John Carpenter's Vampires

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Our rating: two lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

"Boys, they killed Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray.
Looks like we'll have to do the job instead."
It would be tempting to say that John Carpenter's Vampires sucks. But that would be an easy joke to make, and we like to think that we give our readers that something extra. So we won't make that joke.

John Carpenter's Vampires is bloody awful.

That's distressing, because it has a lot going for it. It stars James Woods, and he's always fun to watch. It also has Sheryl "wrapped in plastic" Lee, and we're all for that. Plus, it's directed by John Carpenter, who has made some of our favorite scary movies. But Carpenter seems to be way off form here, so much so that it seems that nothing can save the film.

The plot of Vampires is that the Catholic Church has been secretly financing groups of vampire slayers* to go around and kill the pesky beasts. James Woods plays Jack Crow, the leader of one of these crews. As the film opens, Jack and his team of slayers, who are basically the same bunch of people who were shot into space in Armageddon, take out a vampire nest in New Mexico, but they miss the "master," a super vampire named Valek. Later that night, as the slayers overdose on cheap alcohol and cheap hookers at a cheap hotel, Valek drops by and puts a serious hurting on everyone present. Crow, his partner Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), and one hooker (Lee) manage to escape, but the hooker has been bitten. Crow plans on using the psychic link that results from a vamp bite to track Valek down. Valek, true to form, has some master plan or another which will give him the ability to survive in the sunlight, thus giving Crow some extra incentive to find him.

They said the burritos were hot,
but he just wouldn't listen...
Any vampire movie must decide what kind of vampires it will feature. There are two broad types: supernatural and scientific. Supernatural vampires are the traditional type, inspired directly by the novel Dracula. They are in direct conflict with God, and can be hurt by crosses and holy water. They don't like the sunlight. They fear garlic and running water, though we've never seen any movie that exploited the latter weakness outside of Dracula: Prince of Darkness. If you want to get really traditional about it, vampires also can't enter a house unless invited, have a compulsive urge to clean up messes they encounter, and sometimes shapeshift. But most importantly, people who become supernatural vampires become inherently evil for no apparent reason. This last trait has been used by Buffy the Vampire Slayer to great effect.

Scientific vampire movies like to treat vampirism as a disease. Scientific vampires aren't affected by things like crosses or holy water, and if they can be hurt by garlic there is a scientific reason for it. They're usually not evil per se, but more likely driven mad by the need for blood. Those movies that do explore the scientific side of vampires usually botch their explanations (these are screenwriters, not scientists), but tend to come up with nifty new ways to kill vampires, too. For example, Blade used garlic injections to stave off the main character's own imminent vampirism, and made use of sun lamps to kill the critters at night.

The vampires come out for a day
in the sun... Hey! Wait a minute!
We're not saying that any given movie vampire has to fit one of these two categories, but if it doesn't, rules should probably be established to give viewers some idea of what's going on. John Carpenter's Vampires never quite does this. Overall, the vampires seem to be supernatural in nature. At least they have a supernatural origin, as Valek became the original vampire after some sort of botched reverse exorcism to which he was subjected during his trial for heresy in the 14th century. But vampirism is transmitted by some sort of virus or poison, at least if Montoya is to be believed. He even says that eating food can slow the transformation of a bite victim into a full grown vampire. The vampires seem to be allergic to bright lights as opposed to sunlight, as small amounts of sunlight don't hurt them -- but Crow and company never exploit this obvious weakness of the vampires, preferring to fight the bloodsuckers in dangerous hand-to-hand combat.

One of the most worrying things about Vampires is the film's misogyny. The film dwells much more on the stabbings and wounding of female vampires, not to mention the way that the camera lingers on Sheryl Lee every time she is tied up, which is often. The most troubling example, though, is the relationship between Montoya and Katrina (Lee's character). Because she will soon turn into a vampire, Crow treats her as a vampire. Montoya, on the other hand, falls in love with her. But for a guy who says he loves this particular woman, he sure does hit her a lot.

Valek gets into trouble with
some velcro and a trampoline.
Vampire mechanics and misogyny aside, Vampires has trouble in several other areas. Woods is a bit miscast as the tough-talking, ass-kicking Crow, because the role requires him to be mean physically and verbally. Woods is many things, but a master of profanity isn't one of them. Here is a man who can deliver great dialogue and be uproariously funny without a single dirty word, and yet this script requires him to utter the F word in every other sentence. Maybe this kind of talk conveys intensity to your average fifth-grader, but for us it just wasted valuable screen time when plot developments could have been taking place. And ya know what? It's hard to like a main character, even a tough vampire-slaying one, who beats up priests.

Vampires owes much of its existence to the Tarantino/Rodriguez brainchild called From Dusk Till Dawn. This more recent film apes many of Dusk's details, from the Southwestern setting to the honky-tonk soundtrack (composed by Carpenter himself, as usual) and leather-clad protagonists. Granted, the vampires in Carpenter's movie are inspired more by Anne Rice than by the Tom Savini-esque monsters who appeared in Dusk, but it's obvious that Vampires is trying to capitalize on the popularity of Dusk, which is already something of a cult classic.

Unfortunately, Vampires doesn't take to heart From Dusk Till Dawn's central moviemaking lesson: a movie doesn't have to be about the end of the world in order to be exciting and entertaining. Dusk gave us the story of a small band of humans just trying to survive the night in a vampire bar, but Vampires tries to support the more cumbersome tale of a vampire hunter on a quest to stop the world's first vampire from becoming a daywalker. Despite a few clever Carpenter touches (witness the priest's metamorphosis into MacReady from Carpenter's The Thing) and some beautifully stylish cinematography, there's just too much crammed into these 107 minutes, most of it unprintable.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 11/4/98

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* Have you noticed that, with the newfound popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they're all called "slayers" now? We just can't see Peter Cushing as van Helsing the Vampire Slayer. Go back!