You really have to like Vampire movies in order to appreciate how good and original John Carpenter’s “Vampires” is. And I’m not talking about Fake Vampire movies, where the vampire is of Eurotrash origin and prefers to seduce lonely housewives. I’m talking about Real Vampire movies, where a grungy looking bloodsucker grabs the closest runaway and chows down on a large chunk of her neck because he’s starving.
Jack Crow, the hero of “Vampires”, isn’t a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” type of vampire slayer. Crow is a hardened killer who doesn’t think twice about verbally abusing Cardinals, physically abusing priests, and using hookers as just another tool. Crow is a mercenary of sorts, raised by the Vatican church to be its greatest vampire slayer. Along with his crew of hardened men, Crow goes around the country killing vampires by the dozens. That is, until Crow meets Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a vampire who used to be a priest and may just be the original source of the vampire disease.
After Crow’s crew is brutally slaughtered by Valek, Crow is determined to get revenge. It seems someone has set him up and told Valek all about him, and this doesn’t sit well with Crow. According to Father Adam (Tim Guinee), an eager priest assigned to Crow’s new team, Valek is in search of a cross with which to perform a ceremony that, if successful, will allow him to finally walk in the sunlight. Although the vampires could care less about crosses, garlic, or holy water, they will literally fry if subjected to sunlight.
The screenplay by Don Jakoby (“Evolution”) is adapted from a novel by John Steakley, whose book was actually titled “Vampire$”. Notice the “$” in place of the “s”. That’s because in Steakley’s original novel there was more emphasis put on Crow’s team as a mercenary group of vampire hunters who hired out to towns and cities infected with vampires. Daniel Baldwin’s Montoya also had a bigger and more complex role, but in John Carpenter’s “Vampires” Montoya is relegated to sidekick duty.
“Vampires” is really a series of encounters between the remains of Crow’s team, with the addition of Father Adam, as they track down Valek, who is in turn tracking down all the things he needs to perform his ceremony. Along the way, Sheryl Lee’s hooker turns up to make things complicated. Bitten by Valek, Lee now has a temporary psychic link to Valek and can see what he sees and vice versa. While Montoya begins to fall for the vulnerable Lee, Crow is only interested in using her to get to Valek and end the vampire’s killing spree with one of his own.
“Vampires” is not for those who think Anne Rice’s novels are the “real” thing. The vampires here don’t seduce women, they take as the need arises. The vampires have no sense of style and sleeps in dark corners of old abandoned buildings or buried under the dirt where it’s safe from the sunlight. Killing vampires is also a dangerous business, and at one point Crow has to “clean up” after Valek by decapitating his victims to ensure they don’t become vampires. As the Master vampire, Valek grunts more than he talks, and has as much charm as day old pasta.
James Woods (“John Q.”) is surprisingly effective as the tough-as-nails Jack Crow. Despite not having the physique or the history of playing badass characters, Woods is a revelation as an action hero. It’s a treat to see Crow mistreat just about everyone that comes into contact with him, including his sidekick Montoya, Sheryl Lee’s hooker, and, most of all, Tim Guinee’s poor Father Adam. By the time Crow faces off against Valek mano-a-mano, he doesn’t seem completely at a disadvantage at all.
It’s not too much to say that “Vampires” is probably John Carpenter’s best movie in the ’90s, which unfortunately isn’t saying much about the projects Mister Carpenter has been choosing of late. Despite a host of exploding vampires, “Vampires” is nearly devoid of any CGI. There’s a lot of gore, decapitations, stakings, and stabbings of all manner. At one point Valek splits a victim in half with his hand, then feeds a priest the barrels of a shotgun. The movie goes all out with the violence, and it’s sure to turn off anyone not looking for it. But if you are seeking this sort of thing, Carpenter gives you all you can handle, and then some.
For vampire lovers, the Straight-to-Video sequel “Vampires: Los Muertos” with Jon Bon Jovi as another vampire hunter is worth a look.
John Carpenter (director) / John Steakley (novel), Don Jakoby (screenplay)
CAST: James Woods …. Jack Crow
Daniel Baldwin …. Montoya
Sheryl Lee …. Katrina
Thomas Ian Griffith …. Jan Valek
Tim Guinee …. Father Adam Guiteau