Vampires remains one of the more underwhelming entries in the legend’s filmography.
While the prospect of John Carpenter making a vampire movie is a the kind of genre exercise many cinephiles salivate over, Vampires remains one of the more underwhelming entries in the legend’s filmography. It’s an entertaining experiment, no doubt, the kind that plays well in reruns on Showtime, but one that’s woefully miscast and hard to wrestle with.
The film began as a work-for-hire project adapting John Steakley’s cornily named novel “Vampire$” about a blue-collar group of vampire-hunting mercenary types. In the material, Carpenter saw an opportunity to try his hand at a modern-day western masquerading as a horror thriller, allowing him to stretch his legs stylistically under the umbrage of how studios and the mainstream saw his work. The result is a film intended as an homage to Howard Hawks that nonetheless feels trashier and blunter than the classics Carpenter was echoing.
Much of this comes down to the casting of James Woods in the lead as Jack Crow, a character who, on paper, is exactly the kind of smart-mouthed, take-no-shit protagonist at the helm of Carpenter’s best outings. There’s no debate that Woods has the necessary belly fire and savagery for the part, as Crow is supposed to be something of a scenery-chewing hothead. But he’s also such an average-seeming shitbag that he completely sinks the picture surrounding him. Perhaps someone with Kurt Russell’s charm or Roddy Piper’s size might have been too outsized for Carpenter’s approach, but slumming it with someone like Woods seems a step too far.
The film is not without its charms, however. The rugged camaraderie of Crow’s crew, with standouts like Daniel Baldwin among the collective, feels like the core of a ramshackle television pilot waiting to happen, grounding the sense of The Wild Bunch-esque ensemble Carpenter was trying to form. There’s something workmanlike about the film’s first act. It sets up these men and their lives like a reality show with an “Ice Road Truckers” lead-in before slashing and burning the redshirts to make way for the picture to come.
But once the gears shift and the big, bad Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) takes center stage, the brutality with which Carpenter imbues the immortal creatures impresses on a gore-loving gut level, but it isn’t novel or daring enough to sustain the rest of the film. The film’s narrative weaving in church conspiracies and desert-ridden survival drama just doesn’t have the same heft other similar Carpenter films possess, even if there’s a certain puerile glee to Vampires’ inherent sleaziness. With about 30% more sex, it could be a serviceable Skinemax flick, something the later sequels come closer to realizing. But as it stands, the film is little more than an entertaining curio.
Vampires stands out as something of a missed opportunity with regards to the marriage of auteur with iconic genre staple, but if anything, it also makes for a great reverse double feature with the follow-up Ghosts of Mars, where this film’s bedrock pulpiness feels downright classical compared to that space-faring oddity’s bugfuck insanity.