During his heyday, genre overlord John Carpenter had an impressive talent of churning out films that were decades ahead of their time. While this often caused the frustrating side-effect of his movies not being properly appreciated at the time of their original release, the upside was it also meant that a lot of his back catalogue aged really fucking well making him one of the most influential artists that’s ever worked in the genre. However, during that turbulent period in horror known as the nineties, something strange seemed to happen – Carpenter’s gift for being creepily prevalent suddenly deserted him the way a vampire’s powers fades once you shove a cross in their fanged face and his newer movies suddenly felt noticably dated as his sullen anti-heroes and distrust of establishment gradually became duller as audience tastes changed.
Vampires are real and the Vatican bankrolls gangs of vampire killers to roam the country to clear out nests of bloodsuckers like biker gang pest exterminators with tricked out stakes and crossbows. The leader of one such group is the swaggering, leather jacketed, Jack Crow who we join as he and his motley crew clear out a vampire nest located in an abandoned house in the dusty wastes of New Mexico. As they go about their business harpooning the godless creatures with tethered arrows and then using a jeep to drag them out into the sun, Jack questions why this nest of “goons” didn’t have a “Master” vampire present to guard it, but after the work is done, the gang head to a local motel to partake in copious amounts of prostitutes and booze to blow off some steam.
Seems the joke’s on them, because there was a master vampire there, but not just any vampire, no. The imposing Valek, who promptly lays waste to the team in a gory orgy of violence, turns out to be the vampire, the original bloodsucker who was created by accident by the Vatican thousands of years ago and he’s in the neighbourhood searching for a religious artifact that could enable him to walk in daylight.
The only survivors of Valek’s rampage are Jack (naturally) his lieutenant Montoya and Katrina, a local whore who took Valek’s fangs in the thigh and thus can very used to track the monster with the telepathic link she has with her attacker until she fully turns into a bloodsucker. So with a replacement priest in tow (the naive Father Guiteau), Crow and co. set out against the orders of Cardinal Alba to put Valek in the dirt once and for all, but serial rules breaker Jack just can’t shake the feeling that his superiors are hiding something from him; something that’ll exponentially raise the… stakes.
John Carpenter has always expressed desire to make a full bloodied western which tended to plainly stand out in some of his work, but with Vampires, he finally got the chance to get close as he’d ever been with the movie featuring some classic iconography such as stunning, New Mexico landscapes and his morally shaky heroes displaying the authority shirking tendencies of a classic outlaw. However, where his other, earlier, movies reveled in mercilessly poking the establishment in the ribs whenever they could, here Carpenter seems content just to tell a straight forward horror/action film that touches on his trademark themes in only the most rudimentary sense.
Take James Woods’ Jack Crow, seemingly a typical Carpenter anti-hero who breaks the rules much as he breaks faces and shows a disdain for his bosses that rivals his hatred for the vampires he’s hired to annihilate – but where other versions of the director’s protagonist template are reluctant do-gooders, Crow is a raging, entitled, shit head who takes his violent righteousness out on literally anybody in his orbit. Whether questioning the passive Guiteau if he got an erection while he was getting his ass kicked to spitting homophobic slurs to his enemies in a childish effort to rile them up (at one point he calls his nemesis a “pole smoking fashion victim”), it’s obvious that Woods is having the time of his life, but Crow is ultimately as likeable as a wet fart in a diving bell and the same goes to Daniel Baldwin’s Montoya who creepily goes from slapping Sheryl Lee’s prostitute around to utterly falling in love with her. I guess there’s some sort of message buried deep in there about established organisations hiring remorseless thugs to clean up their own, nightmarish messes, but it’s lost within uneven pacing and the continued douchebag behavior of our leads.
Yet, despite the fact that Vampires continuously fails to connect with its audience, it’s still a film that’s still more fun than its dated outlook suggests and you feel there was an incredibly entertaining story trapped within if they’d just kept the vampire hunters alive and told a story about surly blue collar monster hunters instead – think Predator on a paycheck – that would have suited Carpenter better than the simple stop-the-villain plot.
Still, Vampires does has some stirring moments; Lee oversells her traumatic and drawn out vampire transformation like shes still wandering through the hell of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Thomas Ian Griffith’s (Cobra Kai) large frame cuts a threatening figure as Valek, especially when he’s spectacularly carving a poor sap in two with his talons. But still, the best thing about the film remains the early scenes where Crow and his boys storm a nest and which gives us a hugely intriguing and effortlessly cool glimpse into the day to day minutiae of vampire slaying – something that’s noticable absent from the rest of the flick once the plot kicks in.
There was a noticable feel during the nineties that Carpenter was losing his touch, what with the clumsy satire of Escape From LA and the sheer lack of need for his Village Of The Damned remake making Vampires ironically something of a lopsided comeback, but for all its faults – that include deeply unlikeable leads and a tone that decidedly sees the master at half-strength – there’s still that defiant nugget of anti-establishment genius that holds the attention as a legendary talent simply goes through the motions when he should be drawing new blood.