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John Carpenter’s Vampires

John Carpenter’s Vampires

John Carpenter

USA, 1998

Credits

Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 06 October 2007

Source Sony Pictures DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror

There’s no hint of cool elegance or Victorian seduction to the undead in John Carpenter’s Vampires; instead the creatures hiss, spit, writhe uncontrollably when struck with sunlight, and don’t merely take bites out of their victims, but entire necks by savagely ripping out chunks of flesh. Considering this is a John Carpenter film, whose The Thing contains some of the most stomach-churning scenes within the horror genre, violently aggressive vampires aren’t necessarily a surprise.

What isn’t expected is a hilarious performance by James Woods as an overworked, crossbow bearing vampire slayer with a bad habit of taunting priests, stealing cars and cracking lewd jokes about a chubby. Directing in a genre that typically doesn’t allow for extensive character development, Carpenter fleshes out his male leads in memorable ways; certainly the characters portrayed by actor Kurt Russell – MacReady in The Thing or Snake Plissken in Escape from New York – have become cult classic anti-heroes, with their pithy sarcasm and vigorous testosterone. Slayer Jack Crow easily fits into the Carpenter boys club; an embittered loner raised as an orphan by the Catholic Church after losing his parents to vampirism, Crow now leads a rabble of slayers throughout the southwestern U.S., destroying vampire nests with kamikaze intensity.

Anti-heroes are captivating figures in a variety of film genres, from film noir to action flicks of the 70s and 80s; these characters have become increasingly popular in horror, perhaps specifically due to Carpenter’s body of work. Vampires seems entirely self-aware of its history within Carpenter’s career as well as its genre in whole, and has a tongue-in-cheek machismo which brings the film closer to a pastiche of not only horror, but also the western. Crow’s swagger and disregard for established law outside of his own “code”ï¬ø¬Ω associates him with any renegade cowboy, along with his foul mouth. Woods does a remarkable turn, never seeking audience approval but winning it with a series of sly glances and a string of off the cuff quips intended to shock, particularly Father Guiteau, the naïve priest assigned by the Church to keep a close eye on Crow. Crow, using Guiteau as a metaphorical punching bag for his skepticism of the Church, still manages to gain the priest’s trust with his unwavering, if slightly insane dedication to eliminating evil.

Further distorting the horror genre, Vampires isn’t really scary, but instead occasionally grotesque—the humorous streak far outweighs the few moments of tension. The inevitable villain is Valek, a rather intimidating master vampire seeking an ancient cross that will enable him to walk in sunlight; dressed in requisite black, Valek is modern enough to easily blend into the background of a Marilyn Mason music video. Aside from stalking Crow, Valek adds a heavy does of gore to the film, dismembering nearly all of Crow’s slayers in efficient, bloody fashion and “infecting” Katrina, an unlucky prostitute who endures not only a bite to the neck, but a depraved moment of vampire cunnilingus. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Carpenter’s inventiveness doesn’t extend to his female characters; poor Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks Laura Palmer) portrays Katrina, and spends much of the film half-naked, shoved around while semi-conscious or used as a honing device to find Valek, since her status as a half-formed vampire has caused her to become valuable to Crow during his pursuit of Valek, as she can tune into Valek’s thoughts.

Vampires is absurd camp—what film that refers to dead vampires as “crispy critters” wouldn’t earn a guffaw, along with some admiration? Over the top, noisy, and obnoxious, Vampires isn’t immediately or perhaps collectively likeable, but its unapologetic rudeness is merely part of its rough charm, as are the occasional cheap sets and the casting of a third tier Baldwin brother as Crow’s thickheaded sidekick. In humorously playing with aspects of not merely horror, but the vampire film, Carpenter maintains his mastery in the genre, as he has his cake and eats it too.

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