VAMPIRES **** USA 1998 Dir: John Carpenter. 108 mins
The most stylish and bloodiest of Carpenter’s 90’s movies, this adaptation of John Steakley’s novel (by LIFEFORCE screenwriter Don Jakoby) followed major studio R-rated vampire movies FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and BLADE and, like those, led to a pair of (pretty redundant) sequels. It showcases a rare, dynamic lead role for James Woods, donning shades, blue jeans and leather jacket – and tossing out politically incorrect one-liners – as an orphan brought up by the Catholic Church as a “Master Slayer” who devotes his adult life to killing the bloodsucking “goons” for the Vatican (the official line is they are dealing with “anti-Catholic hate crimes”).
The efficiency of his vampire killing squad is demonstrated by Carpenter’s visceral opening WILD BUNCH-inspired set piece – and by the massacre of Woods’ crew at the Sun God Motel courtesy of superhuman master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith). Valek is the first and most powerful of all vampires, having been created by the Church following a botched “inverse” exorcism centuries earlier. Woods’ love interest (well, he licks her face at one point) Sheryl Lee is bitten on the inner thighs in the most overtly sexual moment, developing a telepathic link to her Master while Woods recruits a whole new team to stop Valek completing a ritual allowing him to walk in the daylight.
Striking widescreen visuals dominate the movie – notably a group of vampires digging themselves out of their graves at dusk – and KNB’s splashy gore FX are particularly well served in Griffith’s show-stopping entrance. Woods makes for a fabulously foul mouthed anti-hero, driven by bitterness and grief and given a midpoint speech deconstructing the softer, soulful vampires of the Anne Rice era and cheerfully dispelling myths: “They’re not a bunch of fucking fags hopping around in rental formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Eurotrash accents”. Sheryl Lee spends most of the movie strapped naked to a bed, though her slow transition into a monster affords the actress another startlingly intense, schizoid post-Laura Palmer role. Showcasing marvellously coarse dialogue (“Fuckin’ pole-smoking fashion victim!”), this was a minor box office hit at the time but increasingly looks like one of Carpenter’s most underrated movies, with an equally undervalued bluesy, melancholic score.
Review by Steven West