Courtesy Photo
"John Carpenter's VAMPIRES"
2 stars 107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, October 30, 1998
Directed by John Carpenter

Starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith & Maximilian Schell

Read our review of the documentary "John Carpenter: Fear is Just the Beginning...The Man and His Movies"


Some sunset shots and fight scenes that use the full screen. But mostly this is guilty pleasure stuff, not high art. Don't sweat finding the wide screen version.

Gratuitous splatter sequences overload 'Vampires' sense of humor

By Rob Blackwelder

Suspension of disbelief is of primary importance in any John Carpenter movie. Without letting go of all hope for rationalism or continuity, it's impossible to really get a kick out of his pictures, which (with the exception of his more serious "Halloween" and "The Thing") is really Carpenter's only goal as a director.

"Vampires" has plenty of kicks. I mean, casting perennial and aging nefarious tough James Woods in the lead role as a leather-clad, professional assassin of the undead is a move that just screams "camp!" as much as it does "gunfights!" -- and this movie has a lot of both.

Woods plays a swaggering, swearing, hard-drinking vampire slayer, ironically in the employ of the Vatican. According to the film's folklore, a 600-year-old exorcism snafu in the ranks of the Catholic church is responsible for the proliferation of the vampire race.

The movie opens with an extended blood-and-guts action sequence in which Woods and his crew of extravagantly armed cohorts ambush a vampire "nest" at a remote, boarded up, dilapidated ranch house in the New Mexico desert. Vampires get run through, shot, staked with wooden spikes (of course), all of this culminating in each one of them being hooked to the winch of a truck and dragged out into the sunlight where they burst into flames -- an effect that Carpenter fell in love with and revisits relentlessly in the course of the picture.

But after all this rigmarole the master bloodsucker (Thomas Ian Griffith) gets away and kills all but one of Woods' crew in another gratuitous splatter sequence. The rest of the film consists of Woods and the other survivor, played by Daniel Baldwin, hunting the powerful head vampire with a bitten hooker (Sheryl Lee) in tow as bait.

"Vampires" is every inch a John Carpenter movie -- a deft B-grade recipe of violence, excessively complex backstory, borrowed styles (a row of toughs in leather trench coats and personal arsenals, walking silhouetted against a sunset) and cheesy laughs. "It's not like they're a bunch of fags running around in rented formal wear, seducing people with European accents," Woods quips by way of debunking vampire myth, as all modern vamp movies are wont to do in order to free themselves from whichever vampire traditions they choose to ignore.

But as much superficial fun as "Vampires" tries to be, Carpenter's balance is off this time. His last picture, "Escape from LA," was a bit overly daffy, and he's swung the other way here by getting carried away with the gore to the point that the enjoyable silliness is lost. He's going for an action-gore blowout, and as such abandons any sense of moderation, which gets annoying very quickly, making the audience (well, me anyway) less likely to embrace that necessary suspension of disbelief.

Before long the yawning holes in the script become a welcome distraction from the splatter effects. Woods and Baldwin track the vampires to a condemned, long-abandon prison in a virtual ghost town -- yet the prison has modern, working surveillance cameras because they're needed for the script. The vampires also have a laughable tendency to forget how many people are attacking them, always leaving one of the good guys free to hide nearby for a later rescue attempt.

Try as I might to overlook this sort of thing, it's hard in this movie. And it gets very tiresome after a while watching vampires spontaneously combust in the sun over and over and over again in the opening scene and again in the never-ending, never thrilling, 30 minute showdown at the end.

James Woods is perfectly cast and so much fun to watch in a picture like this, in which he's completely off his leash and devouring the scenery. But when "Vampires" crosses the line from cartoon violence to loose-your-lunch fare, it stops being fun.

Still, it's better than "Blade" the other vampire hunter movie out this fall. "Blade" took itself far too seriously, something John Carpenter would never do.

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