Back in 1998, John Carpenter would go about adapting the John Steakley novel Vampire$. The original horror novel was written by Steakley almost a decade earlier in 1990 and focused on a group known as Vampire$ Inc., who treats vampire hunting as a commercial enterprise. The novel’s group of vampire hunters is in a sense like a vampire hunting A-Team, using the funds from the vampires’ would-be victims along with also being secretly backed by the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church to fuel their vampire hunting endeavors.
The Dan Jakoby script for Carpenter’s adaptation alters much of the source material, keeping a few things like the motel setting of the original vampire slayer massacre and the name of the protagonist Jack Crow, who is portrayed in the movie by James Woods. Jakoby would abandon the mercenary aspect and instead lean more heavily on the holy warrior side of things.
Carpenter’s take finds itself firmly planted in the genres of both horror and of the neo-western. The combination of the two gives Vampires a gritty, grimy and borderline seedy look. Each of the towns that you saw on screen is very reminiscent of the old western frontier towns. Old wooden structures line the dusty, dirt-covered streets. The only difference is that this is a modern frontier, but it is still wrought with unspeakable terrors.
This version of Jack Crow is not an ex-DEA agent like in the novel. Instead, he is a man propelled by a rage-filled vendetta that he has carried with him for life. When Jack was just a child, his father was turned into a vampire. He would then had to witness his father murder his mother before having to do the unthinkable: to save himself, Jack was forced to kill his own father.
Wood’s Crow is a good metaphor for people who come from broken homes or have suffered abuse at the hands of their parents. The attack he witnessed as a young child has left him bitter, cold and desensitized to violence, except for the instance when he sees that Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) had struck the hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee). In a rare moment of compassion, he gently checks the bruise on her cheek before admonishing Montoya for the act.
The nature of the attack definitely harkens back to what he saw as a child, even though he is a brash and braggadocious man, his scars are right there below the surface and they become visible from time to time. He does feel, he does know compassion, he is able to see the good in people which becomes evident in his relationship with Father Adam (Tim Guinee).
At first, he is suspicious of the shoehorned membered of his ravaged team. Then, as the story grows, he starts to see the rookie vampire hunter for the honest, brave man that he really is, and the two men grow not just a fondness but also a deep respect for one another.
Woods plays Crow with an incredible level of arrogance but also makes him a real human that is trying to gain some level of justice for his slain friends while trying to make sense of circumstances that are completely new to him. He is a hunter that has become the hunted, a slayer that has watched his whole team of slayers slain, finding himself on the back foot from the off. His main talent is not just his ability to kill his vampiric foes, it is his ability to bounce back from adversity.
Jack Crow definitely seems like a weary road warrior that has had to call on this innate trait of resilience. He gets beaten up, broken down and betrayed but always comes back looking for more. He is like a boxer that is just a few years past his prime but still has the same level of fight in him and he is willing to go for the full 12; just like Rocky, he didn’t hear no bell so he won’t stop fighting anytime soon.
What Carpenter does well in this cheesy, self-aware—almost at times satirical—action movie is he creates an extreme sense of urgency. Every action, every choice is under time constraints, the whole movie feels like a pressure cooker just waiting to explode. These characters have so far to go, so much to do and not very long to do it. These beleaguered men have lost so much like so many gunslingers before them, and they too have to strap up one more time and ready themselves for the ultimate showdown.
Their showdown would be against the Master Vampire Jan Valek, who is portrayed by Thomas Ian Griffith. The villain of the piece is a throwback to Gothic tales of yore. He is clad all in black, his voice is raspy, and his words come out with an almost hissing sound to them. He is a nightmarish, old school villain, a true predator with an interesting back story. Griffith’s Valek is a constant and fierce threat to our surviving protagonists.
The scenes where Katrina sees Valek’s acts of barbarism through remote viewing (for lack of a better term) are incredibly well done. Katrina was bitten by the Master Vampire Valek at the beginning of the motel massacre. The infliction causes her to be linked telepathically with the Master for a period of time before her transformation is complete. To see this poor woman helpless and ridden with fear at having to witness such things, her whole body trembling with the adrenaline of visions, is what makes the audience sit on the edge of their seats. We have to watch on helplessly as Valek grows ever closer to his goal, to find the Black Cross of Beziers which would give him the ability to walk in the day.
It could be said that Valek’s whole search for the cross that would grant him this immunity to sunlight is a powerful allegory for what we fear coming out of the shadows and into the light. That removal of the veil of darkness from where these shadowy figures reside is something we dread more than most. No longer do we have the dawn of the sun to shield us from the terror that lurks in the night. If these monsters could walk in the light like us, then there will be no reprieve, no retreat, and no rescue from the coming onslaught of these remorseless enemies.
These undead enemies of our heroes are brought to life by the creator of some of the most iconic horror monsters of all time, the legend that is Greg Nicotero and the fine folks over at KNB. Nicotero has proven countless times that his imagination is nearly unmatched. His eye for the horrific is so finely tuned that he knows exactly what haunts us at night and how to bring it to life in a way that we could never have thought possible.
Nicotero does this again here. The action is gory, raw and stomach-churning. It is ferocious. We feel the full strength of these ungodly creatures. You feel the same sense of relief that the slayers feel when you see these monsters lit up in all their pyrotechnic glory. The crimson red flames are befitting of these hellish demons. Vampires really is a stylish nod to so much that has gone before.
Although it may not be John Carpenter at his utmost best, we have to remember how good his utmost best was and how hard it is for anyone to reach those heights on a consistent basis. John Carpenter’s Vampires is as much fun as it is horrific. It makes you laugh as much as it makes you shudder. It is action-packed, laced with gore, and it satisfies the viewer on so many levels. It is cheesy, funny, and extremely dark. Vampires has many strengths, but what it all comes down to really is, if you want to see James Woods being his most James Woods in a movie starring James Woods, then I can guarantee you that this one is for you.