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John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

by on 2011/01/16

“Vaya con dios, slayer.”

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A Western vampire film – two great tastes that taste great together. That’s what John Carpenter’s Vampires is, a Western shootout with vampires.

When I first saw this movie, it was a bit of a revelation. It certainly wasn’t like any vampire movie I’d seen before. First, there was the setting: dusty, sun-scorched desert country. Then there was our hero: Jack Crow (James Woods), a hard-bitten, tightly-wound vampire slayer in skin-tight jeans.

Crow brings an armoured Brink’s truck, motley army of slayers and a giant chrome crossbow to the party. He also swears like a trucker with untreated Tourette’s syndrome.

We meet Crow and his gang at the kind of location you’d see in an Anton Corbijn Depeche Mode video. A weather-beaten, abandoned farmhouse in the middle of an arid New Mexican desert. Or as Woods barks poetically: “a New Mexican sh*thole, perfect spot for a nest.”

We learn a lot in this opening skirmish. We learn that vampires in John Carpenter’s world are many country miles away from elegant and hard to kill. Very, very hard to kill. One vampire underling or “goon” takes several long spears to the torso, many rounds of machine gun fire and a wooden stake through the brain pan, and he’s still snarling for blood.

There’s some real invention in the way Crow and his boys dispatch the undead. The cleverest of all is Crow’s crossbow bolts, each tied to a truck winch that drags vampires into the sunlight.

There’s also more suspense in the early few minutes of Vampires than the first half of 30 Days of Night (2007).

Under the blazing sun, vampires go up like firecrackers on Chinese New Year. But nothing is more explosive than how James Woods delivers EVERY! WORD! of this hilarious script. He’s jumping-out-of-the-screen-to-smack-you-in-the-face intense.

Here’s a sample, Jack Crow on Vampires:

“It’s not like they’re a bunch of fuckin’ f*gs hoppin’ around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? …And they don’t sleep in coffins lined in taffeta. You wanna kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through his f*ckin’ heart. Sunlight turns ’em into crispy critters.”

When Crow’s crew leaves a loose end back at the ranch, failing to kill the vampire “master,” their liquor and whores party at the Sun God Motel turns bloody. After the Master hacks and slashes through the whole of Crow’s army and their lady friends, Crow has to go back, chop his buddies’ heads off and dump gasoline over the bodies.

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen James Woods with a bag of heads over his shoulder, walking away from an exploding No-Tell Motel.

Only two survive the massacre – Crow’s right hand man Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and a hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee). Unfortunately Katrina’s been bitten on the upper thigh by the baddest of the bad Masters, the old one named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith).

A word on poor Sheryl Lee. She gets all the thankless parts. First she’s nude, wrapped in plastic in Twin Peaks, then she’s nude, tied to a bed post with duct tape on her mouth in Vampires. As the burly, sympathetic Daniel Baldwin said aptly, “You are the bait, honey.”

Lee makes the very best of it, putting her crazy all into the part. She’s incredibly compelling as she makes her slow devolution from hooker with a heart of gold to slavering undead fiend.

It turns out there’s more to Master Valek that the simple need to feast on human blood. There’s a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church, ancient relics and dark rites, and you know, the end of the world. Crow returns to the venerable Cardinal Alba (Maxmillian Schell) for advice, and is assigned bespectacled, earnest Father Adam to help him find and stop Valek. Unfortunately, Crow proceeds to beat on Father Adam spontaneously and without provocation throughout the film.

There’s a real unrehearsed, dangerous quality to these moments, making me wonder if Woods wasn’t really hurting Guinee. Guinee even flinches involuntarily with Woods is being nice to him.  “I am beginning to like you so don’t make me hurt you.”

Outmanned and on the run, Crow, Father Adam, Katrina and Montoya take us on a road movie and through a final showdown in a deserted border town that, while by no means perfect, is damned entertaining.

John Carpenter got his Western in my vampires and I love it. Check out the others in the series: Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) and Vampires: The Turning (2005).

* * * *

Rated R for strong vampire violence and gore, language, sexuality and James Woods.

108 minutes

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