VAMPIRES bites. As in, sucks. Other than sumptuous camerawork and an okay score, this 1998 carnage-fest is as wretched as the vicious varmints it gleefully stakes & bakes. Also known as John Carpenter’s Vampires, the 16th of 18 films directed by the horror maven, it’s arguably his worst. He did the pensive rockish soundtrack, and that works well enough, but shoulders most blame for an atrocious script, rewritten from one credited to Don Jakoby. They were cannibalized from John Steakley’s “Vampire$”, 357 pages worth, published nine years earlier.
Celebrating their wipeout of a vampire nest, Vatican-sponsored team leader ‘Jack Crow’ (James Woods) and his men party in a motel with an array of hookers (cuz these are a high-class outfit). Ambushed in their debauch by superhuman Master Vampire ‘Velek’ (Thomas Ian Griffith), the partiers are slaughtered, with only ever-surly Jack, gruff assistant ‘Montoya’ (Daniel Baldwin) and Valek-bitten hooker ‘Katrina’ (Sheryl Lee) surviving the attack. With the hapless hooker now telepathically connected to the fiend, Jack and Montoya go into revenge mode. The population of New Mexico takes a sharp decline.
So do taste and intelligence. The tone revels in meanness. Ample bloodletting would be more vicariously bearable if Carpenter’s risible script wasn’t so aggressively infantile. The supposed attempts at humor are fit for juvey-bound 13-year-olds, the lazy overuse of profanity is numbing, the hero characters have one dimension, brutal (Woods and Baldwin in a pissing contest to see who’s more repellent, at least Woods has talent), misogyny is on a Tarantino level (maybe Quentin watched this to put him in an extra-bad mood for The Hateful Eight). It doesn’t give the proceedings any class by having Maximilian Schell show up for two scenes: trouper-stooping to surely a low point in his career.
Given the abuse she has to suffer, Lee delivers a impressive performance, and one sequence with a fresh squad of vampires rising from the earth is pretty good (shades of the skeleton crew from Jason And The Argonauts). Carpenter’s throbbing score is reasonably ominous. By far the best aspect of an otherwise depressing ordeal is the superb cinematography from Gary P. Kibbe, one of seven assignments he shot for Carpenter. He captures the New Mexican locations with a grace otherwise absent, getting some striking images of sunsets and rises.
Originally budgeted at $60,000,000, that was wisely chopped to $20,000,000 (did some suit with unexpected savvy actually read the script? or just smell it?). Mixed reviews (many negative like this one, others somehow delighted) were followed by a gross of $20,309,000 domestically, #81 in ’98, and it was popular abroad, especially in Japan. Additionally more than twice that came in from subsequent video release. *
With Tim Guinee, Gregory Sierra, Mark Boone Junior. 107 minutes, a good twenty longer than needed even it had been any good.
* Vampires fanged it out with the same year’s Blade, which diced it up at the box office and spawned two sequels. As for critics and Vampires, if you can find Paul Tatara’s review, it’s a hoot. On the “where’s your brain?” scale, Gene Siskel was so taken with it that he suggested Woods get an Oscar nomination! A take-your-thumb-and-shove-it situation.