Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Film Review: VAMPIRES (1998, John Carpenter)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin (HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), Sheryl Lee (TWIN PEAKS, BACKBEAT, WINTER'S BONE), Tim Guinee (BLADE, IRON MAN), Maximilian Schell (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, ST. IVES, CROSS OF IRON), Thomas Ian Griffith (THE KARATE KID PART III, XXX), Mark Boone Jr. (DIE HARD 2, BATMAN BEGINS). Cinematography by Gary Kibbe. Written by Don Jakoby (BLUE THUNDER, DEATH WISH 3, ARACHNOPHOBIA) and based on the novel by John Steakley. Cameo by Frank Darabont as 'car theft victim.'
Tag-line: "Prepare for the Dawn."
Best one-liner: "The sunlight turns 'em into crispy critters."

VAMPIRES underwent a lot of excellent re-evaluation during Radiator Heaven's Carpenter Blogathon this October, so I was feeling the compulsion to revisit it. My opinion was that it wasn't terribly bad nor was it terribly good, but that it was still a solid, Hawks-infused, second-tier Carpenter. This still stands, but I believe I must attach a caveat: VAMPIRES is the sort of movie you should probably watch alone. I think you know what I mean. As soon as the prying eyes of some second party, non-Carpenter apologist stray across the screen you begin to feel some pangs of embarrassment because an action scene is being presented with rampant dissolves, or some lesser Baldwin is smacking around Laura Palmer, or James Woods is delivering a speech about boners. Suffice it to say, that even to a girlfriend who's on board with THE THING and THEY LIVE, VAMPIRES is a pretty tough sell. VAMPIRES has got a lot of 'slowed-frame-rate slow motion,' which, for lack of better terminology, is The Slow Motion That Looks Like Shit. There are moments where so much exposition ("I know your parents were bitten by vampires, but...") is being jammed down our throats, it feels almost like we're being mugged. There's Maxmilian Schell in a Cardinal's outfit that might have been plucked from a community theater's Kostume Kloset.

I don't know if you can tell from this photo, but that cross may have been purchased from a craft store.

You see, the budget was cut by 66% right before filming began, and we can't blame Carpy for that. But there's a lot of good stuff, too. First off, there's no glaringly hideous low-budge CGI to muck up the proceedings- in fact, some of Greg Nicotero's makeup effects are damned impressive. But secondly, the movie is cool. James Woods is cool. Don't believe me? Check out these pictures taken of him walking away from an explosion without even flinching.

Check out those mini-aviators, the cigar, and the scowl. He lights matches off of skulls for chrissakes.

Even when his nuts are on fire, he's got something snappy to say.

And he sells it. In order for a movie like this to succeed, it's gotta be carried by someone, and James Woods is ready, willing, and able to carry out the task. In those 'iffy' moments, you have to look to someone for leadership. We look to Woods, and he looks committed enough... so the movie stays afloat.

His sidekick, Montoya, is played by the lesser Baldwin named Daniel. He drinks Red Dog, wears denim, and has got a fancy necklace that he bought from the mall.

We meet them in a scene that's very NEAR DARK-meets-Howard Hawks: getting to know the characters, in media res, in relation to their work. Though most of our expendable blue-collar heroes don't survive the first twenty minutes, Carpenter (and DP Kibbe) introduce the crew as hardened, workaday men, sleazy but professional, who exist someplace in that ambiguous zone betwixt 'pistolero' and 'SWAT Team.' Everyone has a job to do, and their determination and speciality devices lend a quality of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

(Though, later, during the aforementioned 'team massacre' near the twenty-minute mark, one team member comically shows uncommon ineptitude by attempting to stake a vampire right in the heart. Er, I mean, right in a spot three feet above his head.)

Our master vampire is played by Thomas Ian Griffith, who is kind of a cross between Richard E. Grant and Tommy Wiseau, but without the flamboyancy or absurdity of either.

He's not bad, but you generally hope for a flashier villain in a picture such as this. There is a great moment though, when a portrait of the Master, supposedly painted in 1340, is revealed.

Any resemblance to a Sears portrait, circa 1998, with a layer of 'oil painting' Photoshop rendering, is purely coincidental.

Then we got Sheryl Lee as the 'hooker-turned-vampire' who has a psychic link with the Master. She imbues the role with a genuine intensity that it doesn't quite deserve. (With shades of her Laura Palmer-as-possessed-by-BOB from TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME!) As written, the role- and large swaths of the script as a whole (not written by Carpenter)- are kiiiiind of misogynistic, which is especially surprising considering that it's a Carpy film.

A lesser Baldwin stikes a lady

Random bondage

Lee and Carpenter work together to give it some added depth, however, and additionally, she can probably lay claim to being the freakiest element of the film.

The soundtrack is classic Carpy: bass-heavy, twangy, and usually building momentum, like his work on THEY LIVE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Kibbe's cinematography is up to par, and one scene in particular, whereupon the Master Vampire and his minions rise out of the prairie dust, is especially effective.

Anyway, the movie chugs along, Woods picks up another sidekick in the form of a nerdy priest played by Tim Guinee, there's some enjoyable action setpieces, some kind of hamfisted but not out-of-place commentary on the Catholic church, and the line "How do ya like your 'stake,' bitch?" Between all the screaming and yelling and grappling with blood-coated women and utterances of "fucking bitch" and all that, you get the idea that it's almost a 'day in the life' of James Woods the actor, and it's really too bad that Sean Young couldn't make an appearance in this film, too. To make a long story short, we conclude with a classically existential Carpenter denouement that smacks, most admirably, of the master Hawks himself.

Then, after the most genuine moment of the film (and one which it deserves to have) Carpenter boldly ends the movie with Woods and his new priest-buddy talking about boners.

Now, somehow I find that I can get behind this wholeheartedly: it takes balls to end your movie with a bunch of wisecracks about boners. But it's the kinda thing that makes you wince when somebody pops their head in, and just sees that part, or when you're trying to show it to somebody who doesn't take kindly to all this rough talk about boners. So, alone, I give VAMPIRES four stars. When forced to defend it to somebody who has, uh, higher standards, I have to admit it's probably about two and a half. So let's split the difference. I still love ya, Carpy.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Heh! Thanks for the shout-out and yeah, it is hard film to defend to non-believers and when I first saw it, I wasn't all that taken with it, 'cept for James Woods but over the years I've warmed up to its explicit political incorrectness as if Carpy was purposely saying, this film ain't PC! Wow.... But the film does have its moments and nobody can ram exposition dialogue down our throats and make us like it like Carpy... of course, it doesn't hurt when you've got someone like Woods spouting said dialogue.

GuyR said...

Yeah, James Woods pretty much carries the film on his shoulders...and succeeds! This is the very definition of badass!
His french dubbing is very good, full of insults. But nobody really cares, as there are currently five people living in France.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, it would seem to fit the definition of 'guilty pleasure' to a T, and I guess that's pretty much the modus operandi of second-tier Carpy. And I'm okay with that. (But I'll defend the finale of ESCAPE FROM L.A. to the death!)

I'm imagining Woods delivering his verbal smackdowns and boner talk in French- and somehow the mental image conjured is one of... Belmondo!

Maurice Mitchell said...

Good point about the budget, but James Woods could read the phone book and look cool. Fighting vampires just takes it up a notch.

Pat Powers said...

It's a guy movie, that explains it simply enough. I mean, why did they tie Sheryl Lee's character naked and spreadeagled on the bed with a tape gag over her mouth? Because they COULD, that's why! Because they sure left her untied often enough in subsequent scenes. And clothed, too! Guy movies don't NEED explanations. If it makes sense, it probably is not a guy movie!