Though it may not have aged with flawless grace, we look back fondly on Carpenter’s salty and overlooked action/horror yarn “Vampires”.
In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!
Released a decade after one of John Carpenter’s most celebrated films, They Live (1988), and two decades after his immortal classic Halloween (1978), John Carpenter’s 1998 action/horror testosterone carnival Vampires presents an interesting time capsule of a time long gone.
So far gone, it turns out, that Vampires now plays out like a nail-on-the-head parody of itself.
The most blinding beam of light it shines upon the proceedings is misogyny. It can be accurately observed that there are only two types of women in this movie: “whores” and “goons”, and it’s difficult to tell which one is treated worse.
Let’s dig into this delicious smorgasbord of pulp.
James Woods plays Jack Crow, the leader of a Vatican-run team of vampire slayers. Vampires begins with an action-packed setup that demonstrates how the group carries out a standard daylight New Mexican desert raid on an abandoned house (a “nest”). The group launches an offensive play with guns and stakes a-blazing, drawing the slumbering vamps out into the open.
Badass Jack Crow gets to use a badass modified crossbow attached to a Jeep winch. Once shot with an arrow, the vamps are pulled outside into the sunlight. After disposing of nine so-called “goons”, Jack feels like they missed the most important one, the master.
This is veteran genre storytelling, setting everything up in the first few minutes and doing it with a loud, grisly action scene.
This is why John Carpenter is so well-respected as a filmmaker.
The team celebrates at a local motel with whiskey, women, and slovenly behavior. As they party down, nest master Valek rises up from a nearby shallow grave of cakey dirt.
Unlike the minion-like goons, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) has a powerful and hypnotic presence, along with lovely long, black tresses, white skin, yellow eyes, and pretty (though dirty) clothes. James Woods tried hard to make the movie his ham sandwich, but Thomas Ian Griffith owned everything.
Sheryl Lee (who looks almost exactly like Laura Palmer) plays Katrina, a prostitute who is bitten by Valek during an attack but survives. Jack Crow loses his entire crew, except for Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin).
Insightful viewers will no doubt have figured out by now that this is pulpy cheese, or whatever food group you want to call it.
The names Valek, Tony Montoya, and Jack Crow alone give away Carpenter’s intentions (or maybe a lack of intention). With vengeance in mind, the three go on a desert road trip in pursuit of Valek.
Katrina is treated like dirty vermin because she was bitten. They’re keeping her in order to use the psychic link she has with Valek, but they manhandle, kick, and punch her without remorse. It’s interesting how jarring those scenes are now, and that’s pretty fucking great because it shows things are changing.
Today Katrina’s treatment, though just part of a silly horror story, would undoubtedly cause a stir among the socially and culturally sensitive.
Jack learns from his boss, Cardinal Alba (Maximillian Schell), that Valek is the first vampire, created accidentally during a botched exorcism. He is searching for an artifact known as The Black Cross of Berziers, which will grant vampires the ability to withstand direct sunlight. Because why?
Seriously, why search for logic in a movie called Vampires that features names like Jack Crow and Tony Montoya?
With a new priest in tow (Father Guiteau… the fun never ends), the rogue squadron of half-vamps and slayers face down Valek, who has managed to resurrect seven masters and find The Black Cross after decimating a quaint roadside… monastery (in New Mexico?).
The climax is loaded with bloody stake squirts and satisfying body explosions.
Overall, the movie has a very From Dusk Til Dawn flavor to it. Even though From Dusk Til Dawn was released a year earlier than Vampires, it’s doubtful Carpenter “borrowed” ideas. If anything, they actually make fantastic companions for a “Desert Vampire Road Movie Double Feature”.
If the Halloween franchise stuck to the original anthology idea, Vampires would have been an ideal installment.
Movies like this just aren’t made anymore. When the occasional gonzo action/horror movie is made today, it usually contains a healthy dose of irony or nostalgia, somehow elevating it to high art.
Vampires is by no means Carpenter’s worst or best film. His best work can be found in the 70s and 80s, with our previously covered films Assault on Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China, while the 2000s brought us less-inspired genre offerings from the master of horror. Still, even Carpenter’s middle-of-the-road films deliver something special.
Apart from being comically vulgar and misogynistic, Vampires is a solid, gritty action/horror yarn that gives you a healthy fix of KNB decapitations and explosive destruction.