October Horrorshow: John Carpenter’s Vampires

The year 2010 will be a treat. In this coming year, a new John Carpenter film, The Ward, will be released. It will be his first film since Ghosts of Mars, from way back in the far distant days of 2001. This has been a long layoff for the director — the longest in his career. One could easily have concluded that Carpenter had retired, maybe not completely with his own consent. The backend of Carpenter’s directorial career has been one box office bomb after another, none of the films able to capture or build upon the mastery of schlock, and horror, that he showed in his peak days three decades ago. His professional tale is one of the inevitable slide that all creative people who live long enough go through eventually. Depressing? It shouldn’t be, because even though his films have kept getting shittier and shittier, he still had the skill to crank out something like Vampires, a film that just reeks John Carpenter from start to finish.

It’s all there.

The film starts with the old familiar dark screen, eminently recognizable serif font for the credits, and an original Carpenter score. What follows are the antics of the same collection of rowdy, foul-mouthed badasses that are in all of Carpenter’s more rebellious works. The names change, but the evil they fight is always the same in some way, and there’s always an opportunity for those really in charge, those that commit their evil with fountain pens from behind the safe confines of a desk to rear their ugly heads and show they are just as horrible as anything the special effects guys can come up with. There aren’t just literal monsters in anything that Carpenter does. His mistrustful nature is such a rich vein in his oeuvre, anarchy such a strong force that behind all the blood and guts, all the swagger and all the gunfire, his films are really about reminding everyone out there to watch their backs, because the only one that’s really on your side is you. Luckily, Carpenter throws enough mindless tomfoolery at the viewer that the heady stuff is far from being the star of the show.

Vampires plays itself out as a bloody homage to Hollywood westerns. Good versus evil, good being morally dubious in its own right, but always doing the right thing in the end. It follows the story of Jack Crow and Anthony Montoya (James Woods and Daniel Baldwin, respectively), the number one and number two men of a Vatican-sanctioned vampire extermination squad operating out of Monterrey, California. These cowboys have come across a real tough guy in New Mexico, a vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) with super strength and super ego, almost enough to match their own, and they have to kill him. There’s a hooker, too (Sheryl Lee), who’s been bitten by the bad guy, and she’s a real gem of sympathy.

Maximilian Schell(!), appears as a slippery Cardinal straight off the boat from Italy, and he and another priest, Father Adam (Tim Guinee), have the pleasure of being on the receiving end of most of Woods’ verbal barbs. He plays the dialogue as loose as he has in any number of movies he’s been in, just reveling in the opportunity Carpenter has given him to wreak havoc with his character. The same goes for Baldwin. He can’t act a lick, but it doesn’t matter. Vampires would be a shitty film with or without him. There’s plenty of other stuff that weighs it down.

Vampires suffers from many of the same problems that have marred other Carpenter films. Sometimes the action on screen feels like a first take. The care in getting some of the little things just right is noticeably absent in many places, especially in action scenes when guns don’t point anywhere near the things they are shooting, or when vampires meet ridiculously fiery deaths at the hands of what looks like store bought fireworks. Plot holes seem to be treated as minor details not worth the trouble to fix, and the climax of the film commits the sin of not feeling all that climactic.

For Carpenter fans, Vampires should be entertaining enough. It’s a throwback, in a way, to the raucous junk that made Carpenter famous in the first place. That is far from being a bad thing, after having to endure films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man and In the Mouth of Madness. Vampires swaggers like a Carpenter film should — a finger in the eye to someone or something, I don’t know who or what. That’s between Carpenter and his demons. It was a close one, but Vampires is better than Alien: Resurrection, because Vampires didn’t make me feel bad after watching it.