John Carpenter’s Vampires


There’s good news and bad news where the DVD version of John Carpenter’s Vampires is concerned, and I’ll lay the bad news on you first. I wasn’t a big fan of the movie on its theatrical release, despite my fannish dedication to John Carpenter, so I shelled out the $20 for the DVD basically to hear the director’s commentary track. The bad news is that the commentary is fairly tedious and uninspired. That’s what you get when you set the director down, by himself, in a little room with a TV set and a video monitor and ask him to speak. At the end of the movie, Carpenter thanks the viewers for listening to the “narrated” version of Vampires, and that’s basically what you get — Carpenter narrating the action on-screen. “Now we’re setting an actress on fire. Now we’re blowing up the motel. Now Jimmy is gonna beat up the priest. Now it’s time for another cheesy horror effect.” There’s very little on the story behind the film, or what attraction Carpenter found in the source novel, Vampire$ by John Steakley, on which the movie is based. Still, Carpenter’s deadpan is good for a chuckle or two, and he does acknowledge his enduring Howard Hawks fixation.

The good news is that the movie holds up a lot better on second viewing than I would have feared. When you’re not following the story, it’s easier to relax and enjoy the film’s simple charms. Interestingly enough, the pleasures to be found here are mostly in dialogue and characterization. Carpenter gave his actors room to elaborate on the material, with a few ad-libbed speeches by old hand James Woods ranking among the best scenes in the film. Woods swaggers menacingly through nearly every scene, spitting invective and beating people up. He’s leading a hardy band of vampire hunters through the American Southwest, chasing down a big virile specimen named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), who dates back to the 1300s. Valek and his gang, we learn, are hunting for an artifact that could be the key to eventual world domination. With hooker-turned-vampire Sheryl Lee in tow, it’s up to Woods, a beefy Daniel Baldwin, and a mild-mannered priest (Tim Guinee) to exploit the poor girl’s psychic connection to Valek in order to hunt down the master vampire. (Sample dialogue: “I killed my own father, padre. I have no problem with killing you.”)

Vampires have been done to death, but this film’s take on the mythos is a refreshing return to supernatural tradition. Basically, Valek, the first vampire, was created by the Catholic Church during a botched exorcism. Ever since then, the Vatican has had a small crew of tough guys on the payroll to run around and keep the bloodsuckers in check.

It’s too bad that Carpenter never really juices this up. There are a few neat ideas in the picture, but Vampires lacks the brilliant metaphors (Escape From New York, They Live) or savvy plot mechanics (The Thing, Prince of Darkness) that creepify his best work. Consequently, Vampires is neither scary nor particularly gripping, although it is occasionally quite funny. (The final action scenes are particularly anti-climactic.) The film’s real showpiece sequence comes, unfortunately, during the first half-hour of the film, when Valek surprises the vampire hunters during their booze-and-hookers celebration at a local motel. It’s apparent from the gleeful bloodletting of this set piece that Carpenter saw Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive) and liked it a lot, although he doesn’t say so on the commentary.

Considering the temperament of late-1990s Hollywood, Vampires is shockingly violent. During his commentary, Carpenter reveals that only a graphic vampire bite late in the film ran afoul of the MPAA during the ratings process — perhaps they’re tired of hearing horror directors beat them up in the press over their objections to relatively harmless splatter violence, because this film is full of splatter. Vampires has also taken some heat for its alleged misogyny, which makes me wonder when these people started expecting horror movies to have a progressive social agenda. Besides, by the end of the movie it’s clear that Lee herself has one of the film’s best roles as a wild-eyed, blood-stained vampire.

Finally, I’m glad to have this movie in my collection. If it were nothing else, Vampires would be a sterling example of B-movie efficiency. Visually, it has that remarkable off-hand coherence that characterizes Carpenter’s body of work, although the budgetary limitations are much in evidence. Many of the exteriors were shot through colored filters, giving the film a dull and monochromatic look in theaters. On the smaller video screen, these scenes look even dingier.

Elsewhere, under controlled lighting conditions, the image looks very good, with high contrast and pure, rich flesh tones, although I detected digital compression artifacts in some of the backgrounds. As usual, Carpenter’s use of the widescreen Panavision frame is inventive and intuitive, and the film is destroyed on the pan-and-scan side of the DVD.

The DVD’s sound is also excellent, with a thumping low-end to Carpenter’s bluesy score and fairly aggressive use of the surround channels. Again, the DVD reveals limitations of the audio source material, such as some noisy passages of dialogue that seem to have been recorded on location without post-sync.

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