Retro Film Review: Vampires (John Carpenter's Vampires, 1998)
One of the most annoying things about vampire films is the lack of explanation for public's apparent non-reaction to the existence of those monsters. In fictional film worlds vampires kill dozens or hundreds of people, usually in most spectacular fashion, but governments and media usually ignore the problem. In 1998 John Carpenter's Vampires tried to solve this problem by offering credible explanation why vampire-hunting is a low-profile activity.
The plot of this film is based on John Steaky's novel Vampire$ and describes the world in which at least one institution of authority has pretty good idea about existence of vampires and ways to deal with them. That authority is Catholic Church, but mere knowledge about vampires isn't enough - just like in the days of Crusades and Inquisition the really dirty work must be left to subcontractors. One of those dedicated professionals is Jack Crow (played by James Woods), whose team successfully raids vampires' nest in New Mexico. Crow and his men decide to celebrate their triumph with alcohol, drugs and prostitutes in nearby motel. Unfortunately, vampire named Valek (played by Thomas Ian Griffin) decides to crash their party. It turns out that Valek is more than a match for Crow and his merry band of vampire-hunters and almost everyone in motel ends up dead. Crow, his trusted assistant Montoya (played by Daniel Baldwin) and Katrina (played by Sheryl Lee), one of the prostitutes, manage to escape. Later it turns out that Katrina is bitten by Valek and that she would inevitably become vampire; Crow and Montoya decide to spare her life, at least temporarily, because in the transitional phase she has telepathic connection with her "master" and can be used to locate his whereabouts. In the meantime, Crow and Father Adam Guiteau (played by Tim Guinee) must discover what sets Valek apart from other vampires and what brought him to New Mexico.
Most people associated John Carpenter with great 1970s horror films, but this vampire story belongs more to the action genre. Desert landscapes of Southwest USA also indicate a lot of classic western influences. Although far from being classic, this film nevertheless stands out among most of 1990s genre films because of its delightful challenge to Hollywood standards of content. The film is extremely gory, extremely violent and there is some nudity. But the most unusual thing about Vampires is its challenge to Hollywood's "politically correct" cliches. Vampires aren't presented as some oppressed, misunderstood minority nor some "cool" sophisticated creatures from ancient Europe - they are nasty, mean-spirited things that should be dealt with the methods not very different from ethnic cleansing. There aren't any strong women in these films - they are reduced to objects to be exploited in any way imaginable. Protagonist happens to be homophobic and uses every opportunity to question sexual orientation of a priest. Catholic Church is also presented as incompetent, bureaucratic and deeply corrupt institution directly responsible for many problems in today's world.
Carpenter and his scriptwriter Don Jakoby got away with this because nobody, including themselves, took Vampires very seriously. This is nothing more than exploitation film with slightly higher budget and slightly more respected cast. But the lack of ambition didn't prevent Carpenter to display his skill and deliver few really effective action scenes, laced with plenty of black humour. Acting is also great, with James Woods chewing the scenery as a cynical thug who just happens to be on the side of Good. Sheryl Lee is also very effective in what amounts to be thankless role. Carpenter could have made this film much better without his music that gets repetitive and irritating after a while. But, as a whole, this is very good example of genre cinema and Carpenter had every reason to put his name in its titles.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on April 12th 2004)
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