This is the last week before the 24th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival begins on Thursday, August 20th. Since John Carpenter will be the recipient of Fantasia’s Lifetime Achievement Award, I’ve decided to review the movie that brought him to Fantasia back on its third edition in 1998. Yes, Vampires actually got its International Premiere on Fantasia that year with Carpenter as a guest! Consider this an extension of my John Carpenter series, which I actually started without knowing he’d be the honored guest this year.
Vampires (1998) was directed by John Carpenter with a screenplay by Don Jakoby based upon the novel by John Steakly. It’s a genre film true and true and has a lot of commonalities with an actual western, including setting, music and revenge plot. James Woods plays Jack Crow, a vampire slayer employed by the Catholic Church to hunt down and slay vampires. When we first meet him, he and his associate Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) are leading a team of mercenaries to a vampire nest – an abandoned house that vampires use to sleep during daylight.
After a successful hunt, the team celebrates with booze, hookers and trashing the motel they’re staying at. However, they are caught by surprise by a master vampire named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffin) who kills everyone in sight with ease. Left alive are Jack, Montoya and a hooker named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who was bitten but has not turned. Jack and Montoya take Katrina hoping she’ll develop a telepathic link to the master and lead them to him. Jack sends Montoya ahead while he burns the place down. When Jack contacts the Church, he’s told to form a new team starting with rookie priest Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee).
I don’t hate this movie but I’m not it’s biggest fan. It’s not in my top ten favorites of Carpenter’s. It does have a lot of classical western staples. There are many standoff-like scenes in which characters are just standing posing for the camera or looking cool or just trading one-liners trying to out-bad-ass each other. That being said, Jack Crow is a John Carpenter anti-hero archetype and a very engaging at that. James Woods does deliver a solid performance but let’s face it, he’s basically playing himself.
The most problematic and deaf-tone aspect of the film concerns Sheryl Lee’s character, Katrina. She spends most of the film being tied up, unconscious or suffering some sort of bad acid trip due to her connection with Valek. Montoya literally strips her naked, ties her to a bed and gags her (because…). When she wakes up in this sorry state, Montoya tells her she has to trust him. I still don’t get why she helps them – or when she eventually seems to cooperate. I don’t think she’s ever asked. This aspect of the story has really aged poorly.
The story’s pacing is a also a problem. If this was a non-stop action it would have some redeemable qualities since characters would be acting out of poor desperation. Instead, there’s plenty of chances and opportunities for characters to stop and reconsider. It doesn’t ever feel like the stakes are raised. I’ve always felt the ending needed a bit more of an edge. Yes, Jack gets to face Valek but with a ton of vampires still remaining it doesn’t look wise to let some go free or to go into a nest with only Father Guiteau as backup.
Despite its flaws and the weak ending, it has some charm. The character of Jack Crow, an envoy of the church with a mercenary streak and a bad attitude does have a lot of charm. Thomas Ian Griffin’s Valek does embody the big bad vampire stereotype and seems like a really overpowered antagonist. You have some engaging characters to make it worth your while and you care what happens to them knowing what you know about vampires.
Lightly recommended as a standard genre film slightly above the B-genre only to fans of the filmmaker. The first half seems to deliver more badass moments than the second one. Casual viewers might want something with a little more action and a lot more gore. Carpenter fans will still find something they enjoy, although I don’t believe this is top shelf considering the rest of his filmography. In the end, I still consider this a Carpenter film but not one that I’d judge as a classic. I still feel the ending needed a lot more bite.
That will do for now.