John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) is not just the first and only vampire film from the great American horror director, it’s the closest he’s gotten to directing an actual western. It’s not simply the dusty, dusky New Mexico setting or the Ry Cooder-esque electric country blues score. He and screenwriter Don Jakoby transform John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of hard-edged vampire hunters. It’s machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.
The film kicks off with an attack on a vampire nest, a SWAT team-like operation turned gory spectacle punctuated by the fiery explosions of bloodsuckers yanked into the light of day (the only other sure way to kill a vampire is a stake through the heart, which is not as easy as it sounds in the midst of hand-to-fang combat). But as Crow’s Vatican sponsored team celebrates victory with hookers and booze, retribution visits in the form of Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith and his imposing 6’5” frame), a powerful vampire master who takes prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) as his next lady of the night in one of the most outrageously sexually suggestive scenes to get by in an R film and slices and dices the rest of the partygoers with his Ginsu fingernails. Crow and his sole surviving team member Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) grab Katrina, whose fresh blood ties have established a psychic link to Valek, and get the hell out of Dodge to regroup. Team Crow inherits a rookie priest (Tim Guinee) who provides clues to Valek’s master plan and the motley crew plans their attack, and after a shaky start proves a quick study, not so much by natural talent as by sheer commitment to the work no matter the danger to him.
This is Carpenter in prime form. Easily his most violent film, it features iconoclast heroes with a streak of misogyny and unrepentant machismo, which provides a perverse comic book irony. These guys are emissaries of the Vatican, with Woods playing Jack Crow with the glee of a choir boy gone bad. He’s great in the role, sardonic and snappy, raised by the Catholic church into a man who knows that there’s a God and battles the supernatural on a daily basis but hasn’t any sentimentality for priests, who he sometimes treats as bureaucrats with misplaced priorities. He’s not above beating the shit out of a priest to get information and their treatment of Katrina during her transformation is almost inhuman, though Montoya softens enough to show a little tenderness and concern for the woman he tied naked on a bed (you can’t be too careful with a vampire in the throes of rebirth).
The vampires themselves are a terrific creation, a mix of Catholic lore and primordial roots born of a black prayer and wedded to the night, but sustained by blood and earth. There are no coffins for these creatures reduced to animal instincts. They gather in nests hidden in abandoned houses and, in one of the film’s most memorable images, they climb directly out of the desert soil.
From the opening shots of the New Mexico desert, which Carpenter captures with his trademark Panavision frame at sunrise, the plains covered in long shadows and blood-red hues, his sleek, stark images and stripped down, no-holds-barred action deliver pure pulp glory.
This is rated R for bloody violence.
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John Carpenter’s Vampires [DVD]
John Carpenter’s Vampires [Blu-ray]
The DVD and Blu-ray releases features commentary by director John Carpenter and a promotional featurette. The Blu-ray from Twilight Time is a limited edition of 5,000 units and also includes an isolated score audio track and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.