More Western, Than Romance: A Review Of John Carpenter’s Vampires

by Rachel Bellwoar

Resembling an outlaw more than a cowboy, Vampires may be John Carpenter’s western but Jack Crow (James Wood) isn’t its hero. What’s left to unravel is whether the film’s trying to portray him as one. In a previously recorded commentary track, included on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-Ray, Carpenter (who also composed the film’s score) describes Crow as an anti-hero. He also calls him “as savage, in his own way, as the vampires are.”

If you know John Carpenter’s vampires, that’s no small statement. Hands-down the best part of the film, which was set and filmed in New Mexico, is how scary his bloodsuckers are. Led by Thomas Ian Griffith’s master vampire, Jan Valek (the first vampire created by the Catholic Church by mistake), there’s a weight and presence to these creatures because the film shows us how deadly they can be. Instead of building up to a massacre, Vampires leads with one.

They’re also hard to kill. Sometimes curiously hard (and if that were a line in the movie there would be innuendos galore) but at the same time Woods isn’t Buffy. He’s a slayer but doesn’t have superhuman strength or gymnastics training. The kills are sloppy. It takes them multiple attempts to hit a vampire’s heart. To get the vampires out in the sun they use a fishing method that’s not full proof. While it’s funny to see macho guys be trepidatious about entering a vampire “nest,” it means they take the threat seriously, too, and Carpenter’s vampires earn their reputation. Their kills are nasty (in a new interview with special effects artist, Greg Nicotero, he talks about some of the gags they created, including one with actor, Mark Boone Jr., that’s understandably a favorite) and their skin’s not just pale but tough.

There’s no question that the vampires in this movie are evil. That’s who they are – they can’t help it – but you almost end up rooting for them because the humans they’re up against are so crummy. They have no excuse yet, because they’ve taken on the burden of ridding the world of vampires, they get to be called anti-heroes instead of another word, not fit for print.

Sure, they live a lifestyle not unlike the bikers on Sons of Anarchy (of which Boone would become a cast member someday). A ton of anti-heroes drink and pay for women, but where Crow and his partner, Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), step too far is in the hardline they take with one of the prostitutes, Katrina (Twin PeaksSheryl Lee). One minute, Crow intends to sleep with her, the next she’s “a piece of shit,” and it’s all because she’s attacked and bitten by Valek against her will. Instead of seeing Katrina as a victim, they strip her of her humanity (and her clothes) so that she’s the enemy before she’s officially a vampire. They don’t have to push her to the ground, yet they do because they can and, worse still, Montoya thinks they’ve fallen in love, despite how abusive he’s been.

For them, Lee having the vampire virus means she’s no longer a person but an object to be used. Multiple actors, in the Blu-Ray’s new interviews, refer to Lee’s performance, and while her character’s mistreatment is disgusting, Lee is amazing. The part is extremely physically demanding. The whole time she’s portraying her transformation into a vampire, she’s also having to act out having a vision, and while it’s unclear whether the film expects you to buy into the romance, her performance doesn’t.

You also never get the impression that Carpenter’s condoning Crow’s behavior, yet the characters who could censure Crow, like Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee), have their own abusive relationships with him, and there are no white hats. Whether you can stand Crow and Montoya, there will always be two reasons to watch John Carpenter’s Vampires and that’s Lee and the vampires. Shout Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray of the film goes on sale September 24th.

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