Tuesday, November 28, 2006

(John Carpenter’s) Vampires – review


Directed by: John Carpenter

Release date: 1998

Contains spoilers

This vampire movie by horror master John Carpenter was based (very loosely) on the book “Vampire$” by John Steakley and owes more than a passing nod in mood and feel to the earlier modern western vampire movie “From Dusk til Dawn” (1996).

The filmthe slayers is set in New Mexico and begins with a group of vampire slayers, led by Jack Crow (James Wood) and his partner Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). For reasons that will become entirely evident we will not ponder upon the rest of the team. They are at a farm house, which Crow believes to contain a nest of vampires. The vampires themselves are separated into two classes: goons, weaker servant vampires, and masters. Wherever there is a nest they expect to find a master.

As James Wood as Jack Crowthe team prepares to enter we see the camera cutting to Crow, closing in on his eyes, and to the door, similarly closing in. It is reminiscent of a spaghetti western. The team go in and search the house, very carefully. We see them fight against two of the goons in detail, enough to make us realise that killing these things – even the weaker ones – is difficult. They shrug off bullets, a stake in the head means nothing. We will examine the powers of these vampires later but, essentially, we are talking stake through the heart and sunlight.

a female vampireTo ensure that they are exposed to sunlight the slayers use an ingenious crossbow with steel rope and winch on the jeep system, using the winch to drag the creatures out into sunlight. The resulting reaction is somewhat spectacular.

By the end of the clear-out they have killed nine goons but found no master. We are led to understand that this is unusual and, as the slayers pull away, we see a pair of hands shoot from the ground nearby.

The slayers are staying at the Sun God Motel and a party is in full swing. Local law enforcement have provided them with liquor and hookers. We hear that the payment for the job has been wired to the Vatican, for these slayers are on the bank-roll of the Roman Catholic Church. Crow has hooked up with a whore, we later discover to be called Katrina (Sheryl Lee), and has sent her to his room whilst he goes to get drinks.

Thomas Ian Griffith as ValekWe have seen a tall man approach the hotel and, as she enters the room, she fails to notice him. Well he is on the ceiling above her. He drops down and bites her thigh, causing an ecstatic reaction with her.

Suddenly he has crashed the party and it is a slaughter. He cuts through slayers and hookers like a dose of salts. Crow and Montaya are able to escape and Crow bundles a very dazed Katrina into the van. However, before they escaped, the vampire - who we later discover is called Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) - revealed he knew Crow’s name. As they try to escape we discover something else about these vampires. They move with great speed, so fast that Valek is able to catch the survivor’s speeding van. A bullet to the head throws him from the van and allows them to escape.

As the sun comes up they crash the van and so walk to a gas station and steal another car. Returning to the motel, Crow sends Montaya away with the girl and then stakes and decapitates his dead team, burning the motel down and burying the heads some way off. He then makes a phone call asking for a pick-up, saying that the whole team is dead. He is taken to a house to meet Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell). Alba tells him to return to Monterey to rebuild his team and assigns archivist priest Father Adam (Tim Guinee) to him.

Jack has other ideas; he wants Valek and will use the psychic link between Katrina and the vampire to track him. Valek himself, we later hear, is searching for a certain black cross that can be used to perform a ritual that will allow him immunity to the sun.

The best way to describe the hows and wherefores of the vampires in this is to quote crow: stake in the head won't work“first of all, they're not romantic. Its not like they're a bunch of fuckin' fags hoppin' around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? Forget whatever you've seen in the movies: they don't turn into bats, crosses don't work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata while he's suckin' the blood outta your neck, all right? And they don't sleep in coffins lined in taffata. You wanna kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through his fuckin' heart. Sunlight turns 'em into crispy critters.”

rising from the earthThe film also has some rather cool looking moments, such as when the vampires rise from the ground, where they have waited out the sun and yet it does fall flat. There is a whole heap of violence but the story feels somewhat lacking, especially when compared to the novel. According to the imdb trivia the studio cut the budget for the film by 2/3 just before production started and the filmmakers has to re-write the story to fit the monies. Steakley has said that the finished film contained much of his dialogue and none of his plot.

The entire black cross thing seems a little too airy-fairy given the gritty way the film is generally handled and then we get to the characters and the cast. Crow is fantastic and Woods performance works very well indeed. We buy into the character, who killed his own father when he turned into a vampire and bit his mother, andnice fangs then was raised by the Catholic church as a slayer. Okay he is a foul mouthed maverick, but that is what he would be given the amount of death and horror he has witnessed. On the other hand Katrina is entirely under-used as a character being little more than a psychic compass. It was great to see Sheryl Lee, as I have always had a soft spot for her, but there was little she could do with what she was given.

This makes the romance between her and Montaya seem ridiculous as the character of Katrina was too out of it to actually get any sparks going and as for Montaya, well all things being fair he should have been too busy hunting vampires to think about romance but actually it is the fact that Daniel Baldwin seems to sleepwalk the role which really kills that off. The development of Adam as part of the team also seemed much curtailed.

Valek looks very much the master vampireWe do not particularly get too much in the way of dialogue from Valek, at least until the end of the movie, mainly seeing him in action. However Thomas Ian Griffith certainly looks the part and carries an air of dark menace that works nicely. Speaking of dialogue, there is a fair amount of profanity but it is just not as well written as the Tarantino scripted "from Dusk til Dawn" - the earlier film carried a wit that this cannot hold a candle to.

I like this movie, it is certainly better than its two sequels, and yet – as much as I enjoy it – I cannot help but see the flaws. Having read the novel doesn’t help (though I would recommend you do so). It is a shame that there was a great movie here that failed to emerge - and for that I blame the moneymen at the studio first and foremost. That said it remains, despite faults, an above average movie and I’ll score it at 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


phelpster said...

Great review, I like this one too. Not the greatest, but not as bad as most people think. I actually saw this in the theater when it came out. My girlfriend at the time wasn't old enough to get in (I was 17, she was 16) so we had to buy tickets to The Truman Show or something and sneak into the Vampires theater. I feel kinda bad about that now because even though it spawned two sequels I think it pretty muched tanked at the box office.

I'd love to see a review of Mama Dracula if you ever happen to find a copy of it. I'm watching it now and it is just bizarre. I think it's supposed to be funny, but frankly it's kind of scaring me. Not terrifying, but scary in a depressing, awkward kind of way, kinda like The Bugaloos. It's apparently available in this DVD set.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks for that - I've got to say (and it is only my humble opinion) but you were probably much better off seing Vampires than the Truman Show! lol

I will - at some time, get around to reviewing the sequels (although the third film has so little to do with the first two that to call it a sequel is probably a misnomer - even the source of vampirism changes)

You know, I've never seen mama dracula, so I'll keep a weather eye out. I looked at the set you linked to and there are two vamp movies in it I've not seen, plus a non-vampire Jess Franco I've not seen. That said there is some rubbish on there as well... perhaps if I see it really cheap somewhere....