John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)

D: John Carpenter
S: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin,Thomas Ian Griffith

Resounding with the deep-fried and dusty vibe of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Robert Rodriguez' From Dusk 'til Dawn , but taking the vampire-hunting route of Stephen Norrington's Blade (and, arguably, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), John Carpenter's first vampire flick is not all bad, though it is perhaps a little stale by now (not helped by a one and half year delay of its Irish release). Based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley, the film follows the exploits of Vatican-sponsored slayer James Woods (in a most enjoyable performance) on the trail of an ancient bloodsucker (Thomas Ian Griffith) threatening to destroy the world by completing a religious ritual which will give vampires the power to walk in daylight. He is helped by a team of crack hunters armed to the teeth with chunky hardware blessed by a resident priest, which they use to deadly effect in the pic's promising opening.

Things begin to get a bit bogged down not long after when, in a Mission Impossible-type disaster, all but one of his men are wiped out, leaving Woods with a new priest to break in and a whodunnit to solve as he suspects they have been sold out. Meanwhile cohort Daniel Baldwin has become inexplicably romantically attached to prostitute Sheryl Lee, a mortal bitten by Griffith but not yet turned and who therefore acts as a sort of preternatural compass with which to track down the master. Thank God for Woods, because the film remains on sure footing largely because of his characteristic intensity and ability to nuance even the most routine roles, though he is nicely supported by Tim Ginee as the replacement priest who is faced with his own moral dilemma before the film's conclusion.

There are some nice ideas in here, and there are plenty of thematic ponderances on faith, love, and comradeship. There's even a fairly elegiac finale which leaves some points tantalisingly unresolved, and on the whole the vampire action is fast, spooky and fairly entertaining. It is a tad gory for no good reason though, and it lacks the mystical energy of Blade in its depiction of vampire mythology. Neither is it quite down-home enough to match Near Dark's earthy portrayal of the walking undead, though it is at least generally more conceptually upmarket than the cartoonish From Dusk 'til Dawn.

The script does have its shortfalls, and it never quite deepens the material enough to overcome them. It's hard to buy the Baldwin-Lee relationship, and the background to Griffith's character gives him more mystique than Griffith generates alone with his limited dialogue. While packed with interesting detail, the film needs more narrative meat to sustain the plot. It's not that there isn't enough going on, but somehow the various story threads don't so much build to the climax as get there in the end, which is a pity.

Visually, the film has a nice texture, alternating between striking, bright desert images and dark interiors shot by Gary B. Kibbe. There are some nice individual scenes, such as the master vampires emerging from the earth to assault a monastery and Woods' confrontation with Ginee in a hotel room toilet, though the imagery is not as memorable as the likes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween or Escape From New York. Carpenter's score is a curious mixture of styles, tying his usual synth work to twanging guitars to match the Tex-Mex setting. The acting is more or less po-faced, with again Woods coming off best, and a surprising appearance by Maximilian Schell as a Cardinal. Griffith is a menacing figure, but he's given little room to manoeuvre. On the whole it is good to see Carpenter manage at least some small measure of the basic technical control he used to seem to be able to conjure up at will but lost for so long, and though the film is not as interesting as In the Mouth of Madness, and never comes close to the classics of the 1970s, it is a fairly workmanlike job which fans will enjoy and casual audiences will probably find fun given the right atmosphere.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.