Sony // 1998 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // October 11th, 2002
From the master of terror comes a new breed of evil.
In his director's commentary, John Carpenter says Vampires is "The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler." What I want to know: when the Wild Bunch met Vlad, why didn't they take his sorry ass out? Then no one would have been subjected to this film. No Vlad = no vampires = no vampire movies = no John Carpenter's Vampires. True, we'd have to live without Dracula, The Lost Boys, and Anne Rice. That is a sacrifice I would have been willing to make for the greater good of humanity.
Bands of vampire slayers, sponsored by the Catholic Church, roam the southwest hunting down nests of vampires. The Crow team, led by the tough-but-nice Jack Crow, is on the trail of The Original, a really badass master vampire who has been crawling the earth for millennia. Most of Jack's team gets whacked during a drunken orgy in a sleazy hotel. Jack and his trusty fellow slayer, Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), set out to find the master by exploiting a psychic link between Valik (Thomas Ian Griffith) and one of his victims, a really hot hooker named Katrina (Sheryl Lee).
Ignoring orders from the Church, Jack and Montoya discern that Vlad (wait, I mean Valik) is looking for a cross that will somehow allow him to walk around during the day. That would really suck, so Jack, Montoya, Katrina, and a young priest named Father Adam (Tim Guinee) set off to stop Valik, armed with a couple of pistols, some wooden stakes, and a jeep.
True story: when I was in elementary school, I sometimes felt like blowing off the whole story time/gym class shtick for a good few hours of Nickelodeon. On those occasions, I would wait for lunchtime. I'd purchase a pint of chocolate milk, take my brown bag into a corner, and whip up a "get out of jail free"* card. I'd take two parts squished grapes, toss in a handful of animal cracker carcasses, and add a dash of color with a jellybean or two. I'd take a plastic baggie and crush this mixture between my hands till it was good and squishy, then pour in the milk. I'd flick a chunk or two onto my shirt for realism, dump the rest onto my lunchbag, then tell the lunchroom monitor I didn't feel so good. Half an hour later I'd be watching Fraggle Rock with a virgin piña colada. My fellow inmates always got so pissed when I pulled this stunt. They were livid that I had the balls to manipulate a teacher with such a contrived "puke" scene using cheap materials. After watching John Carpenter's Vampires, I can sympathize with them.
This movie is so bad I'm having trouble deciding where to start. In writing a movie review, I usually look for a hook, a crack in the façade I can pry open for a better view at the film inside. Let's call Vampires a tackle box full of rusty hooks with a façade so cracked that I can't even see the façade anymore. I'll just start somewhere random, which is what this movie did too, so we're good.
Picture this: Jack Crow (James Woods) hops out of a gray van with (get this) a vampire exterminator logo on the side. He is a bad mutha with his black jeans, black boots, black belt, black shirt, black jacket, black shades, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Okay, maybe he was wearing blue jeans, but you get the idea. He peers at a dilapidated farmhouse, then opens the back of the van to reveal a bunch of misfits with scraggly hair and oversized aluminum weapons. "There's a nest of goons inside," he tells them woodenly. "This one goes strictly by the book." You might assume, as I did, that he meant that figuratively. But no. Apparently, there actually is a book, some sort of Vampire Slaying for Dummies*, and they quote it throughout the movie: "Jack, you can't walk into that den of mewling, hissing vampires. Rule 17 clearly states that a slayer mustn't enter a den without a cigarette in one hand and an American Gladiator* approved weapon in the other." "Damn, you're right. Let's go to a sleazy hotel and drink beer while naked women dance with each other in the corner!"
The film establishes its caliber early. Our first glimpse at the special effects comes when one of the vampire hunters pries open a dusty door and a "corpse" falls out. The shot of the drained victim is mercifully brief. Unfortunately, the shot cannot hide that the corpse is one of those rubber Halloween porch decorations they sell in Spencer's Gifts*. The greenish-purple rubber face, plastic white eyeballs, and long, curly, gray locks of polyester hair give it away.
In another scene, the not-so-wild bunch comes across a monastery that was leveled by vampires. The corpses of Friar Tuck look-alikes litter the ground. The grotesque clincher in this macabre tableau is the fountain of holy water in the center of the plaza, running red with blood and desecrated with the corpse of one of the fathers. This scene would have worked much better as a depiction of the after effects of a wild party, with passed out friars surrounding the huge Kool-Aid* punch fountain. They could have added more naked hookers, which would have bookended the earlier scene and added continuity to the film.
I guess what I'm trying to say is the effects sucked. There is a scene in Summer School where a couple of schlock horror movie fanatics construct an elaborate prank for a substitute teacher. They drench their classmates in fake blood, stick pencils in people's eyes, walk in with fake chainsaws, and start hacking off limbs. Carpenter should watch that movie -- he might pick up some tips.
Let's talk dialogue, because aside from the effects, that's what we're left with. I'm trying to recall a memorable quote, but nothing is coming to me. I do remember a putrid diatribe wherein Jack Crow educates Father Adam about vampires. Something to the effect of "Forget garlic and crucifixes. Forget what you've seen in the movies. Vampires don't run around in velvet cloaks talking in fake Eurotrash accents. Wanna kill a vampire? Drive a f***ing wooden stake right f***in' in the middle of his f***in' heart. Sunlight works too. F*** it." This scene is the most blatantly hypocritical irony I can recall having witnessed in my lifetime. Forget what I've seen in movies? But don't movies clearly dictate that vampires are killed by wooden stakes and sunlight? And forgive me, but Valik walks around in a velvet cloak sporting a Eurotrash accent.
I'd like to discuss the acting, but I don't remember seeing any. Woods sneers, Baldwin stares blankly, Lee shivers a lot and smiles with wicked glee occasionally.
The final nail in the coffin is the plot. (Like the way I worked in that vampire pun? Wink, wink.) I don't require too much when I'm asked by a film to suspend my disbelief. But I think internal consistency is implied in the contract somewhere. They advise in the spy novels to never assume a cover that can be broken with one phone call. Breaking the cover in this plot doesn't require a phone call at all. It requires that you are still breathing and the light from the screen is reaching your visual cortex.
At one point in the film, Montoya is speeding away from a hotel in a van, with Jack urging him to drive faster. Why? Well, Valik is right behind them and gaining! So I guess Valik is really super fast. Not so. At the end of the film, a character is rescued in a jeep. Yet Valik is unable to catch up then. Also, several scenes show vampires getting peppered with bullets from multiple machine guns and getting back up immediately. Rule 9 clearly states that bullets will only stun a vampire. Then why the hell does Jack Crow repeatedly go after multiple vampires armed with a simple handgun? Another "rule" is that wooden stakes through the heart will kill a vampire. This rule is ignored in clever ways. First of all, the slayers use long halberds made of aluminum, not wood. Bamboo skewers would be more effective. Second, there is a scene where a vampire is being dragged into the sun with multiple stakes in his thigh. Does the heart move around by any chance? Finally, there is an encounter where a veteran slayer faces down a vampire with a wooden stake in hand. What does he do with it? If you're thinking go for the heart, no. He sticks it with remarkable ease right into the middle of the vampire's rubber forehead.
The production notes booklet and director's commentary make this movie worse. It is truly painful to sit through Carpenter's commentary. His comments consist of "Mr. Obvious" style golf commentary: "Okay, in this scene James Woods is going to open the door. Okay, he's opening the door. Now he's walking in. We're about to see our first vampire killed. Okay, they killed it. Okay, they're killing another one. Oh, I forgot about that one behind the paper ceiling. Okay, they killed it too. Now they are going to walk out of the house." Even worse are the comments on the effects, which give me even less respect for Vampires. He repeatedly calls the effects "cheesy" or "clichéd," and I couldn't agree more. I get the impression from his commentary that he'd rather discuss his rock-and-roll career. John, if I were in your shoes, I'd want to discuss something else too.
My first clue that the sound was going to suck was when the studio credits at the beginning prominently announced a partnership with JVC. I have seen many, many DVDs, and not once have I seen a music equipment company listed by name at the beginning. That could mean only one thing: bass. It is as though they decided that constant, unfocused bass throughout the movie would add an atmosphere of tension and drama. Instead, it provided me with a sense of annoyance as I listened to pictures rattle in the next room while I strained to hear the dialogue. The dialogue...what a tragedy. Many times, an actor would be speaking toward the camera, and you could make out what he was saying. Then he would turn to address another actor and the dialogue would get real quiet and indistinct, as though the mic was behind the actor's head.
The video echoed the quality of the audio. The credits were white against a dark background, which clearly revealed digital artifacts around the letters. The picture was pretty clean, with the occasional massive film scratch. My problem is not with the transfer so much as the video quality itself. Contrast is poor, the palette washed out. There is a scene that Carpenter informs us was supposed to be at dusk, but was filmed in broad daylight. The solution was to use a red filter. He kindly points this out to us: "Look at the top there. See the red?" Yes, I see the red. It looks like someone washed the sky in the same load of laundry as a new red towel. Speaking of red, is human blood fluorescent by any chance?
The first time I watched this film, I thought it was abjectly bad. Not laughably bad, although I did laugh many times during the second viewing. But yet, I found myself thinking about the film afterward. Perhaps Baldwin and Woods were able to scrape together some believable camaraderie and tragedy. Perhaps Baldwin and Lee's unconventional romance approached a whiff of pathos. (I know I haven't mentioned the romance angle before now. That's 'cause I forgot about it.) Perhaps amid its putrescence this movie had some neat ideas. Maybe I was in a bad mood the first time around and I didn't give it a fair shake.
I tried to find a counselor for the defense, but no one wanted the job. Even the court-appointed public defender was able to weasel out of it. In the end, I leave the defense in the capable hands of the 15 year old kid I mentor, who had this to say: "Vampires? That movie is awesome! Lots of blood, and they knock off naked prostitutes! What more can you ask for?" Indeed.
Can I please stop writing about this movie now? No one is still reading
anyway. For my Closing Statement, here are the keywords for Vampires from
the Internet Movie Database:
* -- "Get out of jail free," American Gladiators, the "For Dummies" books, Kool-Aid, and Spencer's Gifts are all registered trademarks. I abjectly apologize for dragging them into this mess.
On the count of creating and distributing "a new breed of evil," I find the defendant guilty as charged. He is to be placed on a spacecraft with some plastic robots and forced to watch vampire flicks for not less than 20 years. For falsely practicing filmmaking under the alias "master of terror," the defendant is sentenced an additional 15 years probation. His cronies in this con game are each remanded to two years house arrest with no cable television and no video rental privileges.
Review content copyright © 2002 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R