John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

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While often lumped in with John Carpenter’s late-career slew of misfires, Vampires actually gets a lot of things right. It’s fun to see him finally indulge in the explicit Western iconography and tropes he had flirted with for his entire career. The sunburnt, desert vistas prove to be a perfect fit for Carpenter’s anamorphic lensing as well as offering up a fresh counterpoint to the supernatural stuff. The mix of bloody Peckinpah-tinged Western with vampiric horror bleeds together extremely well. The “cool-ness” of that central concept is probably what led this to being a firm VHS favourite in my younger days. After all, there’s a reason this spawned two straight-to-video sequels.

Carpenter is totally engaged with this material too and it shows. He’s well-suited to the subject matter and even heightens it somewhat. He’s still getting a kick out of the primal demands that come with genre filmmaking and the film doesn’t skimp on the necessary nastiness. The motel massacre that kickstarts the plot is especially well done with spot-on choreography and effects. Carpenter also utilises fades and slow-motion to spice things up even further. It all feels very purposeful, a film where the director knows exactly what he wants to achieve and how to achieve it, even if what he wants to achieve is a silly B-Movie. It helps that the mythology and logic of this world is well established and thought out. In a short space of time, you get a sense of how this team of vampire hunters operate, their methods and the rules as well as the code that governs them. It’s a masculine, teenage boy-fantasy film and happily accepts that role. The only trade-off is that the female characters are often shortchanged or non-existent.

That being said, Vampires also works as another welcome reminder of how fucking good Sheryl Lee is in everything she’s in. Even with material that has her tied naked to a bed, she makes a feast out of this role and, narratively, has the trickiest part. The idea of a vampire’s victim acting as a sort of video-link conduit to her attacker is a great little device and Lee really sells it with a gamut of emotions. Considering how amazing she is in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, it’s actually quite maddening to realise this was one of the few juicy mainstream parts she was offered in that film’s wake. She makes the most out of it though and is one of the reasons that keeps me coming back. Oh, and while we can all agree James Woods has devolved into a major-league asshole everyone is glad to see retire, its hard to deny he was a terrific actor and as Jack Crow he gets to play to all his strengths. Even Woods could happily play around in schlocky terrain from time to time and, in Carpenter’s hands, seems to be having a blast. Funny aside: Gene Siskel actively campaigned to get Woods some awards attention for his work here. Imagine that?

As a John Carpenter movie, Vampires ticks all the right boxes. But once you hold it up against his better works it does come across as slight. Unlike some of his other maligned movies, however, the film does work in exactly the way it means to and offers up a lot of well-made, if cheap and disposable, entertainment. It’s a mid-tier movie, not something from the bottom of the barrel. Underrated I guess.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray.

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