John Carpenter’s Vampires: Like Citizen Kane, Except Much Better

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Ever since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally enshrined Black Sabbath in 2006, the Kennedy Center Honors have taken its place as America’s greatest artistic charade.  In 2006, the honorees were Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, and Smokey Robinson.  The Honors purport to recognize Honorees “for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television—are selected by the Center’s Board of Trustees.”  KCH goes further to say that “the primary criterion in the selection process is excellence.”  

This is a farce.  A farce.  And will remain that way until the ivory-tower arbiters of performing excellence who annually deign to lower the drawbridge and allow an honored few passage across the fetid pop-culture moat into the splendid manor of artistry extend a long-overdue invitation to one John Howard Carpenter

Carpenter is best known for a group of movies he directed in the late 70’s/early-mid 80’s, beginning with the yet-to-be-topped original HalloweenHalloween introduced the world to the greatest slasher-movie boogeyman in cinematic history, Michael Myers.  Far superior to wisecracking pedophile Freddy Krueger or mama’s boy Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers is a silent, indestructible gore machine who stabs first and asks questions later.  Actually, he doesn’t even ask questions, he just stabs.  Carpenter followed Halloween with The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, the truly wonderful Big Trouble in Little China, and then ended the ’80s with They Live, starring the great Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of the legendary heel personalities in professional wrestling history.  While about very different things, each of Carpenter’s movies were characterized by a B-movie budget and overall sensibility (especially in the dialogue) combined with a politically allegorical undercurrent that recalls Romero’s “Dead” trilogy.  Uniting these elements was the gleeful touch of a guy who clearly loves making horror movies.

It’s conventional wisdom in scary movie circles that Carpenter doesn’t make ’em like he used to.  During the 90’s and early part of the 21st century, Carpenter offered up Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, and Escape from L.A., a sequel to Escape from New York that’s highly enjoyable but admitedly not as good as the first Snake Plissken adventure.  In 2001, he rolled out Ghosts of Mars starring the inimitable thespian Ice Cube.  All of these, I feel, are quite a lot of fun to watch (with the exception of Memoirs)…they’re not the highbrow “psychological horror drama” that you’d find in the ouvre of M. Night Shyamalan, but are instead bloody, gritty, violent, and often suspenseful movies that do a satisfying job of blending action and horror.  Girls don’t like them.  Ghosts of Mars, for example, is about a police force in the 22nd century who are charged with transporting a highly dangerous prisoner named Desolation Williams (seriously) across the planet Mars, by now a terraformed mining outpost.  Upon arriving at the mining town where Williams is being held, they discover the town is apparently deserted.  It’s not; instead, it’s full of ghouls who used to be the miners but are now possessed by the spirts of an ancient Martian civilization that they released in a mining accident.  The possession turns them into bloodthirsty and mindlessly violent creatures who are really into body-mod.  From there, of course, the heroes have to safely blast and maim their way out of there.

Movies like this earned Carpenter the criticism that his movies were becoming goofy and unfocused.  You can watch his body of work and judge for yourself, but he did make one movie before the 20th century expired that is far and away the best of his 1990’s lot:  John Carpenter’s Vampires.  JCV is a single film that embodies everything I love about Carpenter:  a pulp comic plot, blood-drenched visuals, monsters, and an unlikable anti-hero whose every bit of dialogue is marked by a sardonic nihilism.

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In Vampires, that hero is Jack Crow, played by the also unlikable James Woods.  Crow leads a boozy team of vampire slayers who roam the isolated and decrepit parts of America looking for bloodsucker “nests,” which they storm, SWAT-style, in daylight.  Once they’ve breached, they kill every vampire (“goon,” in the movie’s parlance) in the place.  The movie opens with such a raid and really sets the tone as far as blood and gore (wooden stake through the forehead, anyone?).  Probably my favorite slayer weapon in the film is the crossbow with a bolt that’s attached to a tow-cable.  Once fired into a vampire’s center mass and lodged in the flesh, the slayer outside with the truck turns on a winch and reels the vampire out of the house into the sunlight, where the creature promptly bursts into flames.

Here’s the best part about the slayer team:  they are bankrolled by the Catholic Church!  I’ll say that again:  John Carpenter’s Vampires is about a special forces-style team of hard-drinking vampire slayers financed by the Vatican.  If that isn’t a solid-gold idea for a movie, I don’t know what is.  In any case, the team eventually stumbles upon a plan concocted by the alpha vampire, a “master” named Valek, to take control of the Cross of Berziers, or “Black Cross.”

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He seriously wore these clothes the entire film.  Whole thing, never changed once.

The plan is, obviously, to perform a kind of “reverse exorcism” ceremony that will allow Valek and his ilk to walk in the sunlight.  At which point, I presume every population center on Earth becomes a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet.  Aiding Crow’s team is a prostitute played by Sheryl Lee who has been bitten by Valek and therefore has a telepathic link to him; she acts as a kind of closed-circuit surveillance camera as they try and prevent him from getting the Cross.  Along the way there’s all kinds of carnage, double-crossing, and human vs. vampire combat, plus a few instances of Crow brazenly questioning Valek’s sexual prowess. 

Aside from a disappointing decision to costume Valek in the tired euro-trash vampire fashion (all black, pants from Express Men, long hair), this movie hits all the rights notes.  Other than the clothes, Valek is a really vicious antagonist, biting people and slicing throats with abandon.  Crow is equally brutal when given the chance, and his band of merry lowlifes are altogether agreeable and funny. 

With such an outrageous plot and over-the-top characters, the only way to make this film right is to have an all-in, full-speed ahead and damn the consequences attitude, and thankfully, Carpenter does.  At no point does the director commit the sin of treating his subject matter too seriously, or try and invest his gory vampire romp with a “message.”  JCV is pure story, and a hell of story it is; I’ve watched this movie dozens of times and have never tired of it…it’s like a favorite toy.  Check it out, just don’t follow it with The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  After you’ve had prime rib, a Wendy’s hamburger just isn’t as good, you know?

An addendum:  a sequel was made, not directed by John Carpenter, but still called John Carpenter’s Vampires: Los Muertos.  Jon Bon Jovi is the vampire hunter.  Don’t see it.

2 Responses

  1. Kudos for loving this wondefully whimsical adventure.

    If you are a fan of the film MAKE SURE you grab the book upon which it was based: Vampire$ by John Stakely.

    It was during a pub conversation where I was trying to impress upon a drinking buddy exactly how good this film was when he remarked it sounded similar to one of his favourite pulp style novels – Vampire$. After mentioning the whole involvement of the Vatican and that the lead character’s name was Crow (plus a short trip to IMDB) we realised this was the source material and my friend lent it to me.

    The movie deviates from the plot of the book in numerous significant areas but maintains much of its feel.

    The book is significantly more focused on the relationship between Jack Crow and an ex-con hired to join Team Crow as a marksman in addition to the relationship between a vampire victim who finds their way in to Crow’s care and the vampire who attacked them.

    It is a little more serious than the film but by the same token steadfastly refuses to let itself drown in fears of not being taken seriously. It just comes across a little edgier but just as comic-book. Check it out.

  2. […] kind of just like us! True Blood is the same story, just more boobs.  The vampire in “John Carpenter’s Vampires” is named “Valek.”  In True Blood, it’s ”Bill Compton.”  […]

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