ceremony coincides with the rising son. They strap him to a cross, planning to just burn him afterwards. Padre manages to climb to the roof and unload a round of buckshot into the cardinal before he can complete the ceremony, and Montoya roars in on his jeep, because you killed his nominal love interest. Prepare to die.
In a move that almost certainly would have killed him, Baldwin manages to crossbow and tow Jack off of the pyre and the rising sun forces the remaining vampires underground. Valek takes up residence in a busted garage and Jack charges in with the crucifix for the final showdown. It's...fine. Vampire von Vampire manages to sort of impale himself on the cross by leaping directly at it, and Jack finally collapses the roof, exposing him to sunlight and making him go boom, to another chorus of profanity offered by Woods. We cut back to the romance, which is gross and I don't like it. Kristina is somehow alive and in the sun after the death of her master, but still doesn't look too hot. Montoya promises to “protect her” (ugh) and has a final confrontation with Jack. From the sound of it, Kristina is still a vamp and Montoya is still turning from the bite, so it's only a matter of time. Their friendship earns them a two day headstart from Jack, who promises to hunt them, find them and kill them, Liam Neeson style. Baldwin drives off and the ending credits start to fade in as Jack and Padre crack their knuckles, exchange a few jokes and get back to killing the remaining vampires. After all, they've got all day
This movie is messy fun. It's not really much of a horror film beyond the vampiric subject matter and the occasional spray of gore, and I'm getting the sneaking suspicion that I've accidentally watched two Horror/Westerns in a row. Woods is a delight as Jack Crow, thought he rest of the cast just kind of dangles around him. I think this movie could be conceivably scarier, but the primary issue is that the characters are presented as so experienced and knowledgeable that it's hard to inconvenience them or put them in a situation where they don't have a grasp of their environment, which is important when setting the mood for a good scary story. This movie came out the same year as Blade and it's easy to see which film left a bigger cultural impact. There's something very charming about the concept of a blue-collar, country monster slayer, though the film never hits the same folksy, character driven highs of a film like Tremors. I'd put it on the good side of John Carpenter's movies and leave you with a simple thought: How great would it be if this film crossed over with From Dusk Till Dawn?
See you tomorrow.