Go to Homepage  

John Carpenter's Vampires
Old World Legend Finds Home in New West

  Crescent Blues Movie Views

Three and one half moon gif
The camera swoops over the parched New Mexico landscape like a bird of prey, targeting an old house stripped of paint and glass, but curiously solid. Sun-blasted hero Jack Crow (James Woods) signals a team of desperadoes armed with high-tech crossbows and spears. They charge the boarded house.

Think the Earps and the Clantons at the O.K. Corral. Now re-think it with vampires. Crow heads the Vatican's top vampire killing squad. Clearing out the nest of vampires in this house constitutes a mission from God.

But someone leaked word of the raid to Valek, the master of the nest. His body safely hidden in an unmarked grave, Valek sleeps through the carnage. When darkness falls, he rises to hunts the hunters, taking feline pleasure in each kill.

Crow, his lieutenant Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and the prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) escape. Barely. Katrina carries Valek's bite. In five days she will become a vampire, but until then she can lead Crow and Montoya to Valek -- a most dangerous quest. Crow doesn't know who betrayed his team, why or when the traitor will strike again.

Vampires feasts the eye. The movie transforms rusted trucks into abstract art and rediscovers the epic in the clichés of glaring desert vistas and one-street towns. The setting evokes the mythic West of directors John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah, echoing the mythic nature of vampires themselves.

Carpenter's pacing pushes the parallels home. He restages High Noon as "High Midnight," relentlessly building tension over grinding days and nights filled with spectacular violence. You know the confrontation between vampire and human slayers must come, but Valek takes his time. Hurry is for the human cattle Valek brushes aside like the larger than life John Wayne of Red River.

The role of flawed crusader fits James Woods like Crow's tight leather gloves. Crow's cynicism, his woody jokes and brutal professionalism draw from the actor's public persona. You couldn't call the part a stretch, but you believe in him absolutely.

You don't so much believe Thomas Ian Griffith is Valek as you accept him as a force of nature. Monstrously tall, with faint red veins licking his ashen cheeks, Valek still possesses a horrible beauty. Valek's face and history serve as grim reminders that Lucifer began life as the brightest of angels.

Vampires is blessed by all its priests: Gregory Sierra as the worn Father Giovanni, Tim Guinee as Father Guiteau, and Maximillian Schell as the crafty Cardinal Alba. (Does "crafty" preface all Schell's roles these days?) Lee rings the changes on her transformation from woman to vampire like the pro she plays.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Baldwin's turn as Montoya. In a movie that skitters to the very edge of melodrama, Baldwin scored the only inappropriate laugh in the preview hosted by Washington, D.C., radio station Z-104. Montoya went into what should've been an anguished, tragic clinch and the audience tittered. They kept laughing until Baldwin left the screen.

Then they reverted to a rapt silence that lasted until the credits began to roll. Not many movies can lose that critical suspension of disbelief and grab it back again. Vampires, the Western, did.

Jean Marie Ward

To learn more about John Carpenter, click here.

Click here to share your views.