Editorial: Vampires is the Best John Carpenter Film of the ’90s

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John Carpenter's Vampires

Editor’s Note: At the start of 2014, I wanted Shock to focus on more opinion pieces to generate a healthy dialogue among horror fans. A series that sprung from this decision focused on defending specific films like Friday the 13th (2009), Predator 2 and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. Our own Christopher Jimenez weighed in on that latter article and I’ve kept the door open to guest contributors should they want to chime in with a strong argument and defend a specific film that usually gets shit on. 

That said, I present to you Almost Human director Joe Begos’ defense of John Carpenter’s Vampires.

Twenty-two years after John Carpenter exploded onto the scene with his Western-esque siege classic Assault on Precinct 13, he was finally given the chance to use his glorious widescreen compositions and cigar-chomping tough guy leads to make what he was born to make: A MOTHERFUCKING HORROR WESTERN. Audiences should have eaten it up, but they didn’t. In fact, I am regularly ridiculed for not only thinking that Vampires is a damn fine movie, but the best Carpenter movie since his back-to-back low budget gut punches of Prince of Darkness and They Live. Everyone claims that Vampires is just plain bad. I’m here to argue that the movie isn’t bad – it’s the definition of badass.

james-woods-as-jack-crow-in-vampiresVampires starts off with some absolutely gorgeous sweeping anamorphic shots of sundown in the dusty desert, accompanied by a blues riff (composed by Sir Carpenter himself) leading us right into our introduction of Jack Crow, wearing a leather jacket and shades, and hollering about destroying a nest of blood-thirsty vampires. Once his military-style convoy chock full of various weapons designed to murder vampires arrives, Crow has a Sergio Leone-esque slow zoom standoff with the rickety old front door of the nest. The blues riff continues to escalate to a whirling solo as we end in an extreme close up of Crow’s eyes. This scene climaxes with Crow slaughtering a handful of bloodsuckers, amputating limbs with a huge handgun, and lighting his celebratory cigar by striking a match on the charred skull of a vampire. This is only the opening scene of the film.

Amongst the many talents Carpenter has, one is getting phenomenal performances out of his tough guy leads. Kurt Russell, Roddy Piper, Austin Stoker…Hell, he even turned Keith Gordon into a cool-as-hell ’50s style rebel in Christine. James Woods is already one of the most badass motherfuckers to grace cinema screens, and in Carpenter’s hands, Woods gives it everything he’s got and it feels like the role he was born to play. One of the best monologues delivered by Woods in the movie is when he gives his sidekick priest a rundown on vampires: How to kill them, how to deal with them, what they do. It’s all told in a sweaty close up, and all completely improvised by Woods himself. Unreal. Did I mention the long lens shot of Crow walking away from a motel where he just pre-slaughtered his entire crew (decapitating them in grisly slo-mo before the sun sets and they turn) as the motel explodes behind him, Crow not even flinching. James Woods is a legend but was never given the proper opportunity to be an iconic action hero. This could and should have been his Snake Plissken, but unfortunately that was never the case.

Valek-with-the-Black-Cross-john-carpenters-vampires-30434744-1024-678Orbiting around Woods is an unlikely supporting cast which has its fair share of hits and misses. One of the biggest surprises in the cast is Daniel Baldwin. Regularly seen as a joke, and the least talented of the Baldwin brothers, he gives a fairly solid turn here as Anthony Montoya, Crow’s right hand man. He spends half of the movie hiding the fact that he’s slowly turning into a vampire, while spending the other half drinking, stealing cars, and murdering vampires. Crow, of course, has an entire team, but the head vampire Valek, played by Thomas Ian Griffith, disposes of them quickly in a brutal hotel massacre that I imagine made the MPAA a bit uncomfortable. Speaking of Valek, this leads me to my biggest issue with the movie: Griffith’s acting is no match for Baldwin’s, let alone the scenery-chewing Woods. The weak villain leads me to think this is the reason for most of the hostility towards the film. Even the bumbling sidekick priest seems more threatening than Valek, who spends most of his screen time with bad mime makeup and a cape from the discount rack at the mall. This poses a big problem when we reach our final Crow versus Valek showdown. I don’t buy it. The head vampire is so nonthreatening, you wonder why he wasn’t disposed of earlier in the film when he crashed a party with 20 vampire slayers. Luckily, most of his scenes are shared with far superior characters and actors, but I kind of wish Baldwin went full vamp and our third act showdown was Crow versus Montoya, two friends with higher stakes.

Thankfully, that issue isn’t enough to derail Vampires from being one of Carpenter’s more solid efforts, and the best movie he’s made in the past 25 years. It’s been reported that the budget was slashed from $50 million to $20 million in pre-production (much like Escape from L.A., another ’90s Carpenter flick that isn’t given enough credit) and most likely explains why the third act never quite builds to the climax that we should have gotten. Put Vampires alongside 99% of the crap “vampire” films that we’ve been drowned in for the past five years and this flick should look like a goddamned masterpiece. Would you rather have Hot Topic-looking rejects sulking around high school, whining about stupid shit or James Woods blowing the heads off of motherfucking blood-thirsty vampires behind a leather jacket and pair of dusty shades in a wide-ass anamorphic frame? There really is only one answer to that question.  

Plus: Vampires is the only film to feature a Baldwin wielding a Dirty Harry style gun and carjacking a helpless Frank Darabont in the middle of the desert. That alone makes it worth the watch.