Last night I rewatched John Carpenter’s Vampires for the first time in maybe fifteen years, which probably indicates what I think of it. I first saw the film back in… well, it was likely 1998, because it was a R1 DVD that I bought before the film had even had its theatrical release here in the UK. Those were the heady, rather intoxicating days of R1 DVD players and delayed International roll-outs of movies. This time around, it was a Blu-ray edition from Indicator, which Amazon reliably informs me I purchased back in 2017… and which I haven’t watched until now. Clearly, I have a bit of a problem with Carpenter’s Vampires.
The sad thing is, I lay all the blame here on John Carpenter, and I’m writing this as a huge fan of both him and his movies. Over the years he has made some great movies and most of them have likely made a fortune on various home formats – his films are loved by fans. Not just admired but genuinely LOVED. And the guy himself, although obviously I’ve never met him, seems a nice, laid-back, down to Earth and unassuming guy with an extraordinary talent for making cool genre films. And, perhaps more importantly, for making genre films cool.
But Vampires isn’t one of them. The problems are manifold, the bad far outweighing the good. Chiefly, for once it seems Carpenter is undone by his budget, which is odd because he usually thrived under the pressure of limited resources and time, but here he finally succumbs. Final takes look like first or second takes, the interior sets are some of the shakiest I have ever seen, the largely b-movie cast so woefully wooden they give the stakes and coffins a run for their money. Worst of all, the composition of the shots (always one of Carpenters strengths, his films really shining in widescreen once the bad old days of pan and scan were left behind) is terribly poor. There seems little ambition- the usual low-angle tracking shots, so effective in films like The Thing, The Fog and Halloween are simply awol here. Maybe the cheap sets made them impossible but there’s no indication of that eye Carpenter always had. The craft is absent, the ambition and imagination missing. Indeed, the better (and most visually interesting) shots look suspiciously like second-unit work, such as the make-up/special effects footage of the vampires crawling out of the earth and some of the stunts (the captured vampires being yanked out into the sunlight to burst into flame, for instance).
Frustratingly, the script shows sign of promise, but what should be a scary horror movie seems to be upturned into a modern-day Western, Carpenter hijacking a film to satiate his foiled ambitions to make a Western. James Woods is woefully miscast- he’s a fiery character actor but hardly up to an action lead more fitted for Roddy Piper, Keith David or someone similarly larger than life. Instead, Woods would have been perfect -absolutely perfect- as the crooked priest played here by Maximilian Schell; he’d have torn the scenery up as the priest who betrays God to join the master vampire Valek. I want to see THAT movie! He’d have been brilliant in a role largely wasted on Schell. Instead Woods looks out of sorts, uncomfortable in a physical role unsuited to him (Carpenters framing of shots does him few favours in this respect). Mind, Woods does look excellent compared to Daniel Baldwin playing his vampire-hunter buddy Montoya: Baldwin is excruciatingly bad here, I’ve seen chairs that stand more convincingly than him, and Conservative and Labour MPs with more chemistry together than Baldwin and poor Sheryl Lee as Katrina, a hooker turned-vampire who serves as some bizarro love interest for wooden plank Baldwin.
To be fair to the thespians, maybe the fault lies in Carpenter whose heart was alarmingly just not in it; really, this is the Carpenter equivalent of a modern Bruce Willis movie, and an indication of what was to come. He’d make one more movie three years later (the dismal Ghosts of Mars) and then one more in 2010 (The Ward, which I watched once and promptly forgot) before finally calling it a day. His slide in quality was so pronounced that his fans can be forgiven for being thankful he didn’t make any more. I often wish I would hear news of Carpenter getting back behind a camera and making a great movie like in the good old days but maybe his (unofficial?) retirement really is for the best. I’d be fascinated to learn what happened, but suspect he simply grew out of love with making movies. They are hard work, and the way the business was going even back in his day, it was just getting harder. I believe Carpenter has paid his dues and owes us fans nothing anyway: the films we have are enough, but I could certainly do without Vampires.
2 thoughts on “These Vampires still suck”
Insightful post for sure, I am such an ignorant cooze I wasn’t even aware of a slide toward the end for John Carpenter. That is a shame, though like you said in the twilight of his career he had no apologies to owe anyone. It’s weird though how maybe sometimes filmmakers, like athletes, just don’t know when to hang it up. On pure speculation, perhaps Carpenter kept pushing through the directorial equivalent of writer’s block.
His last genuinely strong spell was Big Trouble in little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) – three really good films in a pretty incredible three-year span (how many other directors can cite a record like that?), but he tailed off after that. A lot of it was the business of film-making, I’m sure, as JC was always a bit ‘out of the system’ preferring to make his own films on his own terms. Every director has a right to a bad day at the office, as there will always be things outside their control (Fincher with Alien 3, for instance, Spielberg with 1941, Ridley Scott has a few simply because of how busy the guy is) and there’s a few films of JCs I don’t really care much for, but the quality of his films really tailed off in the 1990s and after that decade he was pretty much done (his one good film in that decade is In the Mouth of Madness). It remains a sad and mystifying decline- rewatching Vampires was pretty sad comparing it to his amazing work in the 1970s and 1980s, it was like a film from some totally different director.