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Horror master John Carpenter’s 1998 monster mash Vampires is the director’s only commercially successful film of the last decade, and one of his best creature features. Owing a lot to Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 horror-western masterpiece Near Dark, Vampires is filled with rousing action, stylish cinematography, and more blood than brains. As a twisted fable of the undead, it ranks among the most creative and dynamic of the genre.
The movie stars James Woods as Jack Crow, the Catholic Church’s hired hand in the disposal of all things bloodsucking. The film opens with an entertaining action scene showcasing all of Crow’s vamp-busting compadres and their morbid toys of destruction. Vampire after vampire is hooked and pulled into the sunlight where they explode like Chinese firecrackers. It’s diabolical fun, and so is Woods’ performance. Vampires features the legendary actor at his hammy best, complete with vulgar overacting and reveling in the satire of every action hero the movies have thrown our way.
After the initial slaughter, Valek, a master vampire with an insatiable lust for blood, hijacks Crow and most of his team. This instigates the film’s major plot: Crow’s disregard for the Church’s orders in service of revenge against Valek, and the vampire’s hunt for a legendary cross that allows the undead to hunt in daylight.
Carpenter orchestrates an engaging cat-and-mouse game between human and night stalker, stringing together the best of Leone’s repertoire and his own canon to create not a western/vampire hybrid, but a traditional western that just happens to feature vampires. There are delicious scenic shots that preclude slaughter, dusty roads, weathered characters, and one-on-one showdowns between man and beast.
The film isn’t scary, but boy is it bloody. There are numerous stakings, the aforementioned exploding undead, the goriest vamp bites I’ve ever seen in a mainstream motion picture, and a copious amount of jugular slashing. The body count is definitely double digit, and little is sacred: at least three priests are brutally slaughtered, numerous main characters are viciously attacked and/or killed, and even a dying prostitute can't catch a break. In other words, gore hounds won’t be disappointed, but the faint of heart or easily offended may want to find more suitable fare.
What's completely unexpected and fun about Vampires is that it avoids the temptation to romanticize its demons. So many vampire films — from Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula to Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire — feature bloodsuckers who are sexy, appealing, and immortally beautiful; these films are not necessarily wrong, but they're not very horrific if you ask me. Carpenter’s vampires are violent, ruthless, and angry. They aren’t concerned with transforming humans or discussing their feelings: they want to kill.
If I have a gripe with the film, it's that too many scenes are either repetitive or overstay their welcome. I can't tell you how many vampires explode in the sunlight, jump from the ceiling, or stand around looking pissed off, and a main character's psychic visions grow extremely tiresome. Scene after scene features extended vampire hunting, and after a while, I hoped Carpenter and his editors would return focus to the main plot. In the grand scheme of things, these are small gripes for such a potent and enjoyable film.
There are numerous things that could have gone wrong with John Carpenter’s Vampires — and some things do — but for the most part the film is ripe with interesting characters, brutal action, and hardcore vampire slaughter. Carpenter has made the right decisions, borrowed the right cinematic tricks, and come up with his most enjoyable film in years. It’s good to see a horror maverick do what he does best. Oh so very good.