John Carpenter is unquestionably one of the most influential voices in cinema. For instance, with Halloween, the filmmaker helped establish slashers as one of the most enduring horror subgenres. And while his Apocalypse Trilogy didn’t find its audience on release, The Thing is now worshipped as one of the best horror movies in history. Carpenter is also famous for his talents as a composer, and when he stretches outside horror, he comes up with genre-bending classics such as Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. There are so many cult classics in Carpenter’s filmography that’s is no surprise some of the master’s movies fly under the radar. That’s precisely the case of Vampires, a horror western starring James Woods as an efficient, albeit despicable, vampire hunter in New Mexico.
What Is ‘Vampires’ About?
Loosely based on John Steakley’s 1992 novel Vampire$, Carpenter’s Vampires stars Woods as Jack Crow, the leader of a vampire-hunting crew who works for the Catholic Church. Crow’s team is basically composed of gritty men who like to drink and party every night after spending their days killing vampires, and the Church only accepts their sinful ways because they are extremely efficient on their job. Crow is the primary vampire hunter in the world, so he gets a lot of wiggling space to act like an absolute asshole the entire time.
The story turns for the worst when a vampire master tracks down the hotel used by Crow’s team as a base of operations during a New Mexico deployment. This vampire, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), is the strongest enemy Crow’s team has ever faced. So, when Valek manages to take the whole team by surprise, he slays every warrior without breaking a sweat. Only Crow and his right-man, Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), escape the hotel.
Since Crow is a mean cowboy, he decides to take matters into his own hands and hunt down Valek, despite the Holy Church ordering him to restrain himself and find a new team first. His main weapon to find Valek is Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a sex worker at the hotel partying with Crow’s team. Instead of killing Katrina, Valek decides to turn her. The side effect of her transformation is that Katrina gets a psychic link with her vampire master, allowing Crow and Montoya to track down Valek in a race against the clock before the sex worker fully becomes a bloodsucking demon herself.
‘Vampires’ Is an Under-watched Entry in John Carpenter’s Filmography
Right off the bat, there’s a lot to love in Don Jakoby’s screenplay. For starters, in 1998, it wasn’t common for stories about vampires to feature complex organizations created to fight the monsters. It was even rarer for these organizations to take the spotlight of a movie. If we are being honest, this approach is not usual even nowadays, apart from a few exceptions like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jamie Foxx-led Day Shift. So, Vampires already stands-out in a crowded market due to their fresh take on the creatures. It’s also worth mentioning Vampires created a whole new mythology to explain the emergence of these creatures, creatively connecting the Holy Church to the origin of vampirism.
Carpenter’s Vampires also deserves praise for its thrilling set pieces. For starters, there’s special care in showing Crow’s team inventive weapons and methodologies for vampire-hunting. The opening scene of Vampires follows Crow’s team in action as they siege a vampire nest, simultaneously showing the warriors in action and the creatures’ superhuman powers. That helps the audience to understand the stakes and challenges of other action scenes spread throughout the movie. An action movie is always better when the viewer understands exactly what each side of the conflict is capable of, something Vampires is well aware of.
John Carpenter Uses ‘Vampires’ Setting Well
John Carpenter also does use the desert setting of Vampires to its fullest, shooting the whole horror movie as if it was a classic Western. We have long shots of dust and dried trees illuminated by the harsh and yellow sunlight, images that we don’t expect to see in a movie about night creatures. Since the sun is such a big enemy of vampires, most movies about the bloodsuckers take place indoors, not in broad daylight. Sure, in 1998, Blade became the ultimate vampire-hunting movie by including multiple memorable scenes under the sun. Also, the fact Blade is unquestionably a superior movie and came out less than two months before Vampires might have hurt Carpenter’s Western horror box office, helping to bury the film. Still, Carpenter’s Vampires remains an under-watched entry from Carpenter’s filmography that should get more love than it does.
Parts of ‘Vampires’ Have Not Aged Well
Of course, not everything aged well in Vampires. The movie’s treatment of sex workers – and women in general – is far from acceptable. Yes, the male cast is composed mainly of pricks, so it’s fair to assume they don’t treat sex workers with the respect they deserve. However, it’s a tough sell to make the only female character in the movie, Katrina, fall in love with the same man who kidnaps her, ties her to a bed, and punches her in the face. It’s easy to see why Carpenter’s Vampires focused so much on sex workers since From Dusk to Dawn had become a classic two years prior, in 1996. However, Carpenter’s take on the subject is even more controversial than Robert Rodriguez’s.
There’s also something to be said about the unhinged performance of Wood as Jack Crow. Crow is supposed to be the hero of Vampires, but his character is so reprehensible that sometimes we are actually cheering for the bloodsucking creatures. However, there’s some guilty pleasure from watching Crow on screen, as his ultra-macho cowboy is so determined to echo all the negative aspects of the typical Western hero that he becomes a satire of himself. As a result, we can’t help but laugh at Crow’s ludicrous attempts to be a bad boy in New Mexico, torturing priests and treating sex workers as objects, all the while he thinks he’s the good guy in the story.
Vampires has its fair share of problems. Still, Carpenter has released other box office bombs that were nevertheless reclaimed by fans and critics alike. Of course, Vampires is not on the same level as Carpenter’s most-beloved classics. Even so, it’s an underrated horror Western that shows the filmmaker’s knack for bending genres to serve the story he’s trying to tell. Add to that another brilliant music score by Carpenter himself, and you have enough reason to give Vampires a chance.
Vampires is currently streaming on Pluto TV.