Vampires films that don’t suck: John Carpenter’s Vampires
When I originally started doing this series, I was intending to do actually “good” vampire movies that have been mostly either overlooked for that drippy menstrual dreck Twilight and it’s equally dismal psuedo-romantic ilk or crapped all over due to some sort of bullshit postmodernism (you know the type- Vampires are immune to fucking everything yada, yada yada). However, in my travels, I have to say that I’ve seen a lot of Vampire films that, while they don’t blow completely, and couldn’t ever be considered part of the whole “twat mooning after undead paedo” genre, just aren’t very good (in some cases are actively bad- scathing review of Fist of the Vampire coming soon). John Carpenter’s Vampires is one of this batch.
This is comfortably Carpenter’s best film since In the Mouth of Madness. However, that is not particularly an endorsement of it, because that would be folly when you look at his post 90’s career- and don’t give me that rubbish about Escape from LA being good. It’s a strange film, sure enough, in that it doesn’t really feel cinematic. I’ll come back to this later, but I think a lot of the hatred that Vampires attracts is because of this.
James Woods plays the splendidly psuedo-macho named Jack Crow. He’s the leader of the Vatican’s crack commando Vampire killing team. His number 2 is Montoya (played by Daniel “fattest of the” Baldwin). While on a mission to wipe out a nest they provoke Thomas Ian Griffith’s master vampire “Valek” who retaliates by wiping out Woods’ entire crew and chomps on Sheryl Lee’s hooker. The rest of the film meanders about before a big showdown in a dilapidated monastery in the ass end of nowhere.
Woods is on fine form here. He barks out orders, wonders around with a cigar in his mouth, is consistently rude to priests (I’ll also come back to this in a minute), and gives a good impression of a hard-as-nails single-minded Crusader. Griffith is also excellent as Valek. He’s a big brooding bastard and an intimidating presence on-screen. Lee reprises a sort of watered down version of Laura Palmer as the hooker and she’s OK, while fatty Baldwin is also OK as Montoya. Finally, Tim Guinee is reasonably amusing as the supporting padre. Really, the acting is pretty solid all round, with only really Woods and Griffith standing out.
The writing, however is extremely problematic. Vampires is intentionally funny on occasion (Woods asking the Padre if he “got wood” when being beaten up, for example) but for the main part it is the weakest aspect of the film. The problem being that Vampires is both deeply predictable, and staggeringly disjointed. It opens with a bang- the cleaning out of the nest and the slaughter of the crew- and then limps along through a shit-load of exposition and pointlessness before the big showdown at the finale. If you can’t see the end coming, and particularly who the traitor is from his first appearance then, frankly, you’re a moron. Lee’s character in particular is an exercise in redundancy, almost as if they thought “shit, we need a female character in this film to prevent a complete sausage fest, so we’ll pretend she has a telepathic link with Valek- even though there are countless easier and more coherent ways of getting Crow to the showdown- because that won’t be lame”. I don’t particularly mind watching Lee in hooker clothing writhe around on a bed as she’s did funny things for me when I was a teenager watching Twin Peaks, but I did wonder consistently what the fuck she was doing in the film.
To some extent, the same’s true of Baldwin’s character. Carpenter recycles the hackneyed “concealed bite” plot device, but for no purpose. It doesn’t matter a fucking jot that he’s been bitten- he doesn’t turn, so why do it? I appreciate that Crow needs a more calm “straight man” (Or in fatty’s case “round man”) sidekick, but almost everything he does is an exercise in pointlessness.
And don’t get me started on the fucking huge Murphy sized plot holes in this film.
I’ve read Carpenter described as the last of the great B-movie directors, (he isn’t- Neil Marshall will take that crown if he keeps going as he is) and one thing he seems to have a real love for is the Western. Vampires feels like a proper western in that it has the same colour palette, a nice cowboy type score and so forth. However, that doesn’t really fit a film about vampires, simply because the vast majority of action in Westerns takes place in daylight, and coupled with the disjointed narrative this means that Vampires feels like two episodes of a miniseries bolted together. Personally, I like the modern reinvention of the undead here, and there clearly was enough material for a good film, but this just feels lacklustre and unsatisfying.
Having said all that, though, the opening half an hour is rip-roaring stuff. It’s great fun and clips along at a fair old pace. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to this, and it is hard to see how it could, but as Vampires is a short film, when I watched it recently I had enough good will stored up from the first scene that I kind of enjoyed it. It doesn’t hang around, which is a good thing, because every passing minute reminds you of how good the beginning was and how it is getting further away.
Overall, Vampires is a thoroughly mediocre film. I don’t think it deserves a huge amount of hatred, but by the same score it certainly doesn’t deserve any real praise. I don’t really recommend going to the bother of digging up a lesser Carpenter (particularly not a 90’s Carpenter), as it isn’t worth it, but at the same time if it’s on the box and you blunder across it then it isn’t a bad way to spend 90 minutes. I give it a pretty unimpressed 1 and a half Changs.
I should have called this series: Vampire movies that aren’t completely dismal and don’t feature anaemic looking English teenagers.
Until next time,