Reviewed by Van T. Tran
Special Edition DVD
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, pan&scan, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Digital Stereo, French Digital Stereo, subtitles: English, French, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 108 min., $24.95, street date 2/9/99.
Directed by John Carpenter. Starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Tim Guinee, Maximilian Schell.
Forget everything you've ever heard about vampires, warns Jack Crow (James Woods), the leader of Team Crow, a relentless group of mercenary vampire slayers. When Master Vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) decimates Jack's entire team, Crow and the sole team survivor, Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), set out in pursuit. Breaking all the rules, Crow and Montoya take one of Valak's victims hostage.
The beautiful but unlucky prostitute (Sheryl Lee) is their sole psychic link to Valek, and through her senses they will track down the leader of the undead. As Valek nears the climax of his 600-year search for the Berbers Cross, Jack and the new Team Crow do everything humanly possible to prevent him from possessing the only thing that can grant him and all vampires the omnipotent power to walk in the daylight.
The film is based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley.
"I've always wanted to do a vampire movie," states John Carpenter, director of John Carpenter's Vampires. "This book, Vampire$, came along and it really did some things I'd never seen before. It's set in the American Southwest and has certain western elements to it. I decided this would be the perfect chance to do something different.
"Part of the theme is the dualistic irony of the good guys and the bad guys. It has all the classic ideas that you've seen in a vampire movie-the humans versus the vampires, the hidden sexuality, the idea of blood. All that's at work in this film. But in essence, I've always loved westerns, and one of the reasons I'm doing this movie is that this is the closest I've come to being able to do a western." "It's been said that all of John's movies are westerns," adds producer Sandy King. "If you substitute the situations-urban or period or space or, in this case, the southwest with vampires-and you instead think Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, what you see is that John very much follows in his idol's footsteps."
"It's about hunting vampires instead of whomever the bad guys of the day were in classic western cinema," offers James Woods. "We have set pieces in this movie that are homages to the early works of Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah, with the Henry Fondas and John Waynes and William Holdens out braving the ultimate challenge. It's The Wild Bunch meets vampires."
"The vampire slayers are gunslingers, and the vampires are gunslingers in their own way," says Thomas Ian Griffith, the actor who won the plum role of master vampire Valek. "John's taken the western and added dark overtones we haven't seen before."
It may be hard to envision vampires clashing with slayers in a western setting, but under John Carpenter's direction, it becomes very natural and real. James Woods' description of a scene helps bring the idea into focus: "Daniel Baldwin and I come into the town of Santiago on a wide, open street," explains Woods. "There's nobody around, but there are signs that somebody was there. It's quiet. We take out our guns and look around. I signal him. He signals back to cover me when I go into this little bar. There's about a minute or so where the tension reads that our characters are going to be slaughtered right there. All of a sudden, we realized it was Rio Bravo."
John Carpenter's Vampires is a nasty, mindless, and gory romp of a good time. It's one of those guilty pleasure B-movies where logic is forced to hit the road and gave way to some cheap thrills and uninhibited escapism. It's also one of the more tasteless and political incorrect movies in recent memory. Where else do you find scenes that show priests getting mangled and decapitated, religion is defamed and denounced by a Cardinal, gratuitious nudity involving bondage, and a female co-star who acts helplessly for the entire movie and often gets smacked around by her male counterparts. All of which should make me get up and return the disc, except that I was having too much fun. I've to give John Carpenter some credits for pushing the envelope and making no apologies in the process. Don't get me wrong, I am obviously not advocating that decapitating priests and smacking women are right or that we need to see more of it, that's not the point, but I would also deem the viewers that could not seperate fact from fiction more frightening than anything that's shown on the screen. John Carpenter's Vampires is so silly and ludicrous that no one could possibly take it seriously, except to enjoy the visceral impact and abandon all plausibilities if you that's in your blood.
Viewers inevitably will want to draw comparison with Vampires and Blade, so I'll give you my thoughts on this. I enjoyed both movies and both have its merits and flaws. Blade has more than twice the budget and as such allows for some very cool special effects and glossy production design. The character has the origin based on a comic book adaptation and the movie has that underlining tone with a built-in audience that the filmmakers need to keep in mind. Whereas in Vampires, it is much more gritty, brutal, and just down right sleazy. Even though the movie is based on a novel, there's little expectation and John Carpenter can infuse the vampire mythology whichever way he desires. Carpenter borrowed loosely from the vampire genre of the past and also created his own unique and inventive approach. The vampire-slayers are a bunch of grubby Vatican mercenaries that pack enough arsenals and ammunitions to invade a small country. Jack Crow, the leader, is one tough guy with one single purpose -- to hunt down all vampires -- but he's no superhero. His weapon of choice is a heavy duty crossbow with arrows that have a string attached to a jeep so they can reel the vampires out to sunlight for some barbecue combustion. How many times have you seen that before? I haven't and that's why I find Vampires to be more interesting and ironically funny. Blade has the sword-clashing scenes in the beginning and end that audiences really dig, but the style and choreography are mimicked from the Hong Kong martial art films that I've been exposed to many times before and are done ten times better. Overall, I find Vampires less pretentious and more edgy.
Where Blade excels is on the DVD production with the kick-ass supplemental materials, whereas Vampires includes only the commentary by Carpenter and a trailer. That for me is sufficient as Vampires is not a movie that you would want to spend too much time with. Carpenter's commentary is fairly enjoyable and he basically reinforces the scenes with some interesting production tidbits here and there. It's nowhere near to the hooting commentary on The Thing with Kurt Russell and the director, which ranks as one of the most fun-filled insights. A Photo Gallery was previously announced on press release and shown on the back cover, but is omitted at the last moment due to mediocre quality. That's no big loss as I find these features quite useless anyway.
The presentation follows the theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. Not only that, but the studio takes the extra effort and shows much consideration to consumers by including a pan and scan version on the opposite side. The transfer is clean of dirts and not marred by compression artifacts. Images are a tad soft, but colors are well saturated with natural fleshtones. Blacks are bold with well defined shadow details, which are crucial as most scenes appear at night or inside poorly lit interiors. The picture is shot with dusky filters that lend a reddish glow that imbues the scenes with an omnimous and supernatural look. The makeup and prosthetics effects are quite good and naturally gruesome. A memorable scene shows a man splitted in half with blood gushing all over during the hotel massacre. The movie is, however, not terribly frightening or spellbinding.
The encoded 5.1 soundtrack boasts a spacious soundstage that contains an active imaging and panning effect. Sound effects are precisely localized and evenly dispersed for an engaging environment. The soundtrack is dominated by music of barroom blues and heavily synthesized Western tune composed by Carpenter in the manner of Dimitri Tiomkin. But Tiomkin he is not and the movie is made less enjoyable by Carpenter's annoying electronic guitar and plain old boring and monotomous synthesizer for a very aggravating experience.
Finally, the anti-climactic showdown is a huge disappointment, which seems to have patched quickly together. The battle took about two minutes and the way Crow managed to kill the Master vampire is less than gratifying. The bloodsoaked trip to get there will, however, satisfy most horror fans.