Having given quitting filmmaking some serious thought following Escape from L.A. John Carpenter was approached to direct an adaption of John Steakley’s novel, Vampire$. After reading two different screenplays and the novel, Carpenter would do the film as he was excited to combine horror and western. The eventual end result would star James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Tim Guinee, Maximilian Schell and Thomas Ian Griffith.
Vampires, also known as John Carpenter’s Vampires, sees a team of vampire hunters wiped out by an ancient and super-powerful vampire named Valek (Griffith). The only survivors are the team’s leader Jack Crow (Woods) and his number two, Montoya (Baldwin). The pair manage to escape the vampire’s assault with a local prostitute named Katrina (Lee) who has been bitten by Valek.
Crow believes they were set up (the vampire knew his name) and wants to use Katrina to find the bloodsucker as she now shares a psychic link with it. However, it’s not as simple as that as it seems as though Valek is searching for an ancient cross that could give him the power to walk in daylight. If he succeeds, he will become the most powerful vampire ever and virtually unstoppable.
Dirty, ugly and bloody. Vampires nails a ton of what you want and would expect from a western-themed horror movie. You can smell the sweat in the air and the blood on the dust, where even a shower isn’t going to be enough to make you feel clean. That aspect of Vampires is expertly done by Carpenter and is often the over-riding memory of the film.
Elsewhere though, it stumbles a fair bit even if it has a ton of charm. A lot of that comes from performances beginning with the manic Woods as Jack Crow.
He’s not exactly a likeable character but Woods plays him with such energy that you can’t help but enjoy him. Scenes where he quips about his balls being on fire or when he is outright taunting Valek are far more fun than you might think. On the flip side of that though, there are times when you’ll just want him to shut up especially when he’s making outdated jokes about erections and homosexuality.
The foil to that energy is Baldwin with his laidback and likeable Montoya. A face that always looks like he needs a good 12-hour sleep, his role is pivotal even if some of his later decisions as a character are a bit frustrating.
Then we have Sheryl Lee, Tim Guinee and Maximilian Schell also nailing what they’re asked to do. Before we even mention Thomas Ian Griffith as the big and bad vampire. He’s a blast in this, blending over-the top power with a constant feel that he knows he is way better then every creature that comes before him. It can be a bit silly (the squawk he emits when shot in the face on top of the car) but as a more ‘brutal’ vampire, he is very entertaining. There are very few faults to find with the cast.
The problems arise with the story and the pacing. The former just feels half-baked and incomplete, as though there should have been way more detail but it would have extended the run time by another 30 minutes. The latter is all over the place and it makes it feel like we’re just going from set-piece to set-piece with a bit of exposition or James Woods’ rambling in between.
The set-pieces can be a blast though and the film doesn’t scrimp on the blood or gore. The massacre at the motel is a standout sequence and while the film never hits that high again, there’s still a ton of gruesome moments to enjoy.
For all its faults, Vampires is still a load of fun to watch. Great characters and great acting combined with a less romantic version of the bloodsuckers and a willingness to let the violence and gore fly with plenty of freedom, makes it very memorable.
The Final Score - 6/10