John Carpenter in Review: Vampires (1998)
Plot: Jack Crow, an elite vampire hunter, seeks to wipe out the very first vampire before he figures out how to empower himself with the ability to walk in the sunlight.
It seems that every other piece of vampire fiction always includes a character who was adopted and trained by the Catholic Church to hunt vampires in secret. But where many of those pieces usually have some kind of British stuffiness to it, this one is the exact opposite. It is a rude and crude neo-Western. It is set pretty much exclusively in a sun-soaked sandy deserts full of rustic wooden ruins of once promising boom towns. It offers very dramatic sun rise scenes as well as plenty of abandoned set pieces for fanged villains to hide. It also infers the attitude of the head slayer, Jack Crow.
With a great outlaw name, James Woods plays the leather jacket clad, crossbow armed vampire hunter, Jack Crow. He is the prolific head slayer who was raised by the church, except he doesn’t act like he has ever step foot in one. His mouth moves a mile a minute spewing all sorts of colorful language. He is a hotshot with a big ego and no patience for authority of any kind. Woods’ great sense of humor is what keeps him from being so big an asshole that we end up hating him, especially with his antagonistic relationship with his team’s priest (played by Tim Guinee). Guinee is not used to Woods’ kind of bravado. Surprised even. His nativity melts in Woods’ company and eventually develops Woods’ sense of cynicism.
I find the movie’s attempt at defining the first vampire to be very interesting. If I remember correctly, I believe the first vampire, named Valek, was a priest who was present for an exorcism. When the demon was expelled, it had jumped into Valek thus creating the vampire. Now, he searches for the black crucifix that was used in that exorcism that could be used to grant him the ability to walk among the daylight, and his vampire disciples by extension. Valek is a very quiet individual always with a subtle look of satisfaction as he disposes of humans after they outlive their purposes. He has a Euro-trash presence about him, but he is still a very bad ass vampire. It kind of mixes the ’80s Near Dark vampire with the classic Dracula-style vampire. What makes him feel even more ferocious is Carpenter’s use of gore. It is well-constructed set pieces of mangled bodies torn to pieces. It is also well-timed throughout the film. It breaks the silence or happier tone without feeling like too much of a jump-scare.
Vampires is a fun movie, one that delivers horror and action thrills. It creates a great vampire mythology and puts a modern cowboy archetype up against it. James Woods isn’t at his most compelling but certainly his most entertaining.