I rather enjoyed this. It's not a horror movie, but a vampire Western and thus part of a genre John Carpenter's been emulating since Assault on Precinct 13. It's based on a John Steakley novel (Vampire$) that's apparently fairly explicit about trying to be an action-packed western (says Finn, not having read it himself), so it's not as if Carpenter's twisting the source material or anything.
And quite frankly, there's no excuse for not recognising immediately what Carpenter's up to. It's not exactly subtle. The film practically screams "Western" at you; anyone who's paying attention should know the score inside sixty seconds. This film isn't about terror and atmosphere, but about laconic tough guys who go out there to do what a guy's gotta do. James Woods... man, he's so hard, he doesn't wash his own blood off his arm! It's a shame he looks like Sylvester Stallone, but you can't have everything.
I could go on and on. When James Woods argues with Daniel Baldwin, they don't do it in the car. Oh no. They get out, stand in the sun like manly men and squint at each other. The world of John Carpenter's Vampires is one in which the police are an irrelevance and our heroes have no one to rely on but themselves. (Okay, they're funded by the Roman Catholic Church. However the first time we see Cardinal Alba, James Woods cuts himself loose from them.) It's filmed in New Mexico. Even the music is sorta Western-like; imagine Sergio Leone with an electric guitar.
Westerns need space. They need wide shots, they need landscapes. John Carpenter gives us plenty of that, showing a love for wide shots that at times approaches ridiculousness. Look at the strangely directed opening sequence in which James Woods and his slayers take on a vampire nest. Woods reaches through a hole into the dark... and Carpenter promptly gives us a wide shot of the other side of the hole! Huh? At least try to create tension, man!
You see, horror is the antithesis of a Western. The former needs to be close-up and intimate, while the latter needs epic confrontations and space. Anyone going into this film hoping for fear will be seriously disappointed.
In that aforementioned opening sequence, Carpenter's so busy trying to hammer home the Western feel that his direction loses all focus. (It's fine for the rest of the movie, but this opening bit sucks.) Woods and the team are trying to be silent as they sneak around the nest, which should mean tension when they accidentally kick a can or bang a door... except that they're making so much noise that any atmosphere evaporates. Similarly, the first appearance of a vampire isn't a shock. It just drifts through the air. In fact, these vamps aren't allowed much respect at all. They're tough, yes, but our heroes seem fairly casual about taking them out, even going so far as to take time out for macho one-liners.
But having said that, I liked the vampire harpoon. Also the Vampire Master (Thomas Ian Griffith) is pretty cool, and far more menacing than his previously-seen brethren. Naturally his first appearance is in a wide shot, from behind and low down, as he strides across a wide open space in a long coat. Hell, that goes without saying.
My biggest problem is how the film pollutes its Western feel with today's action hero tendencies. Westerns are deeply personal, giving us life-and-death situations and stoical heroes fighting on against the pain. These guys are just macho arseholes. They have short fuses, macho one-liners and too much testosterone. The script doesn't make them earn the right to act like Dirty Harry, but straight away has them pushing people around and acting tough. Woods's character is even called Jack Crow, and a more stereotypical action hero name I've never heard.
James Woods has lots of fun playing this monomaniac tight-arse. Sheryl Lee does sterling work with a fairly thankless role. Thomas Ian Griffith is unfortunately made to resemble an Anne Rice pretty boy, but I could live with that since Carpenter is reassuringly consistent in his depiction of vampires as monstrous blood-drinking subhuman savages.
The vampire stuff has good and bad points. I liked the religious imagery in which this film is steeped. It's a good old-fashioned God-against-the-vampires movie, with all the Roman Catholic trappings of priests, crosses, churches, monasteries and the rest. Damn, I've missed those! These vamps also have a great origin story, despite the fact that this kind of explaining-away is usually highly unwelcome. But having introduced all this good stuff, Father Giovanni goes and withholds a bunch of exposition for no reason except to give the script an excuse to let Woods be a tough guy again.
There's some sexy vampire stuff, unfortunately. It's silly, really. If Valek is so happy to go down and suck Sheryl Lee's groin area, let's see him do it to a few male victims.
Oh, and what's with this touching faith in cauterisation being a cure for vampire bites? I know Carpenter didn't invent this, not by a long shot, but it still seems stupid to me. Cauterisation stops bleeding. That's all. Yeah, next time someone splashes AIDS-infected blood on an open wound of mine, I'll just hold a cigarette lighter to it and I'll be as right as rain. But then again, I don't think this film ever shows cauterisation as a vampire bite cure actually to work, so I'll withhold judgement for the time being.
In fairness, there is one great bit of horror late in the film. That priest's a braver man than I am. There's also the traditional John Carpenter "no way!" ending. I have friends who hate this movie, but I suspect they went in expecting a John Carpenter horror flick and were disappointed. If you avoid false expectations, I reckon there's some serious fun to be had here.