#20 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Well, this is disappointing. I was ready to declare the 90s Carpenter’s field of hidden gems, but his 1998 feature kind of ruins that. Vampires is the result of a last second script rewrite originating from a sudden and massive cut in budget right before filming and Carpenter pretty much phoning it in visually (again, probably related to the budget cut). It’s poorly written, touching on several different story ideas without every telling enough of them to feel convincing, and the action becomes repetitive at best. Carpenter took this job as a one last shot effort to find enthusiasm in filmmaking after the disastrous reception of Escape from L.A., and it honestly feels like the work of someone simply tired of directing movies.
The story is about a vampire hunter, Jack Crow (James Woods), chasing down groups of blood suckers in the Southwestern United States. Everything goes wrong when the most powerful master vampire he’s ever encountered kills all but one of his crew, and he has to use a slowly turning prostitute as a psychic link to figure out where this master vampire is. It honestly feels like pretty straightforward stuff, but the way it’s actually laid out in storytelling terms is really frustrating.
At first, I felt like the movie was on solid ground. It’s a consciously Old West feel as Crow and his crew come upon an isolated house filled with vampires. They edge inside and deal with the first two vampires in messy, professional manners, following a patter of fighting them, spearing them, and then dragging them outside in the sun to burst into flames. And then, instead of showing us the next seven kills, the film skips ahead to success with hints of them having missed something larger, a master of the nest that should have been there but was absent. The problem ends up being that there’s a surprising opaqueness about the overall plot that’s yet to develop. The movie takes forever to get around to ever explaining what the master vampire Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) wants. This is more of a retrospective issue, though. The first scene that told me something was wrong came a little bit later.
Crow and his posse are hanging out at a motel with a bunch of prostitutes, the local sheriff, and their priest when Valek shows up, kills everyone but Crow and Montaya (Daniel Baldwin) as well as one prostitute, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), whom Valek had bit, beginning the process of turning her into a vampire. When they safely get away and night turns to day, Crow goes back to the motel to clean up, and the process is so overlong. We see him stabbing several people in the hearts with a wooden stake. Then he beheads all of his teammates. Then he sets the place on fire. Then he buries the heads down the road. How much of this is necessary to the story? Well, it makes sense that he would go back to make sure that none of these dead people become vampires, but did we need the proto-dissertation on how to kill newly created vampires?
Here’s a secret for wannabe filmmakers: audiences don’t care about your rules. They need to be consistent, yes, but ultimately we don’t care about the rules themselves. They are a tool for the story, but that’s about it. This sequence felt like the visual storytelling version of pure exposition. The story grinds to an absolute halt explaining the process of killing new vampires. Expository dialogue is one thing, but this became just tedious. It’s not why I dislike the movie overall, but it was the first sign that something was really off.
At about the third way point we finally get a strong hint of our overall plot as Crow visits Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) who orders Crow to go back to Monterey to rebuild his team. Crow refuses, taking along the new priest Father Adam (Tim Guinee) along. There’s a problem here as well. From the earliest moments after the attack, Crow is rather consistently talking about how someone betrayed the group. The cast of this movie is surprisingly small, boiling down to Crow, Montoya, Father Adam, and Cardinal Alba as potential traitors. Being told so early that there’s a traitor and having such a small cast of characters to choose from, it’s super easy to point out the one guy who’s the traitor very early in the film. When the movie reveals this later (with ominous tones because we totally weren’t supposed to figure it out), it falls completely flat because, yeah, we figured it out about 45 minutes ago.
What Valek is after is some ancient cross that was used in the original Catholic ritual that turned him into a vampire but was cut short. He wants to complete the ritual to turn himself into a daywalker, but the cross has been hidden for centuries. He finds out where it is and claims it, pretty much as Crow is figuring out that Valek wants it at all. There’s no sense of a chase against time because by the time we know anything about it, Valek already has it.
All along this story is the complete failure of a romance between Montoya and Katrina. At no point during this weird relationship where Montoya first ties Katrina up on a bed (naked, mind you) do we feel any affection between them at all. In fact, if not for the last second bit of them running off together there would be no indication that a romance was happening in any way shape or form. I will say this, though, Sheryl Lee was a fantastic actress. She was in the single thinnest role in this film, but she acts her butt off with what little she has. She brings her A-game like she had in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and she shows that she really should have had a more successful career than she ended up with.
Anyway, everything comes to a finale at an abandoned small Western town where Valek has turned everyone there and holed up in the prison. The reverse Rio Bravo situation ends up repetitive and rather dull as the team uses the exact same techniques as we saw in the opening to kill some vampires with only the most inconsequential of variations. Instead of finding that their tactics won’t work at all and they have to vary things up completely and come at it sideways, it’s just small changes. It ends up feeling repetitive and, again, like Carpenter was just phoning it in.
We get our traitorous reveal, the bad guy gets dispatched quickly in the daylight, and then everything comes to an end.
I wasn’t against this movie going in. I thought things were going to go well, but an unsteady feeling just crept up on me as the film went along. I just progressively disengaged until by the end I was just bored watching vampires burst into flames in the sunlight. James Woods gives his all and, as I already noted, Sheryl Lee is fantastic in a terrible part, but the rest of the cast are largely just there.
The fault can lie in a few places. The studio was at fault for greenlighting the film at $60 million and then cutting it to $20 million last second, for instance. But, ultimately I lay this failure at the feet of John Carpenter. He always seemed to miss something when he wrote quickly and alone, and that’s apparently what happened here. He didn’t have the strong writer that he could use to make a last-second rewrite work, relying on his own talents. I don’t think he had it in him at this point, and the shoot ends up feeling surprisingly standard visually.
This is just a disappointment through and through.