Friday, February 19, 2010

Vampires (USA, 1998)

Way back in 1982, after a series both critically and commercially successful films, John Carpenter committed the great sin of remaking a classic horror film. Torn apart at the time, John Carpenter’s The Thing (trailer) has seemingly redeemed itself over the years and is now (rightfully) said to be a horror classic of the 80s, but Carpenter’s reputation has never completely recovered from that year. True, like every director with an output as regular as his, he has made some incredible turkeys over the years, including Christine (1983 / trailer), Starman (1984 / trailer), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992 / trailer), the remake of The Village of the Damned (1995 / trailer), Escape from L.A. (1996 / trailer), and The Ghosts of Mars (2001 / trailer) but the amount of flack he gets seems unjustified, his films often trashed not for what they are but because he made them. Unjustifiably so, for as a genre filmmaker of middle to low budget films, he has made quiet a few truly enjoyable films, if not some modern classics, including Dark Star (1973 / trailer), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 / trailer), Halloween (1978 / trailer), The Fog (1980/ trailer), Escape from New York (1981 / trailer), Big Trouble In Little China (1986 / trailer) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995 / trailer).
In all truth, Vampires ain’t no masterpiece, but it is also a far cry from, say, Ghosts of Mars, and is definitely much better than the reputation it has unjustifiably been given. A multi-violent testosterone-charged contemporary vampire western comic book, Vampires ain’t deep, but it is an enjoyable, macho romp peppered liberally with pubescent phalocentric jokes, a light coating of misogyny, cut-and-dried characterization and buckets of blood and guts. Made for teenage boys in the grasp of raging hormones and still undecided if comic books are just for babies, it is easy to enjoy by anyone looking for fun, not depth—and face it, someone looking for depth ain’t gonna rent this film in the first place.
Based on John Steakley’s novel Vampire, Don Jakoby’s script is flawed but it still holds together much better than is to be expected, seeing that Jakoby also puked out the script to Blue Thunder (1983 / trailer) as well as both Tobe Hooper’s mildly enjoyable Lifeforce (1985 / trailer) and his atrociously unnecessary remake of Invaders from Mars (1986 / trailer). Okay, there may be some major lapses in the logic of the story in Vampires, but at least it is understandable (unlike Lifeforce) and is never simply boring (like Blue Thunder and Invaders from Mars). For all the flaws the script has, it is at least quickly paced, and Carpenter not only directs the film smoothly, he also has the help of some clear-cut characterization, great special effects, an excellent cinematographer and quick (but lucid) editing.
Not sparing any time for introductions, the film opens with Jack Crow (James Wood) and Montoya (Daniel “Fat Boy of the Family” Baldwin) somewhere in New Mexico checking out a deserted house that they believe is a location of a “nest” of vampires. Pulling up in their jeep and truck, out pops an odd dozen men and priest, all part of a vampire-hunting team working for the Vatican.
In no short order they stake an odd dozen vampires, but despite finding it strange that no “Master” is anywhere to be found they leave without much ado to celebrate a successful day's work with a bunch of whores and a massive amount of alcohol. Even as they drive away, two hands pop up out a grave not too far away. That night, unconcerned about the fact that Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the master of the nest they just slaughtered, is still out there somewhere, they drink themselves silly and party down—at least until the bad man shows up and, after a brief bout of blood-tinted oral sex with the hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee), promptly slaughters everyone. Crow and Montoya barely manage to get away, towing the bitten hooker along after them. The exchange of body fluids she had with Valek not only causes her slow change into a vampire, but also telepathically links her to Valek, so Crow wants to use her to find out where the bad man is and what he is doing. Along the way, Crow makes a brief detour to check in with his boss Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) and finds out that all Vatican vampire hunters in the world have been slaughtered. He also gets stuck with Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), a wimpy church librarian who eventually reveals that Valek is searching for the recently rediscovered cross needed for a ceremony that would make it possible for him to walk during the day, thus making him unstoppable. In the meantime, back at the hotel, in a scene properly tinged with a little bondage and naked skin, Katrina manages to bite Montoya, who sterilizes his injury with a bic lighter. Using Katrina’s visions, they follow Valek’s bloody trail to a small “deserted” town where the big showdown occurs, complete with the revelation of the traitor in their midst, a last-second rescue, the final conversion of Katrina and a male-bonded macho “happy” ending....
Wood more or less walks through his roll as Crow, failing to achieve any of the power he has shown in such films as Videodrome (1983 / trailer), Salvador (1986 / trailer) or the ridiculous comedy The Specialist (1994 / trailer). Still, he is more than passable as the erection-obsessed Crow, forever spewing forth such quotable bonmots as “So Valek, how is your dick working after 600 years?” Likewise, Tim Guinee is passable as a librarian wimp who quickly becomes a real man when the going gets tuff, while Baldwin is perfect as Crow’s less faultless and beefy sidekick who slowly finds love (?!?) in Katrina. Schell is properly condescending in a roll he obviously feels is beneath him, while Sheryl Lee—not exactly the best of actresses—actually manages to give her character much more depth and breadth than the script calls for. As the big bad vampire, Thomas Ian Griffith is both ugly and scary, perfectly cast in a roll that displays none of the sexy attractiveness he so exuded as the wise-cracking, pill-popping DEA agent in Hollow Point (1996 / trailer).
Good or bad acting aside, Vampires holds it own strongly when used as video fodder for some male bonding video night with a group of stoned, beer swilling guys of any age. Violent, funny and fast moving—everything one needs on a night off from the sensitive other half back at the house.

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