Monday, July 1, 2013

John Carpenter: Vampires

“You ever seen a vampire? No... Well first of all, they're not romantic. Its not like they're a bunch of fuckin' fags hoppin' around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents, all right? Forget whatever you've seen in the movies: they don't turn into bats, crosses don't work. Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata WHILE he's suckin' the blood outta your neck, all right? And they don't sleep in coffins lined in taffeta. You wanna kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through his fuckin' heart. Sunlight turns 'em into crispy critters. Got it?”

Prior to sitting down and watching Vampires last week, I for the life of me couldn’t remember the plot —all I could remember was that this was “the one with all of the dissolves in it.” Granted, it’s also the one with the really great performance from James Woods. But there wasn’t much that I remembered about the film, but damn if I didn’t have a lot of fun watching it again for this retrospective.Vampires has a down and dirty (I just love the way that the un-PC and self-aware dialogue at the head of this post gleefully flows from James Woods’ mouth) , B-movie kind of charm. I fully understand that not all of the elements work (especially the much maligned dissolves), but I don’t care, I really love Vampires, warts and all.

One thing we’ve discussed numerous times during this retrospective is Carpenter’s love for the western genre. He always wanted to make a western, but he always claimed that the market was never hot for the idea when he was a filmmaker, so he didn’t ever act on his desire. However, he always found a way to get elements of the western into his genre films: Assualt on Precinct 13 is a nice urbanized version of Rio Bravo, Escape from New York/LA and They Live are cult favorites that have protagonists modeled after the typical Hawks hero (not to mention Eastwood’s iconic The Man with No Name), and here in Vampires we once again have a classic Hawksian protagonist as well as the dusty Southwestern milieu, aesthetic flourishes that evoke Peckinpah, and classic western score. So, he finally got to make his western — albeit under the guise of a vampire film.

Carpenter’s film has a whopper of an opening as Jack Crow (Woods, in fine form) and his band of merry vampire slayers — globetrotting mercenaries for the Vatican — enter an old house and expel various vampires into the New Mexico sunlight. To celebrate, the crew head to a motel for a little booze and women, but their party is interrupted by a master vampire named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, best known, to me anyway, as the hammy villain from Karate Kid 3) who makes quick work of everyone in the motel with the exception of Crow and his partner Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee), who is bitten by Valek but saved so that she can give them information on where Valek is since apparently she has some kind of telepathic connection to him after being bitten.

Anyway, from this point on the film is pretty straight forward B-movie fare. Crow gets his assignment from the Vatican about who Valek is and what he’s seeking: an ancient cross that allows him to walk in daylight. Crow is stuck with wannabe vampire slayer Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) who is initiated into Crow and Montoya’s group and helps them take on Valek and his fellow master vampires (who all appear in a great scene reminiscent of the way zombies emerge from the dirt in an Italian zombie flick).

Okay, so the story isn’t what makes Vampire so likeable — although I did appreciate the trumped up dialogue — laced with that kind of pseudo Catholic Mythology found in the most enjoyable exploitation movies — about ancient vampires obtaining a cross that allows them to walk in the daylight, and behind-closed-doors exorcisms that go pear shaped; it’s all appropriately campy.  But what I really love about Vampires is that it revels in its over-the-top aesthetic and gore. Yes, there are a lot of dissolves, and I know a lot of people don’t like ‘em, but I thought they worked in the sense that Carpenter was going for that Peckinpah type feel. In an interview for the Starz Channel, Carpenter stated that Peckinpah was “a genius showoff director,” someone that likes to use a lot of camera tricks and style — basically the opposite of Howard Hawks, the man he fashioned all of his neo-westerns after.

Carpenter also utilizes these dissolves at the most random times because I think he’s just having some fun with the viewer, messing around with the conventions of narrative while taking the piss out of a beloved genre monster. This portends what he would take to even crazier, self-aware levels in Ghosts of Mars (with its multiple narratives and flashbacks within flashbacks). Carpenter hinted at being done with movie business after the failure of Escape from LA because, “it stopped being fun.” So, here we have Carpenter just having some fun. Yeah, the dissolves during the big massacre at the hotel and during the film’s climax (especially during this scene) really take the viewer out of the experience of the movie, but I’m not so certain Carpenter was all that concerned with making a traditional vampire film.

Carpenter makes it a point to show these vampires as feral killing machines, not some kind of ancient Gothic seducers of beautiful women that spend all of their time brooding on camera (essentially the Anne Rice vampire made even more popular today by the Twilight films). This is all made apparent during the scene (quoted at the top of this post) between Crow and Father Adam where Crow — drawing upon misconceptions created by clichés found in novels and films — de-mystifies the vampire. This wonderfully self-aware scene is a great commentary on the mopey, super-serious vampire films released during the ‘90s (Interview with a Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

The film is also really gory (Greg Nicotero was one of the makeup artists on the film) for a Carpenter film. In fact, Vampires is more akin (in both gore and dialogue, especially the cadence of Woods’ character) to the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Not since The Thing has Carpenter made a film this bloody. And I wonder if in his attempt to make this the complete opposite of Interview with a Vampire, Carpenter felt he needed to amp up the gore effects (which if you listen to the commentary track on the DVD, he doesn’t really find all that scary...just something audiences want). Again, it seems apparent that he wasn’t interested in making a classy or atmospheric vampire film; he was simply making a bloody vampire western. And the smartest thing Carpenter did for this bloody vampire western is find the right man to play his protagonist, Jack Crow: James Woods.

When you think leading man or here, your mind doesn’t usually go towards James Woods. He’s a non traditional hero to be sure, but he’s so perfect for this role. Carpenter stated in the same interview for Starz that Woods always wanted to play the badass with the shades and the gun rather than being relegated to lifelong supporting character, and I think pulls it off wonderfully. Like the aforementioned mention of the dialogue at the top of this post, or the way he utters the line, “If you don’t think I’ll kill you because you’re a priest, you’re seriously misjudging the wrong motherfucker!” Woods has this offbeat, endlessly watchable way about how he delivers these great tough-guy, B-movie lines.

There are a few actors that can immediately change my mood when I see them on screen, but James Woods is one of them. Whether it’s his slimy pimp Lester Diamond in Casino, the emasculated father of the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides (that small smile and look of pride/happiness when he sees Lux on stage as prom queen just kills me), or his extremely underrated and effective performance in the grimy little number Cop (proving just how valuable he can be as a leading man in these kind of genre films). He’s just such a watchable actor — he’s one of those actors that immediately gets my attention when I see his name in the credits of something.

The rest of the casting, though, just isn’t right. Baldwin, to the surprise of nobody I’m sure, is pretty terrible, and I’m surprised that Carpenter didn’t try and get someone like Keith David (who was so great in The Thing and They Live) or even some other professional wrestlers like he did with Roddy Piper to fill out the rest of Crow’s team of mercenaries. That would have at least made the film’s dreadfully soggy middle — wherein the film spends way too much time on Montoya falling in love with Katrina, who is slowly turning into a vampire — watchable. The middle of the film just doesn’t hold together as bridge between the film’s fantastic bookends (dissolves and all). And, sure, some of the action sequences do feel clunky — evidence of a filmmaker that had way too much time in post-production to tinker with his product — and don’t feel nearly as exciting as the aforementioned opening vampire hunting sequence (and subsequent post-motel massacre chase) or a setpiece near the end where Father Adam is sent into a building as bait and lures vampires into an elevator shaft (which is just a tremendously tense sequence).

Despite some of the film’s obvious shortcomings, there’s just so much to love here: the exploitation cheesiness, Woods’ performance, and cinematographer Gary Kibbe’s use of wide open Southwestern spaces. It has a cheeky attitude about it — the attitude of a filmmaker that doesn’t give a shit anymore — and that attitude allows the viewer not to take things so damn seriously. And by the way, that “doesn’t give a shit” attitude doesn’t mean Carpenter is phoning it in. I think this attitude that permeates from Carpenter’s Vampires and Ghosts of Mars is often misconstrued as ennui — a man that has completely lost his mind and passion and has simply given up on trying to make good movies.   I mean, after years of making personal films that made no money (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), working for the studios on films that meant nothing to him (Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and a career filled with great films (Prince of Darkness) unfairly maligned because they’re held up to the standards of Halloween, I think that he’s just concerned with making what gives him pleasure, so he doesn’t really give a shit what the detractors think.

Vampires is just a fun, goofy movie. This “have fun” attitude towards his filmmaking continued (and became even more blatant) with the hilariously tongue-in-cheek, genre mash-up (which is the first glimpse into the man’s love of video games) Ghosts of Mars — a film that is probably the most underrated and misunderstood of Carpenter’s oeuvre.


  1. Yeah, I wasn't crazy about Carpenter's use of the dissolve during the motel massacre, but it does work when he uses the dissolve montage technique during the sequence where Jack beheads and buries his slaughtered teammates. And to show what a tough guy Jack truly is, he torches the motel for good measure and Woods looks cool as he fulfills and tried and true action film cliché of walking away from a gigantic explosion.

    The problem I have with Jack and Montoya's mercurial relationship is that unlike in THE THING or THEY LIVE where you really felt that those guys were a legitimate threat to each other, in VAMPIRES, you never get the impression that Montoya would really truly challenge Jack and so their friction, at times, feels forced, or in one scene where they are actually about to get into it, Carpenter pulls things back.

    I also wanted to mention that Carpenter is so good at filming scenes with expositional dialogue and this is because of good writing and the right actor saying the words (think of Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN or Dennis Dun in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). Tim Guinee does a wonderful job imparting crucial information about Valek’s true intentions in an engaging way that takes us deeper into the film’s mythos.