The one Carpenter film I hadn't seen yet turns out to not be the diamond in the rough I had hoped. And, as you know, Late Period Carpenter is very rough indeed.
Directed by John Carpenter
Written Dan Jakoby (based on the novel by John Steakley)
With James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Anthony Montoya), Tim Guinee (Father Adam Guiteau), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Maximilian Schell (Cardinal Alba), and Thomas Ian Griffith (Jan Valek)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Well, the good news about Vampires is that it sees John Carpenter retreating from the slick wannabe blockbuster crapulence of Escape From L.A. and back into his comfort zone, namely Western-inflected indie horror. The result is a film that showcases a much more consistent tone, a somewhat better pace, and—despite the lower budget—a vastly better eye for action. Why, in some respects, it features some of the best action qua action in Carpenter's catalog, which—of course—is praise so backhanded that it's virtually meaningless, given that for all his many, many strengths, JC's action setpieces tend to be more charmingly bizarre than they are conventionally good. Still, if Vampires has one irreproachable strength, it must be its exercises in uniquely-staged gunplay—alongside, that is, its gore-happy, supernatural fisticuffs.
The bad news, however, is that Vampires is somehow even more of a drag to watch play out than the ill-advised Plissken sequel. You see, there's no JC picture that's more clearly a product of its time than this one—which might seem like a strange thing to say about the man who did so much to help make the 1980s legendary, but bear with me. The year Vampires hit theaters was 1998, four years after Pulp Fiction—and, perhaps even more importantly, two years after From Dusk Till Dawn—and apparently there was no avoiding the cultural current that had already swept up so many filmmakers, big and small, until the critical mass of post-Tarantino stupid criminal stories and neo-Western noirs came to constitute a genre all their own, and a routinely bad one at that. The most effluent of all of them, at least that still maintains any status today, is 1999's baffling sleeper hit, Boondock Saints, an objectively terrible movie, and one that Vampires has a great deal in common with: the psychotically toxic masculinity; a belief that enough action will paper over the flawed, poorly-motivated and often-poorly-acted characters; and the vague impression that somebody within the process might have thought that going over-the-top was the same thing as parody—but, of course, this impression is stronger in Saints, where that somebody is easy to identify as Willem Dafoe, who was aware of his surroundings and did his level best to destroy them.
It's difficult to say whether the problems in Vampires arise chiefly from Dan Jakoby's awful adaptation of John Steakley's 1990 novel, the stupidly titled Vampire$, or if they're inherent to the book (if they are, then technically they predate Tarantino and all his bastard children, although we can obviously say they're still part of the same moment). But either way, if Escape From L.A. flirted with the 1990s, with its bad bad-ass fashion and its risible production methods, Vampires represents Carpenter's career at the point where the substance of the 1990s overtook him. Thus is Vampires, by a huge margin, the crassest JC film of them all, a film where every character with any agency is a hateful shithead, and every line of dialogue can be categorized neatly into two baskets, half of it exposition, and the other half of it slurs. And it's an unfortunate turn for Carpenter's filmography to take: he'd been no stranger to misanthropes (most of his characters are some degree of that), but real assholes—let alone strident, obnoxious, baleful assholes on the level of Vampires' supremely anti-heroic central hero, Jack Crow, or his crypto-rapist sidekick, Anthony Montoya—had previously been so rare in the director's films that it's easy enough to say they didn't exist.
So let's dig into these creeps: we meet Crow at "another New Mexican shithole," a run-down farmhouse in the Southwestern desert, alongside his best bud Montoya and his team of hardcases, which includes, in a supporting capacity, a priest. Perhaps if the film weren't named Vampires, these goings-on would be more mysterious: these men are all soldiers of the Catholic Church; their specialty, of course, is re-killing the undead. Today's target is a vampire nest, which they duly breach with military efficiency. Armed with crossbows, tow-lines, and winches (along with their firearms and wooden stakes), they harpoon every vampire they find within, dragging them out into the unforgiving light of day. A half-dozen charred bodies later, they're done. Crow notes that they didn't find the master vampire, but this doesn't stop them from retiring to the local motel, presently stocked with a copious amount of 1)booze and 2)prostitutes—who are naturally only ever called "whores," right to their faces, because this is Vampires, buster, and these men are roughnecks of the highest caliber. Unsurprisingly, the master vampire who was so conspicuously absent at the nest soon pays them a visit. (As we'll find out later, the master's name is Jan Valek. He was once a Bohemian priest who rebelled against the medieval Church—for Vampires isn't content to be offensive on just a secular level, but also has to conflate Protestant reformers with the monstrous, blood-sucking servants of the literal Satan.)
The upshot is that Crow's whole team is killed, save for he and Montoya; the prostitutes are butchered as well, with the important exception of Katrina, whom the master has only bitten, and who has a few days before she fully turns. Crow and Montonya snag Katrina on their way out—Crow, intimate with the secrets of vampire lore, realizes that her telepathic link with Valek goes both ways—and the slayers reorganize for a counterstrike. They get another priest—Father Guiteau, either a newbie or someone who's been studying vampires for years, depending on which lines of dialogue you go by—and ultimately they uncover Valek's master plan, which involves using the ancient "Black Cross" to complete the "inverse exorcism" that made Valek in the first place, and finally give him the power to walk in the daylight. As Guiteau exclaims, and I only barely paraphrase, "He'll be unstoppable! Unless we stop him!" And so they've got to stop him.
That's actually one of the better-written lines in the film, but it gives a good first approximation of what listening to Vampires is like: blunt exposition shoved into every conceivable corner of the screenplay, all in order to establish what amounts to an extremely simple quest plot ("get the thing before the bad guy, or, if that fails, kill him"). Vampire movies have a natural tendency to be heavy on their exposition—the mythology changes with every new vampire tale, and God knows we need to be lectured upon how Our Vampires Are Different This Time—so it's somewhat easier to forgive here than elsewhere. Yet considering that Vampires' vampires are some of the most classically-constructed of all time, it nonetheless starts to wear a little thin. ("Forget everything you've seen in the movies," Crow says, before explaining that vampires can be killed with wooden stakes and sunlight.) And it would still be fatiguing if Vampires' exposition were remotely economical, which is pretty much the opposite of the case: concepts are repeated ad nauseum, while things we've already seen get doggedly underlined, in long dialogues between characters who each already know.
And yet the exposition is the least of Vampires' problems, when you can't go twenty minutes without some flagrant plot hole opening up at Vampires' poorly-stitched seams—why, we ask plaintively, does Valek deliberately turn Katrina, then permit Crow to take her, complicating his otherwise perfect plan? Indeed, why does Valek attack the team at all? Is the heartless monster so upset over the loss of a few slaves that he must put his machinations on hold to avenge them? (Now, these curious events are eventually explained—but speaking charitably, Valek's stratagem does not fall into a what you'd describe as a straight line.) And where in the hell does the hilariously perfuctory romance between Montoya and Katrina come from? (It didn't come from the dialogue they share in the screenplay or from the chemistry between the two actors, I assure you.) And, really, why wouldn't the Church just throw the Black Cross into the ocean? (Then again, I have the same question when I watch The Lord of the Rings.) But, above all, why did Montoya take every scrap of Katrina's clothes off before tying her to the bed? And don't you even tell me it's because he "cleaned [her] up," because you should know that that makes it worse. Christ, it's screenwriting like Vampires' that gives B-pictures their bad name.
Some of this could have been forgiven—have I not mentioned Vampires' enjoyably bloody, mechanically innovative setpieces, the ones full of bifurcated human bodies and pyrotechnic vampire corpses? They came close to earning the film an outright NC-17, and although this says more about the state of cinematic censorship in 1998—it was five years before Kill Bill, six before Saw—it's still Carpenter's krooviest flick since The Thing, and that's not nothing. On top of that, Carpenter's in fine form as a storyteller, knowing what to show, and how to show it: the dissolve-heavy montage depicting Crow's decaptiation-centric clean-up of the motel, for example, is virtually flawless. There's more than a touch of Carpenter the old-school thrillmaker in Vampires, and it's hard to hold the film's failure, which is quite abject when you get down to it, against him, even when he's framing upskirt shots of Katrina with all the abandon of a mall pervert. (However, if you really wanted, it'd be easy to hold one salient aspect of Vampires against Carpenter's now-regular cinematographer Gary Kibbe, specifically his use of a blatant orange filter in order to make this desert look more like a... desert. While it's not an entirely unappealing look, it's only ever accomplished with the skill of an audacious amateur, and not any kind of professional DP.)
But no: the fatal flaw in Vampires remains those utterly repellent characters, whose badass credentials must be proven by how effectively they can demean women and other men, which in James Woods' case—as you might readily guess—is very effectively indeed. It's known that Woods improvised a lot, and if I had to guess, I'd say it's around half of his scenes—you can tell, because when Woods is supplying the dialogue (or, more precisely, monologue), there's a certain poetry to his awfulness that's direly missed in the lines that Jakoby wrote. (Jakoby's wit relies mostly upon minor variations on the word "bitch." The least of all Baldwins, naturally, does not improvise. Not remotely in Woods' league, his performance leaves a major chemistry gap.) But Woods' reconception of Jakoby's material, while superior in verve, still isn't enough; it always remains exactly the same hypermacho tripe, only gussied up by an artful actor. Indeed, in some cases, it's arguably worse, like when Woods alludes to the "fags in rented formal wear" —because surely it's in this lousy film's best interests to take a jab at Interview With a Vampire, an actual good movie. By 1998, the observation that Anne Rice's revenants were a little bit gay was not exactly a new one, and it feels exactly like what it is: pandering to Vampires' assumed audience of mouthbreathing, bigoted idiots, with gun fetishes where their dicks ought to be. Anyway, even if Woods is what you're here for, it's still forty minutes into the film before Carpenter actually uses one of Woods' improvised takes. And he's the whole show.
There's a moment in the middle of Vampires where Katrina seems like she might become a third partner in this drama, but it passes, practically unnoticed by Carpenter and Jakoby (and totally unmourned). Yet there nonetheless remains a certain potential here, in Vampires' unsympathetic look at men who have done too many horrible things to even try to pretend to be decent anymore. Of course, Vampires goes right ahead and fucks that up, too, with a last-minute retreat from nihilism and directly into unearned, cowardly sentiment, betraying the last good thing it still had going for it, revealing what Carpenter has attempted to reclaim as a riff on the amoral gunslinging of The Wild Bunch as what it always was—a movie that earnestly believes its asshole characters are actually cool dudes.