John Carpenter directed my favorite film, Halloween, and many others that I love, including The Fog and The Thing. That earns him a permanent pass on lesser projects, at least in my book. Carpenter's more recent films lack the legacy and longevity of his earlier works, but Vampires is a solid B-movie for an A+ director. Released in 1998 before the onslaught of terrible vampire movies that continues today, this gory Western is the rare film in which James Woods plays the good guy. Based on John Steakley's novel "Vampire$," Carpenter's film stumbles over its convoluted plot and unlikeable characters but is a bloody, often-exciting homage to legendary Western filmmaking.
Carpenter had a hell of a run in the 1980s, when his career peaked, and released a handful of interesting projects in the early 1990s, including Body Bags, In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned. The plot of Vampires is uncharacteristically complicated for a Carpenter film and involves a lot of hastily explained backstory. Jack Crow (Woods) and Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) are vampire hunters paid by the Catholic Church, which long ago created the first vampire. Crow's boss, Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell), urges Crow to allow Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) to join the hunt for Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the original, all-powerful vampire. The film retains hints of the novel, but loses much of its plot about the monetization of vampire hunting.
The opening sequence is thrilling: Crow and company roll up to a vampire safe house in daylight to execute a cleanse. There are human casualties, but Crow manages to harpoon several bloodsuckers and drag them to a fiery death. Later, Crow and Montoya party with strippers at a seedy hotel, where Valek attacks them. One of the women, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), is bitten, and becomes a human compass of sorts, as she is able to forecast Valek's location and behavior. The guys use her to track Valek as she comes closer to turning into a vampire. The middle of Vampires is somewhat dull, and the film spins its wheels with too much character building for Crow and Father Guiteau. The chase to locate Valek is what viewers want to see, and Vampires never lays the appropriate groundwork to make the Catholic-warrior mythology compelling.
Obviously emulating the works of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, Carpenter nicely weaves the supernatural into the Western framework. Vampires rise from the desert sand to serve their master, and Carpenter stages a number of impressive action set pieces in the final act, where the film's pulse quickens considerably. I wish these characters were better written, as I enjoy watching Woods and Baldwin no matter their roles. As they stand, Woods's Crow is ceaselessly grouchy and one-dimensional, and Baldwin's Montoya does a near-instantaneous 180 from potential rapist to knight in shining armor. Katrina turns into the film's unlikely hero. Leave it to Carpenter to empower the stripper. Vampires is technically strong, which is no surprise given the talent behind the camera, with a sparse, unique Carpenter score and some impressive practical effects from Greg Nicotero and KNB Effects. This is lesser Carpenter, sure, but that makes it better than most horror films.
Twilight Time releases Vampires on Blu-ray for Sony, which provides a strong 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The entire presentation is pleasingly film-like, with evenly resolved grain and excellent fine-object detail. The desert landscapes are sharp and deep, and the image lacks aliasing and shimmer. Carpenter gives the film a desert-tan look, which occasionally results in blown-out highlights and hot skin tones. Black levels are inky, but black crush does at times creep into the image, which creates heavy shadowing. This is not a big problem, and I did not spot DNR or edge enhancement.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix benefits from good fidelity and balance. Dialogue is clear and uninterrupted by effects and score. Carpenter's score is given appropriate respect, and action effects are quite raucous. Gunfire, hand-to-hand combat and vampire shrieks pan the sound field, and the subwoofer rumbles to life throughout. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also included, as are English SDH subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Released as part of Twilight Time's "Limited Edition Series," Vampires arrives in a clear case with an accompanying booklet. Extras include Twilight Time's trademark Isolated Score Track, in lossless audio; an older Commentary by John Carpenter; The Making of John Carpenter's Vampires (5:53/SD), a vintage EPK featurette; and the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:41/SD).
My favorable opinion of John Carpenter's filmmaking probably sways my judgment on his Vampires, which is far from his best film. Even so, this bloody Western has its moments. The plot is overly complicated, and James Woods and Daniel Baldwin deserve better characters. The action and nods to John Ford and other Western filmmakers are pleasing, and Twilight Time's Blu-ray is an excellent way to enjoy this B-movie. Highly Recommended.