Saturday, October 4, 2014

Vampires

A vampire western! No, not Near Dark. This is ... less elegant.

In interviews, John Carpenter described Vampires (1998), his first foray into the realm of bloodsuckers, as "The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler," and that is a succinct, accurate way to describe the movie, at least the first 30 minutes or so. It's loud, crude, violent, vulgar, and in your face as a team of heavily armed mercenaries hunt down vampires on behalf of the Catholic Church. The second act lags after most of the team is killed by the Master Vampire and the plot devolves into a race against time against the villain for the MacGuffin , but overall, while not one of Carpenter's finest,  it's an entertaining, bloody, and politically incorrect romp.

Jack Crow (James Woods) leads a team of vampire hunters employed by the Vatican (which we later learn had a hand in accidentally creating the undead, unholy menace). After clearing out a nest of "goons" in the American southwest, the team is slaughtered that night by Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a "Master." Crow and his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) escape with Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a prostitute bitten by Valek. As she slowly transforms into a vampire, Crow plans to use her psychic connection with Valek to hunt the master and "shove a stake right up his ass."  With help from an inexperienced priest (Tim Guinne, who was also in Blade the same year, incidentally), the group looks to recover a holy artifact Valek plans to use so he will be able him to walk in the sunlight.

Based on a novel by John Steakley, Vampires, for a while anyway, explores just what kind of men make it a profession to hunt vampires. The answer: rough, violent, crude, men's men. This is one tough bunch, and they don't screw around. In addition to the usual stakes and crossbows, they come packing with machine guns, pikes, shotguns, and a winch that yanks out the vampires out into the harsh, unforgiving rays of the sun, where they erupt in flames. When a job is done, they celebrate at a motel with lots of beer and even more hookers.

As for the quarry, these vampires are no pushovers. Feral, animalistic, they put up a hell of a fight when cornered. Crosses don't repel them, and neither does garlic or holy water. "They aren't romantic ... Forget whatever you've seen in the movies," Crow explains to the new priest, Father Adam. Valek himself is an imposing specimen. After the slayers wipe out his underlings in the opening scenes, he returns the favor by himself.

After that impressive slaughter (filmed in slight slow motion and a lot of dissolves. Carpenter has said he was emulating the show-off style of Sam Peckinpah on this picture.), the movie comes off the rails a bit. Except for a scene where Crow puts down his fallen team members, the life of a professional vampire hunter isn't explored as much, and the movie gets bogged down in its plot. Instead of building to the final confrontation between Crow and Valek, the movie merely fills time with a slow second act that doesn't really accomplish much or go anywhere. Thing pick up by the end with an assault on a prison by the surviving slayers, but by the end, the momentum has lagged.

I'd like to know more about the team and how it operates. How does one get recruited for this gig? I doubt the local churches puts a listing in their weekly newsletters. What do these guys when they're not out hunting vampires? Crow's motivation is revenge for the death of his parents, but what are some other motivations of these guys? How do they track vampires when they don't have a convenient victim with a psychic connection? How does the Catholic Church keep this sort of thing hush-hush?

The movie has also been accused of being misogynistic. All the female characters are either vampires to be staked or hookers to be victims. Katrina in particular goes through grueling, thankless treatment at the hand of Crow and Montoya (who fall in love with her for unsupported reasons); she's tied down, stripped naked, threatened, punched, and generally treated like an object. It's a bit uncomfortable, and for Carpenter, who has given us a number of strong female protagonists (Ghosts of Mars must have been some sort of apology), it's a bit disappointing.

Still, I enjoy Vampires. James Woods is a lot of fun; he just devours the scenery as a hateful, misanthropic, vengeful vampire hunter. Woods isn't thought of as an action star, but he's convincingly tough, single-minded, and even funny. The rest of the cast is adequate, save for Maximilian Schell as a traitorous cardinal in league with the vampires; it's a glorified cameo, and it's a surprise that's really not that surprising, even though it comes out of nowhere.

I also like the western feel of the movie. Set in the southwest desert, it's the closest Carpenter has gotten to making an actual Western. The vampires and the slayers are like rival gangs pursing each other, and Carpenter gives us wide open range shots, with the hot sun beating down, and showdowns reminiscent of gunfights. Even the soundtrack, by Carpenter, has a twangy steel guitar. It might not be effective in terms of generating terror (the closest the film gets to that is when Father Adam has to descend into a vampire-infested jail basement to lure one into an elevator and one shot of Valek clinging to the ceiling above the unaware Katrina.), but it's fun. The best shot of the movie shows Valek and his followers rising out of the dirt, the blood-red sun setting behind them in the horizon, and it is a beautiful, stylized shot.

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