John Carpenter's Vampires
1998, R, 107 min. Directed by John Carpenter. Starring James Wood, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee, Gregory Sierra, Mark Boone Junior.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 30, 1998
James Woods as a fearless vampire slayer? Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer as an undead seductress? Daniel Baldwin unimpeded by stimulants? Is there anything John Carpenter can't do? Well, yes, actually: He can't get this film to rise above its comic-book level plotting and inane dialogue. Based on John Steakley's novel Vampire$, Carpenter's version jettisons much of the Vatican-as-Global-Overseer subplotting and instead pares the action down to its most basic level, that of a modern-day vampiric Western (which in itself sounds like a pretty nifty idea). Too bad everybody except Woods plays it so straight: Baldwin's earnest-though-lumpy features and delivery make for some of the goofiest lines around this Halloween season, and Griffith's dark prince of evil is essentially Frank Langella with a makeover and a bad attitude. Woods plays Jack Crow, the head of a Vatican-ordained group of professional vampire slayers who search the Southwest turning up “nests” of the creepy-crawlies and dragging them out into the daylight (via a winch attached to a Jeep Cherokee) to meet their richly deserved ends. When the group is slaughtered one night while busy making merry with some Vatican-ordained whores and liquor, survivors Crow and right-hand-man Tony Montoya (Baldwin) grab freshly bitten whore Katrina (Lee) and wait for her to flip over to the dark side so that they can use her to telepathically track down the master vampire Valek (Griffith). Carpenter makes good use of the New Mexican locales -- a posse of the pulse-impeded arising from the desert soil packs a resounding wallop -- and Woods, god bless him, is sterling as the hyper, wisecracking Crow, all black-leather-jacket and Ray-Ban panache and crossbow-packing sinew. Trouble is, the rest of the cast is as disposable as a Flintstones Band-Aid on a severed jugular; try though they might, Baldwin and Lee are eminently forgettable here, despite Carpenter's deeply submerged subplot involving a living-dead love triangle and some obscure AIDS metaphors. For all its violent chutzpah, Vampires fails to affect the ice-cubes-in-the-blood reaction of even Interview With the Vampire, and the trouble lies in Carpenter's over-the-top dynamics. The film moves relentlessly, leaving you with less a sense of scenes and sequences passing than of pages turning: It really is a comic book, come to think of it. Severed heads and spurting arteries do not a quality horror film make. You'd think the director of Halloween would have been able to keep that in mind, but it just isn't so. It's interesting, though, to think of double-billing Woods' Crow with Pacino's Prince of Darkness from Devil's Advocate: Scenery-chewing never looked so good.