Retro Review: John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

Here are some updated thoughts (2016):  Oh look, another vampire movie review pulled out of my crusty old . . . casket of articles.  You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? Wow, this is a really horrible review.  Accurate . . . but horrible.  But I’m standing firm in not re-writing this old stuff for the sake of time and my sanity!

From Jack Crow’s quote below the movie looks like it could be fun on the surface, but scrape away the curdled cheese and it’s a rotten and festering mess.  So much so that the movie produced two sequels (despite making no box office money) that were direct to video releases:  2002’s Vampires: Los Muertos, starring none other than the horror actor extraordinaire . . . Jon Bon Jovi! and 2005’s Vampires: The Turning. The basis of Vampires is the 1990 book Vampire$ written by John Steakley.  Perhaps the book is better than the film?  I’ll never know . . . nor do I want to.

Jack Crow: You ever seen a vampire?

Father Adam Guiteau: No, I haven’t.

Jack Crow: No… Well first of all, they’re not romantic. It’s not like they’re a bunch of fuckin’ pussies hoppin’ around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? Forget whatever you’ve seen in the movies: they don’t turn into bats, crosses don’t work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata WHILE he’s suckin’ the blood outta your neck, all right? And they don’t sleep in coffins lined in taffeta. You wanna kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through his fuckin’ heart. Sunlight turns ’em into crispy critters.

A “new breed” of evil has been developed from the so-called “Master of Terror,” John Carpenter. But the only thing John seems to be master of (in this case) is how to screw up the legend of vampires. Let’s take a look . . .

The Movie:

The Vatican has always secretly acknowledged the existence of the forsaken (vampires) but never admitted so publicly. To keep things under wraps, and not to let the secret get out, the Holy Mother Church employs Jack Crow, vampire-hunter, and his team to hunt down and destroy them all . . . or at least to keep their numbers in check.

Jack Crow (James Woods) witnessed vampires kill his parents right in front of his eyes at a very early age. In his moment of terror he vowed revenge. Crow now leads a professional team of vampire-hunters. After one particular successful night of vampire nest deletion, Jack and Co. are boozing it up at the local motel when the master vampire, Valek, crashes the party and rips people to shreds.

With such a bold move by the vampires, Jack consults the Vatican for clues as to what is going on within the community of the forsaken. He learns that the vampires have discovered a way to overcome their major weakness: sunlight. An arcane artifact, known only as the “Black Cross,” when used in a proper ceremony, will give vampires the ability to walk in the sun.  Think “daywalkers” from Blade. Jack, of course, is the only one who can stop them. Jack sets out to locate the Black Cross and bring bloody revenge to Valek with the help of his vampire slaying colleagues:

  • Daniel Baldwin as Tony Montoya, Crow’s friend and fellow hunter.
  • Sheryl Lee as Katrina, a prostitute who has a psychic link to Valek after being bitten.
  • Tim Guinee as Father Adam Guiteau.
  • Maximilian Schell as Cardinal Alba.

The Breakdown:

The premise described above sounds cliched . . . but fun, right? For an action packed, blood flowing, gratuitously violent vampire movie it sounds like a reasonably simple and straight forward premise. Well, the big Johnny C. succeeds in really creating a mess with this one. He’s made some great movies during his career (The Thing, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China), but Vampires is far removed from his list of film accomplishments. It’s boring, insipid, over the top, and flat entertainment. Jack Crow’s quote above should really have been “No… Well, vampires are just normal people that have a problem with blood lust . . . no worries.” John Carpenter follows almost NO vampire lore in the making of Vampires, which makes for a very confusing and disappointing film.

John Carpenter's Vampires PosterEver since his parents were murdered by vampires, Jack Crow (James Woods) has had one purpose in life: putting stakes through bloodsuckers’ hearts. With his battle-hardened crew of vampire killers and the assistance of the Catholic Church, Crow roams the New Mexico desert looking for undead lairs to annihilate. But he meets his match when, at a roadside motel, he comes face to face with Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a vampire kingpin possessed of incredible powers.

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

Director:  John Carpenter
Starring:  James Woods, Daniel Baldwin
Genre: Horror
Media:  Film, 108 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $20 million, domestic
Year: October 30, 1998

The opening sequence when the team goes into a vampire nest and whoops undead arse is very fun. There’s lots of action, lots of blood, and lots of dead vampires.  Trifecta!  Sadly, the setup which forms an expected tone for the remainder for Vampires completely fizzles out later. The “master vampire” Valek’s assault on the team at the hotel is rather ridiculous. In a previous scene we see the team take out an entire nest of vampires only to be slaughtered by a single powerful vampire.  It’s a cliche, wrapped in writing inconsistency, shrouded in an enigma of a vanilla revenge for revenge type of plot.  There’s just not enough here to make the movie worth caring about.

The tried and true vampire rules. Do not mess with the fundamentals.  Sure, you can change things up, but it bugs me to no end when writers set up rules and then don’t follow them! In all the other vampire flicks I’ve reviewed this month, the common thread throughout is  some semblance of sticking to their established rules. Vampires doesn’t. Before they find the famed Black Cross we see vampires rising from the very ground and walking in a pre-dusk scene. Also, the way humans are turned to vampire is in question. There’s really no consistent way that happens either. Katrina is bitten and it seems to take her an eternity  to turn. Others are turned almost instantly.  It’s a case of a writer bending his own rules to manipulate drama and plot.  We can’t turn a main character too quickly to build drama. We need to turn no names fast in order to build an army (conflict).

I don’t have a problem with a movie that sets up and follows its own established rules. However, a flick that is inconsistent with established rules/legend does not sit well with me.

Lastly, the final “twist” that is thrown in at the end is just absurd. It’s as if the producers realized the movie was going to tank and decided to throw in a Hollywood “big surprise” ending. It’s not that the twist is a bad idea, or that it’s out of place. But hey, you have to set up that gratuitous (direct to video) sequel, right?

The Bottomline:

There’s really no compelling reason to watch Vampires . . . not even as time wasting entertainment.  It doesn’t matter if you like vampire movies of any kind. It isn’t a hard-core action film like Blade nor is it a sprawling, dramatic film like Interview With the Vampire. It falls well short of feeling believable, it doesn’t possess enough action to keep it moving, and it’s plagued with poor acting and writing.

Words © 2001-2022, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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