Review: John Carpenter's Vampires (Don HARLOW)

John Carpenter's Vampires

Movie by John Carpenter, from the novel by John Steakley

reviewed by Don HARLOW

   John Steakley is not, I am afraid, a name to conjure with. He has written two genre novels that I am aware of. One of them, an s-f military novel called Armor, has gone through two printings. The other is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fantasy named Vampire$ (and no, that last character is not a misprint), about a modern-day team of Fearless Vampire Slayers who go around the country wiping out vampires -- but only when they are paid by someone to do so (their major client is the Catholic Church).

   John Carpenter is, indeed, a name to conjure with, though what you may evoke when calling on that name is sometimes problematic. Carpenter picked up Steakley's vampire novel, liked it, and decided to make a movie based on it. The result is the somewhat misnamed John Carpenter's Vampires. I wish they'd kept the original name.

   We start with an ancient and apparently abandoned farmhouse in New Mexico, a farmhouse from which the paint has peeled off. Jack Crow's (James Woods) team of modern-day Van Helsings arrives in a well-equipped set of rough-country vehicles and proceeds to clean out this "nest" of vampires. The technique is apparently well-practiced; go in, roust out the "goons" (subordinate vampires), stake them (in this particular branch of the mythos, not a permanent solution), and winch them out into the sunlight, where they catch fire and burn very nicely. Lots of goons cleaned out, but Crow is surprised to find no "master vampire" among them. Never mind -- that night, while the team enjoys a success party with some of the local booze and broads, the master, one Jan Valek, shows up and has his revenge in one of the goriest scenes anybody has ever put on the screen (have you ever seen somebody split in half?). Crow, his second-in-command Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin -- the only other survivor of the team), and Katrina, one of the local dames de nuit who has been fanged by the vampire and is now likely to become one of the undead herself, escape, and, with the enthusiastic backing of the Church, set out to hunt down Valek, who, it turns out, was the Very First Vampire (accidentally created by the Church in the thirteenth century or thereabouts) and who has a plan to turn the world to vampirism.

   For those unfamiliar with the genre, there seem to be two schools of vampire novels these days -- one with the Good Vampires who get Bad Press (Fred Saberhagen, Anne Rice) and one with the Vampire as Lowlife Murderer. This film definitely falls into the second category.

   Interesting to see how much baggage has accrued to the vampire legend since the days of Varney the Vampire and Abraham Stoker's Dracula. The film uses, among other things, the relatively modern literary concept of vampire territoriality and the associated term "Master" (see also Barbara Hambly's novel Those Who Hunt the Night and Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake novels). The term "goons" is, however, peculiar to this particular film (Hambly uses "fledglings" for the same type of subordinate vampire).

   Overall, I can't say I'm sorry I went to see this film; it's worth seeing (for those who enjoy the genre) ... once. I don't think I'd pay to see it a second time, though.

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