John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

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*. John Carpenter is a director who’s always had a genially cynical attitude toward the movie business. He’d given up on moviemaking (saying it was no longer any fun) but took on this project because it made him think of Red River. A chance to re-visit Howard Hawks was not going to be let pass.
*. James Woods is an actor who’s always had a genially cynical attitude toward the movie business. He’s also notoriously hard to work with. But he got along with Carpenter, who may have recognized a kindred spirit and who wisely allowed him lots of room to improvise.
*. Bullets don’t work and yet the slayers all use guns against the vampires. I’m not sure that makes sense. Or why arrows seem to bother the vampires so much more than bullets.
*. As noted, Carpenter was attracted to the project because he saw it as a western that reminded him of Hawks. In his commentary he also references Peckinpah (calling this movie “The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler”) and Sergio Leone. I see Leone as the main influence. This is a spaghetti-and-tomato sauce western, with Woods as the gunslinging anti-hero with a cigar and the only women with lines being whores.

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*. The business of dragging the vampires outside so they can explode into flame seems like overkill. Why not just stake them through the heart when they’re inside? And wouldn’t the bolt likely get pulled loose at some point?
*. I didn’t think the death of Valek derived from anything in particular so I was a little surprised to hear Carpenter say it was inspired by Horror of Dracula. I guess the vampires both die by sunlight at the end. But you’d think those loose boards on the roof of the building would let enough sunlight through to damage Valek anyway. Just how much sunlight does it take to kill a vampire?
*. Carpenter seems to know his Hammer horror well. I’m not sure, but wasn’t the idea of a vampire bite being disinfected through cauterization first presented in The Brides of Dracula? And that is not a particularly well known film.
*. I can’t believe for a moment that Montoya would have grabbed hold of the winch cable with his bare hand when it stuck. I wouldn’t do something that stupid even if I was wearing heavy leather gloves.
*. Yes, Gene Siskel really, seriously, thought James Woods deserved an Oscar nomination for his role here, citing his “motormouth artistry and energy.” Roger Ebert, who didn’t like the movie, was unpersuaded.

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*. Siskel had a point, however, in saying that Woods drives the whole movie. His improvised dialogue provides all the best lines (“After six hundred years, how’s that dick working? Pretty good?”). Sheryl Lee does a surprisingly good job in a hopeless role not too far removed from Laura Palmer. Daniel Baldwin is barely passable as a sidekick. Tim Guinee just gets slapped around.
*. Speaking of Roger Ebert, here he is on the character of Katrina: “She has wonderful qualities, including the ability to wear the same costume throughout the movie, survive a vampire massacre and a pickup truck crash, and still have the outfit look perky the next day with a neckline that displays the precise 2.2 inches of cleavage that Carpenter’s heroines always display, as if just that much and no more or less comforts his libido.”
*. I’ve said it before, but for such a celebrated director of thrillers, Carpenter has a very poor sense of pacing and suspense. I think only two of his movies (Halloween and The Thing) are really well directed. His other films tend to get by on the strength of their concepts. In this movie there’s way too much time spent in the hotel room explaining things we’ve already figured out. On his commentary, Carpenter even apologizes at one point that “that’s the third time we’ve heard this information [about the psychic link between Katrina and Valek], but the rule is the third time the audience gets it.” I hope that’s not a real rule. The whole middle part of this movie drags.

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*. A movie with a $20 million budget, and Carpenter used a handheld camera in some of the later scenes “to save time.” That’s staggering honesty.
*. Isn’t it kind of weird that nobody notices how the priest runs away and hides at the end, only to reappear later to save the day? Wouldn’t Valek have followed up on that?
*. Why does Crow let Montoya go? Carpenter says he was “trying to indicate something about loyalty and love.” But wouldn’t the loving/caring thing to do be to kill him? That’s what you do to infected zombies, who typically want someone to kill them before they turn into the undead. And as Crow says, he’s just going to come after him and kill him anyway. It’s almost like he’s trying to be sporting about it. But in doing so he’s also jeopardizing the safety of innocents.
*. Which is a long way of saying that I don’t think they had a good way to end the movie so they just wrapped things up quickly with a hug and a vaya con Dios. They may not have been planning a sequel, but it did good box office and so they got a couple anyway.

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