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John Carpenter's 'Vampires'

After the bizarre and complicated history to this film, it now looks as though UK cinema audiences will finally get a chance to see this great movie some time in the summer. We at Bloodstone cannot recommend it highly enough. If you are fortunate enough to see it then you will doubtless be a very contented vampire! With varying reports of the film's merits and faults from around the globe, via both word of mouth and comments in magazine reviews, the anticipation has become somewhat muted of late. So having finally managed to see the film we are delighted to present the following appraisal.

Based – rather loosely in many ways – on John Steakley's 1990 novel 'Vampire$', it tells the tale of a conflict between good and evil which is being played out in the mid western United States to this day. A conflict which involves a gang of bounty hunters on the side of the good and the Catholic Church on the side of the evil. Yes, this is no ordinary vampire movie.

The twin satellites of the film are Jack Crow – leader of the slayers – and Jan Valek, 600 year old leader of the ultra-cool vamps. Whilst the audience's sympathies are thrown constantly all over the place, these two battle it out to the inevitable death. James Woods' Jack Crow is not exactly a likeable hero – cold, violent, foul-mouthed and horribly distant from most human emotions – but he is a believable one. In the face of all he has suffered and experienced, it is small wonder that he is such a bleak character. Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith – 'Excessive Force') on the other hand is hard not to admire. His fluid grace and humour provide a start contrast to Crow's passionless butchery, and though Valek is by far the more senselessly savage of the two, he carries it all off with such panache that it is impossible to feel real revulsion towards him.

This is the crux of the film's success and power: it offers up Crow as a hero figure but makes him impossible to really like; and suggests Valek as the villain whilst painting him up as larger than life and hopelessly alluring. Sure, a vampire fan watching a film like this is bound to side with the vamps, but it is difficult to do otherwise when the vampires possess all the beauty, humour and cunning in the film. They might all get obliterated by the end – there are very few vampire films where this isn't the case! – but they put up a spirited and enjoyable fight for a very long time before turning to dust.

The film's opening scene in New Mexico is highly reminiscent of the dusty and deserted highways seen in the 1996 'From Dusk till Dawn'. Even the musical score (composed by Carpenter) has that unmistakeable 'FDTD' feel about it. The apparent Tarantino influence is played up even further when main man Jack Crow and his motley crew of vampire hunters, working on behalf of the Vatican, prepare to enter the 'nest' in order to exterminate the undead inhabitants, and Crow says "Let's get to work". Though it is really there that these similarities begin and end. This colourful assortment of hunters, known collectively as Team Crow – which include a Catholic priest, a somewhat obese guy sporting an inverted cross t-shirt and even a native American Indian – tote guns, crossbows, stakes and spears topped with powerful lamps to penetrate the darkness of the nest – and needless to say they don't take any prisoners! As Crow's team approach the dilapidated building the 'cowboys in the Wild West' clichι is very apparent. Carpenter states: "I've always wanted to do a vampire movie. This book 'Vampire$' really did some things I'd never seen before and with 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. 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."

Once inside the nest, extreme caution is the order of the day. This film does deliver when it comes to gore and violence and is really quite nasty in places, although it should be mentioned that these vamps do take some killing. The special effects are excellent as the 'goons' – the derogatory term the hunters give to new-born vampires – are dragged out into the desert sun where they promptly burst into flames. These scenes may well cause concern for some of you with a more delicate constitution where our immortal brethren are concerned. Following the destruction and subsequent decapitation of the nest's nine inhabitants it becomes obvious to Crow that the Master – for every nest has one – was not amongst their number.

The vampire slayers celebrate their victory at the appropriately named Sun God Motel with a party complete with hookers supplied by the local sheriff. Amongst the girls, another motley bunch of mortals, is Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who takes a particular liking to Crow. Of course the celebration is a little presumptuous and is soon cut short by the arrival of the outraged Master – enter Valek. Draped from head to foot in black, this six feet five inches tall figure sporting full length flowing coat, shirt, trousers and waistcoat is one very beautiful and intensely dangerous vampire. As the film's producer Sandy King (Carpenter's wife) puts it: "Thomas moves like a panther. He exudes a sexuality that can overcome the grave. We wanted somebody incredibly handsome whom we could decay and would still have charisma. I was sitting in my office when a shadow filled the doorway backlit by the Southern California sunshine. One of the things I look for in a casting is how other people react, and when Thomas walked through that door, everybody went 'Whoa!' – men and women alike!" Carpenter further endorses his wife's comments adding: "There's no one else who has the power and stature that Thomas has. He is Valek." The anti-heroic Valek is certainly no gothic romantic figure, though his magnetism and screen domination are beyond doubt.

So as Katrina waits for Crow in his room, Valek is waiting for Katrina. The powerful Master swoops upon his prey and quickly drinks from her upper inner thigh: as the camera pans around to Katrina's visage it is obvious that Valek's helpless victim is in the throes of sexual ecstasy. Then the slaughter of mortals commences as Valek wreaks vengeance for his exterminated kindred. A sharp fingernailed hand penetrates the stomach of one and tears upward through his body tearing him in two – a scene reminiscent of Louis' slaughter of Santiago in the climax of 'Interview with the Vampire'. Valek is one mean and nasty motherfucker of a vampire and his relentless blood-drenched massacre of almost all of Crow's team is both brutal and excessive – and we loved every minute! Despite the seemingly endless rounds of gun fire nothing is going to stop this Lord of the Undead. Crow and Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin – 'Mulholland Falls' and the 1993 remake of 'Attack of the 50-foot Woman') manage to evade the slaughter and escape, and taking the beginning-to-turn Katrina with them drive at speed into the dawn of a new day. Securing Montoya and Katrina in a downtown hotel, Crow returns to the scene of the previous night's carnage at the Sun God Motel and begins the grisly task of cleaning up by decapitating all of his team – as well as the hookers – 19 bodies in total, before finally setting fire to the motel and burying the heads. Now who said being a vampire hunter was easy?

Crow journeys to see Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) and learns that his team were not the only ones wiped out. His colleague Callaghan and his band of merry men were hunting vampires in Cologne, West Germany and also suffered extermination at the hands of the undead, so the scores now stand at Vampires 2 Mortals 1! It is during this scene that we learn that this Master is "the original, the source of the disease. The first vampire, created by the Catholic Church", a former priest called Jan Valek. Born in Prague in 1311, he grew up in the priesthood (as did Crow) but turned against it, leading an uprising of Bohemian peasants which proved moderately successful, capturing several towns before being quashed. Tried for heresy, he was burned at the stake, but after his death rumours were rife that he had been seen walking at night. His grave was opened and – what a surprise! – it was found to be empty. His plan since then has been to complete the transformation which started all those centuries ago: to transcend the vulnerabilities inherent in being a vampire and to obtain the ability to walk in the daylight as well.

Crow is alarmed that Valek knew his name and he becomes convinced that his team were set up. Crow is a complex character: having lived through the conversion to vampirism of both his parents, he is the Vatican's most dedicated slayer. He knows his stuff and he knows his vampires. Following his meeting with the Cardinal and with a new priest, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), in tow, he makes his way back to the hotel. En route Crow stops the truck and attempts to beat some information from Guiteau regarding the possibility that he was set up. An unsuccessful effort perhaps but nevertheless a wholly good kicking. When the two resume their journey Crow cannot resist sarcastically asking Guiteau if the beating game him wood! As he tries to succinctly explain to the new priest: "Have you ever seen a vampire? First of all they're not romantic. It's not like they're a bunch of fucking fags hopping around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents. Forget everything you ever saw in the movies. They don't turn into bats, crosses don't work, they don't sleep in coffins lined in taffeta. Sunlight turns them into crispy critters." Practical at all times, Crow faces the unusual every day of his life, and to say that it has soured him is to put it mildly. Indeed Woods himself reckons that the idea of vampires existing in the world outside of movie theatres isn't quite as preposterous as it may sound. "Consider those thousands of people who end up on milk cartons every year. Where do they go? Just suppose they were vampirised." (Note: the milk carton idea is something that has been used in the US for a number of years in the hope of finding the missing.)

It is during this journey that we learn of Valek's search for an ancient relic, the Berziers Cross, which would give the nocturnal bloodsucker, and all the vampires that succeeded him, the power to walk in daylight. As Father Adam points out, "a Master vampire able to walk in the sun [would be] unstoppable". The similarities to the desire of Deacon Frost in 'Blade' are obviously apparent – this seems to be the one desire of all modern vamps, to overcome the final limitation to their nature.

Meanwhile back at the hotel, Katrina is bound and gagged naked to a bed – very kinky – as her transformation into a creature of the night begins. The idea behind holding her is simple – all the while she is 'turning' she has a telepathic link to Valek which will aid the hunters in locating and finally destroying him. Well, that's the theory anyway. Perhaps better known for her role as Laura Palmer in David Lynch's surreal foray into television 'Twin Peaks' and the equally odd but excellent 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with me', Lee's superb performance throughout the film is laden with a profound abundance of sexuality. Certainly her character being a hooker is partly responsible for this heavily weighted streak and it doesn't take an over-active imagination to see this sexual side develop yet further throughout her transformation. In fact to prepare for her role Lee connected to the concept of vampires in a very real and visceral way. "I felt very raw, I started working with hunger – not eating all day until I was so hungry I couldn't stand it – then going past it and eating a medium rare steak, seeing it pink and opening those primal, instinctual places. It's not just 'I'm hungry', it's 'I have to have that piece of meat!' This coming from someone who was a vegetarian for four or five years!" As if that wasn't enough Lee was also the resident vampire historian on the set. "I've got all the vampire books. What a vampire represents is our most primal instincts – all of the stuff that we're not allowed to do, all the stuff that's bad and wrong. It's survival, blood, the life force, the hunger, the desire, the passion, the need. It's immortality. That's why vampires are so romantic, the mystique, the myth, because there's so much seduction involved in vampirism." Sexual elements aside Lee's portrayal is equally dominated by abject fear and abhorrence at the changes taking place within her. One cannot help but feel a degree of pity for this tormented mortal, especially given her rough treatment by Jack Crow. When darkness falls Katrina begins to see through her mind's eye all that Valek sees and does, no matter how disturbing or violent. Understandably perturbed by these visions, Katrina attempts to escape the hotel – or commit suicide? – and as Montoya stops her they crash through the hotel window cutting open his arm, which sends Katrina into a bloodied frenzy and she bites him.

When Crow finally arrives back at the hotel Montoya keeps silent about being bitten by Katrina who is now sleeping peacefully. When she awakens another vision through Valek's eyes ensues. At the beginning of a new day the three hunters come up with a plan and set about putting it into action.

That night as the sun sets in the desert sky, Valek and his hoard of vampires arise slowly like zombies from the ground in a manner highly reminiscent of a George A Romero 'Living Dead' movie. The special effects here are both very well executed and convincing. In fact convincing is exactly the right word since Thomas and the seven other actors were actually buried under a foot of desert sand! They were given specially designed boxes which allowed the actors and actresses to breathe, although Griffith (who suffers from claustrophobia) was quick to comment "It was quite an experience, but not one I want to repeat again". It's a fair comment that vampires arising from the ground makes for a nice change on celluloid and is surely far more practical in the modern world than a coffin. Of course the trouble with this method of avoiding sunlight does mean that one becomes very dirty and dusty! Having fully arisen the eight vampires begin walking purposefully towards the camera. As they do there is once again that very 'Wild West' pastiche as they make their way to the monastery which holds the object that Valek seeks – the Berziers Cross. The visually effective brutal slaying of the monastery monks is expertly carried out and since they are all dressed in habits the almost obligatory 'burning-monk-in-the-throes-of-death' scene is also included for good measure. Which makes a nice change from burning vampires! Crow and company arrive on the scene, albeit a little late to save the children of the Lord, but are they too late to stop Valek getting his claws on the ancient Cross?

A new dawn sees Team Crow 2 attempting to find Valek's hiding place from the hot desert sun and as they drive to the suspected location the film's music seems to have a distinctive Dario Argento 'Suspiria' influence to it. Upon reaching their destination, the deserted town with its wide, open street holds that very Western 'vampire fight at the Santiago Corral' feeling, made all the more atmospheric with suitably subtle Wild West music! As Woods (whose previous acting credits include Martin Scorsese's 'Casino', 'Contact', Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' and David Cronenberg's classic 'Videodrome') so aptly puts it "we're hunting vampires instead of whoever the bad guys were in classic Western cinema. 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 out braving the ultimate challenge. It's 'The Wild Bunch' meets vampires!" Yet for those of you out there perhaps not into the Western movie genre this point is perhaps a little academic and one need not be an appreciator of these films to be totally enthralled by this one.

If one can compare the most recent Hollywood vampire blockbuster 'From Dusk til Dawn' (a somewhat misunderstood film in the vampire world perhaps?) then there are a number of subtle similarities throughout the film, yet much of this is due mainly to the similar locations which both movies use. Whether or not you liked 'FTDT' you should still like John Carpenter's 'Vampires'.

Overall this is perhaps not – as has been noted elsewhere – a good John Carpenter movie, but it's a bloody good vampire movie. Valek's actual screen time is relatively short – we're not anal enough to give you a minute count! – but he dominates all of his scenes with a great deal of physical presence and an even greater deal of magnetic power. Just as Christopher Lee's portrayal of the Romanian Count in the good old days of Hammer Horror was kept to a minimum, so is Valek's, but are these not the scenes best remembered? In a similar way that perhaps Brad Pitt's performance as Louis in the Anne Rice epic was actually outshone by Tom Cruise's Lestat. The reason being that sometimes less is better: if you constantly see the bad guy he becomes the hero, or anti-hero. Giving them less screen time is perhaps the key, the mystery remains, the darkness is always hiding some sinister secret. A fine example of this is Radu in the 'Subspecies' series: you never see enough of him, he always leaves you wanting more. After all, they are the vampires, are they not? Dark, sexual, mysterious and deadly – Valek is all these things. John Carpenter hit the nail on the proverbial coffin. See it soon – it's different, it's sexy, it's violent, it's bloody. It's a fucking good vampire film.

see also on this site: John Steakley

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Email: louisianax@yahoo.co.uk