John Carpenter had quite a decade from 1978 to 1988. In the years following the massive success of Halloween, Carpenter helmed a handful of genre films that, despite being commercial flops at the time, have been stamped as pure classics in the modern court of popular opinion. Now, fans flock to Carpenter’s output during this decade, heralding it as some of the greatest works of science-fiction and horror, proclaiming either The Thing, Escape From New York, They Live, or Big Trouble in Little China to be his masterpiece. Search long enough and you’ll find die-hards dedicated to the legacy of Christine or The Fog, or maybe even Prince of Darkness.
It would take a bit longer to find anyone who celebrates Carpenter’s ’90s output, however. After They Live in 1988, the master seemed to slam into a creative wall. The clumsy Chevy Chase comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a curious misfire, and In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned made absolutely no waves one way or another (though Madness is worth a revisit). Escape From L.A. suffered a last-second budget haircut from Paramount that derailed the effects work and created an unfinished mess. After a string of commercial failures, Carpenter was all set to retreat from filmmaking and focus exclusively on his music career. That’s when he got his hands on Don Jakoby’s screenplay for Vampires, a direct horror-western hybrid film adapted from a John Steakley novel that spoke to Carpenter’s deepest genre passions. He was jazzed by the story and he dove head first into production; the end result is proof that John Carpenter, in 1998, still had his fastball.
Vampires is lost in the muck of the director’s late career failings, a robust action thriller with buckets of blood and style to spare, his best ’90s film that is worthy of a serious reevaluation. It stars the surliest possible version of James Woods, playing ace vampire hunter Jack Crow, a perfect guide as our cynical and cold-blooded hero. Crow runs a team of vampire slayers who, early on, are ambushed and massacred by the undead’s vengeful king, Valek, played by Thomas Ian Griffith, the cheesy-as-hell villain of The Karate Kid Part III. He’s much better here. Only Crow and his partner Montoya (a brilliantly scuzzy Daniel Baldwin) survive. They’re also saddled with Katrina, a girl who’s been bitten by Valek and is beginning to turn.
The rest of the film traces over familiar lines. It’s a road movie and a Western and a blood-spattered horror that leans heavily on style over substance. We basically move from one set piece to another, but that movement is with a surprising amount of focus and delivered with energy. Carpenter’s never-ending desert skies exist in that hazy, pink, photo-negative world – the Tony Scott aesthetic – clouds stretching vertically into oblivion, the scorched sun the one last defense for humankind. The blood is bright red against the brown canvas and the action all has weight to it, thanks in no small part to the attention to world building.
Vampires has a strong, simple mythology. These aren’t your grandparents vampires in tuxedos and capes with alluring Romanian accents. Garlic doesn’t phase them, and they’re even searching for a cross to give them the power to walk in the daylight, their one true nemesis. The story is simple and Crow’s methods are rudimentary, involving a cross bow and a wench to get these monster into the sun where they explode like fireworks. The history of these southwestern slayers is sound, though it has to be delivered in a series of predictable expository scenes. Thankfully, James Woods is the one doing the explaining, so he’s able to keep these monologues pumped full of interesting insults and crudity.
To say James Woods is a polarizing figure in 2019 is an understatement, but there’s no denying how great he once was, back in the days when politics didn’t inform every avenue of everyone’s life. It’s no surprise, then, that Woods is excellent when he’s playing a reluctant hero, or a straight-up asshole, always so charged up he’s about to explode. Here, he plays a combination of both (as he often does), and he carries the picture. That’s no slight on Daniel Baldwin, who stepped in when his brother Alec turned down the part. Daniel holds his own, an icy cool Robin to Woods’ manic Batman, and might even be the most underrated of all the Baldwins? He’s certainly better than Stephen, isn’t he?
Along with Woods and Baldwin is Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, who is dynamite in a tough role. Katrina is often relegated to convulsing while restrained, or staring hypnotized into the middle distance, or tied naked to a bed, or looking generally possessed by the spirit of her vampiric master. So much of the performance is physical, and Lee does admirable work with what she’s given.
Everything in Vampires is a little bit better than it should be, or better now than it once was. But it came in an era where John Carpenter’s aesthetic was outdated, so it was shuffled aside. The ’90s were a strange traditional period for the horror genre, more about Scream and meta-fiction and the onset of CGI. On top of Carpenter’s film seemingly being misplaced in the timeline of his career and the genre in general, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had just released From Dusk til Dawn two years earlier. Perhaps there was some resistance to another rowdy vampire western so soon. Even though there are direct echoes between the stories, Carpenter is working on an entirely different wavelength than the boys over at Troublemaker Studios. Thankfully, now, there’s more than enough space to enjoy both films.