So, yes, “Vampires” didn’t exactly turn out to be everything I’d hoped, and perhaps I was expecting too much from John Carpenter, and I admit to being a bit disappointed, but all the while “Vampires” while not one of Carpenter’s best, ends up becoming a fun exploration and view into Carpenter’s experimenting with the vampire genre. Very loosely based on the book “Vampire$” (sans John Carpenter moniker), the movie you see here was looked down upon by many fans of the book which happened to have a lot of satire, and happened to be more in the vein of “Scream” as in not taking itself too seriously, while its commentary on many social dilemmas and basic morals on good and evil, greed and its connections to morals, and this is the perfect example of what the Hollywood machine does to a good book, but it’s not to say this isn’t a good movie.
Ranking it with Carpenter heavyweights, it just can’t really hold water, but compared to “Ghosts of Mars” this is a great film. James Woods plays Jack Crow, the tough as nails, no nonsense, ballsy motherfucker of a vampire hunter who along with his crew go day by day raiding abandoned houses drawing out vampires and are looking for the master who is nowhere to be found. After Crow and his hunter clan decide to relax with beer and prostitutes they’re suddenly caught off guard by the master vampire Valek, an amazingly powerful vampire who not only catches Crow by surprise, but also manages to massacre the group single-handedly in an excellent bloody sequence just dripping with pure Carpenter sensibilities making something so graphic look so utterly hip.
Carpenter, with all his unflinching skills manages to perfectly draw out the tension as Valek lurks within the darkness sneaking in through the back door, and then just mutilates everyone thus diminishing Jack’s chances of defeating him. Crow and Montoya, the only surviving member of the group, must now team with a hooker who was just bitten by Valek and discover, through her telepathic link with Valek, what he’s searching for. Carpenter who has mostly been anti-establishment throughout his career manages to perfectly spotlight the two main characters, our anti-heroes, as true anti-establishment presences whom are focused on their job and solely on their job not giving a shit about anything else in their life, and they even rebel against the very organization they volunteered to work for.
Carpenter further rebels by dismissing past vampire lore as mere folktales and myth and creates his own methods for vampire killing through the most logical, dictated by Woods in an eye-catching monologue. Crow ends up becoming the most layered character in the film which lacks in true characterization for its supporting characters; he’s the cowboy figment of Carpenter that has become a fixture of his action films from Snake right down to Napoleon Wilson, and Woods envelopes himself within the character well and looks like he’s having fun doing it.
There’s this automatic given style and hipness to every film Carpenter takes on and he adds his touches to this even though it’s not a pet project per se, and he doesn’t hold back from some amazing direction, to his addition of immense senses of dread making the vampires into horrifying creatures again drawing them from humor, right down to his great score that is a characteristic of Carpenter films that let you know, you’re watching his movie, so pay attention. Carpenter knows tension, he knows how to draw the audience along for the ride with the right amount of atmosphere that is given with this show and we’re given some great scenes like the vampire masters searching for their “holy grail”, and the nail-biting and very funny climax in which Carpenter attempts to draw out vampires from an abandoned jail by using his partner as bait.
Everyone here gives sub-par performances unfortunately from Maximillian Schell who is often times way over the top, along with Daniel Baldwin who while very cool also can tend to be irritating. The only real acting highs of the movie are Woods, along with incredibly sexy Sheryl Lee who is very intense, especially in her most emotional moments getting into the mind of Valek. Carpenter matches blow for blow by teaming his anti-heroes with an extremely menacing and powerful villain, the vampire Valek who is played with wonderful appeal by Thomas Ian Griffith who embodies the imposing and dark character with his black shroud and fear inducing whisper of a voice that only increases his evil presence.
All the while Carpenter does his best with the pretty bad script from Dan Jakoby who fills the movie with forced cheesy dialogue often spouted by Woods whose one-liners tends to fall flat on their backs, not to mention the plot has almost zero exposition in to the origins of the black cross and its functions. Regardless, Carpenter does create a very entertaining film around the almost hackneyed script and answers fan’s questions about his dabbling in to the vampire genre with pure popcorn fare and does like he does it best, with style. All in all, Carpenter does a good job with this stylish and scary vampire movie, giving us a great leading hero and a great villain.