aka John Carpenter’s Vampires
(SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.
Carpenter came to the project, written by Don Jakoby (Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars) and based on John Steakley’s novel’s Vampire$, off the back of the expensive – but bargain-basement-looking – flop Escape from L.A. Russell Mulcahy had left – his version was poised to feature Dolph Lundgren, so much as I carry goodwill towards Mulcahy’s work, I doubt that it would have been vastly better – and Carpenter saw the opportunity for a western tinged, Peckinpah-infused romp. When the budget was slashed, he combined his favourite bits from the Jakoby and Dan Mazur drafts, in collaboration with Michael de Luca (the one-time New Line head and writer of In the Mouth of Madness… but also of Freddy’s Dead and Judge Dredd).
The result is a ponderous New Mexico-set hunt-the-vampire yarn, as Jack Crow (James Woods) and his band (dwindling band) attempt to stop vampire master Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) from completing a ritual that will enable him to walk in sunlight. You know, the kind of thing the same year’s Blade featured with much more inventiveness, exuberance and energy. Carpenter appears to have embraced the Peckinpah impulse of boorish, sweaty, hard-drinking, hard-whoring red-blooded bullshit in his characters – and in his overbearing Western synth metal score – and it isn’t a good look for the director, particularly in the twilight of his creative flow.
Woods comes on like a parody of himself; the director apparently allowed him a long leash to improvise, and on such grounds, one can safely affirm that more Woods is less. An interviewer, sucking up to Carpenter, suggested Woods was an unlikely choice for a hero: "That’s exactly why I cast him; I thought, 'We haven’t seen this.'" Except that this is exactly what we have seen from Woods, every goddamn time, but more often than not to positive ends.
Here, he’s just tiresome as he struts around in leather and shades, unsure what Carpenter is up to with all that cinemascope, and spews out lousy lines about how he’s going to “shove a stake right up his ass” (Valek’s) or teasing new cohort Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee, dreadful) by asking if the beating he just inflicted had masochistic allure (“Did I give you wood? A little mahogany?”) Jack has a dark backstory, of course (“My father kept a secret once. He’d been bitten by a vampire”), but all you remember is Woods being extra scuzzy and charmless, given too much of a free rein to be effective. And with zingers like “Come on padre. My nuts are on fire here”, I don’t think there was ever much chance for him to land upright.
He’s supported by Daniel Baldwin as Tony – not Inigo – Montoya, a role apparently passed on by brother Alec. So yeah, one immediately thinks of Daniel as the next best thing in terms of star wattage. But Carpenter doesn’t care about that kind of thing. Any old slop, or slob, will do. Hence Griffith as the lead villain. It’s like Carpenter wanted Michael Wincott but bottled it, and instead asked for any tall guy with long hair willing to wear white face cake. He wanted to get away from gothic vampires? So why did he dress Valek in the most generic goth-vampire metal-band outfit?
Also in the cast are the ubiquitous Mark Boone Junior – every other movie I watch seems to feature him at the moment – and a barely registering Maximillian Schell. The only one here deserving any laurels is poor Shery Lee. She’s a trooper, giving a performance of dedication and conviction as bitten prostitute Katrina, one that requires her to lie bare-ass naked on a bed for several minutes while Baldwin, barely able to believe his shlubby luck, drools over her. The movie might have been improved had it focussed on Katrina, as even Carpenter is unable to detract from her performance. He tries, though, with Tony giving her a good beating after she sinks her teeth into him (“Look what you did! You fucking bit me! Fucking bitch!”) and then falling in love with her (who wouldn’t want Daniel Baldwin falling for them? Tantamount to the jackpot of having little brother Billy sleaze all over them).
There can be no doubt Carpenter is scrupulously objectifying Katrina; one only need listen to his take on the shoot (“Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It’s a beautiful place, New Mexico. I love shooting there. They have great strip clubs there”). And cringe. His mind certainly doesn’t appear to have been on a polished production. There’s the occasionally glimmer of a good idea – the phosphorous burns as vamps go up in sunlight – but the visuals and action are mostly as underwhelming as we have come to expect by this point.
Carpenter apparently cut a lot more than normal, but it still seems like he’s barely there with his lacklustre compositions, stiff choreography and ponderous pacing. All highly unflattering, as actors (and extras) stand around waiting for whatever is supposed to happen to happen. There’s no illusory movie magic here; Vampires reeks of straight-to-video standards at their most unforgiving. He is, of course, aided and abetted by the guy who killed his career in much the way Janusz Kamiński did for Spielberg’s versatility: Gary Kibbe.
The suggestion that Kibbe was shortlisted for best cinematography Oscar is somehow left intact on Wiki, but with a telling citation needed. Even by Academy standards, the idea is absolute cobblers, and I can only assume whoever posted it did so purely to take the piss. It’s kind of implicit when the cited “great look” of the movie is rebuffed by the director (“A lot of that was in post-production. We shot it pretty straightforwardly and tinted it in post”).
The same interview attempts to make something of the director’s action choices, and again, he betrays his inadequacies. With regard to the motel massacre, any semblance of tension and coherence drains away through the use of dissolves (the interviewer suggests this is masterful). Carpenter advises “That was an editing room situation. I’m not sure that we knew exactly what was going to happen when we shot it, but we came across that idea in the editing and it seemed to work”. Not sure they knew exactly what was going to happen when they shot it? Yeah, I could tell.
There are a few nods to expanding vampire lore in the thematic content. The old virus parallel (“The less you eat, the faster the virus moves into your bloodstream” advises Tony, offering a day-old hamburger to Katrina). We are told that, in 1340, Valek was a priest and the first known case of vampirism, which makes for an interesting-enough notion, that of the church itself being responsible for this cannibalism and feeding on blood – the church being elite, and vampirism being an elite practice of the nobility – but it’s squandered when delivered in such a crass form. This is, after all, a movie that thinks a line like “How do you like your stake, bitch?” is the height of wit. And allows its seasoned-pro vamp hunter to remain oblivious to the obvious signs that his right-hand man is infected for most of the running time.
Frank Darabont cameos, which only serves to make you wonder what his vampire movie would have been like. While he was still working with Dean Cundey (most recently offering his lensing skills to The Book of Boba Fett), a Carpenter vampire movie might have been something to be savoured (the same with the touted The Creature from the Black Lagoon remake). But Carpenter was a victim of his DP’s success (Cundey going on to work with Zemeckis and Spielberg), and the quality of his productions quickly fell through the floor in the wake of Cundey’s departure. Vampires is near-enough the nadir of his big screen work. Although, if you’re looking for outright worst, you can always check out his Masters of Horror entries.