"Have you ever seen a vampire?"
The latest offering from the esteemed John Carpenter (Escape from LA, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween), Vampires is a film adapted from the novel "Vampire$" by John Steakley. As a bit of trivia, Vampires had such a convoluted Hollywood history it eventually ended up finding release in France and Europe months before it first saw an American theater. When it finally did reach box offices, it didn't manage to, ah, bite deeply, which is a shame. This is a solid film in the pantheon of vampire stories.
In standard thumbnail synopsis fashion, here's what you need to know about the film. Jack Crow (James Woods—Any Given Sunday, The General's Daughter, Contact) is a senior vampire slayer in the service of the Catholic Church. After destroying a group of vampires in their lair without finding the master vampire who created and leads them, Crow's team is later slaughtered during one of their frequent debaucherous parties by the master (Thomas Ian Griffith—Kull the Conqueror, Karate Kid III) they couldn't find. Crow escapes with Montoya (Daniel Baldwin—Mulholland Falls, Hero), his right hand man, and Katrina (Sheryl Lee—"Twin Peaks," Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Wild at Heart), a hooker at the party who's been bitten by the master. After checking in with his Catholic controller, Crow realizes the master is likely the very first vampire to walk the Earth, and starts hunting him. The master is out to gather the items needed to complete a ritual that will enhance his power considerably.
This is a very straightforward action film told in the vampire genre. Carpenter is a cult classic director because he delivers movies with strong character work, quirky stories, and a very appropriate sense of humor. His films are always modestly budgeted affairs, but despite the lack of tens of millions of dollars to spend on every little detail, extremely entertaining. Vampires is no exception. With only one "name" actor (Woods), Carpenter creates a tale of a driven man facing off against an equally driven monster. Using the interplay between the strong performances, we find in Crow an oddly appealing anti-hero, and thus can root for his success even as we sometimes shake our heads at some of his tactics. Griffith plays well as the master vampire, generating an otherworldly resolve that contrasts nicely against the open-faced determination of Woods' Crow. The rest of the cast, serving in supporting and smaller roles also does well, enabling the movie to be enjoyable and interesting.
The disc itself is a very well done title. With a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer on one side, and a pan-and-scan transfer on the other, it's a great experience. There are no visible examples of artifacting or edge bleeding, and lines and colors are strong, sharply defined and don't waver. As we learn from the commentary track, many shots in the film were filmed using camera filters to work around lighting issues, which result in a modified color palette. Despite this filter work, the picture is great. The sound is good for a Carpenter film, coming in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 flavors; the volume levels are consistent and don't vary between dialogue and action scenes.
Perhaps the best part of the disc is the excellent commentary track laid down by Carpenter himself. Of all the commentaries I've heard to date, this rates among the very best. Carpenter is a knowledgeable director, and also understands music and soundtrack work, being something of an amateur musician himself. His commentary delivers to us not just quips about funny incidents on set during a scene or the motivation of a character as he directed; but covers the technical aspects of the film. He speaks about difficulties or interesting situations the cast and crew had with certain shots or stunts, or explains which scenes were scripted versus other scenes where his cast ad libbed something that ended up making the final cut. Indeed, we discover some scenes that run for upwards of a minute are heavily ad libbed, including a few rather amusing stunts.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's really not much that can be said in a negative manner about Vampires. Carpenter always works low budget, and thus you can usually spot little things here and there which scream "stunt" or "movie." But with the heart and energy of a Carpenter film, it's hard to hold these against him. He delivers profitable films that are fun for the audience.
To be nitpicky, perhaps the video and audio transfers aren't quite reference quality, but this is an extremely minor quibble. The extras might have stood a "making of" featurette, or a soundtrack-only audio track to showcase the appealing music of the film; these too are small voices of discontent. All in all, there's little to dislike here.
About the only thing bad about Vampires is it's a Carpenter flick; but that's also one of the best things. Carpenter is either a director you like, or you don't. Further, some "die-hard" vampire genre fans might object to the rather action oriented, un-romantic story in the film. As Woods explains in a key scene that appears in the trailer: "forget everything you've seen in the movies." Personally, I know several "gothic" types who found the film utterly devoid of appeal because of the lack of "Euro-Gothic Romanticism"; to each their own. James Woods makes a great turn as Jack Crow, and all in all the entire effort is solidly enjoyable.
Cast and crew, including the director and writers, are commended for their dedicated efforts to deliver a great little film.
Columbia/TriStar are released on their own recognizance for serving up a disc with that most important of added-value features (a commentary) even as they delivered a great transfer.
The producers are sentenced to 50 hours community service for not prying a few more million out of their bank accounts to give Carpenter to play with.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer (2.35:1)
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