Revisiting John Carpenter’s Vampires – A Bloody Vampire Western
In 1998, master of horror John Carpenter put his own spin on the vampire genre with Vampires, a gory thriller based on the book by John Steakley. Led by James Woods’ brooding performance, this supernatural western offered B-movie fun with Carpenter’s signature old-school vibe.
A Simple, Visceral Horror Tale
The premise is straightforward – Woods stars as Jack Crow, a hard-drinking vampire slayer working for the Vatican to wipe out nests of bloodsuckers in the American southwest. But when his team is massacred by Valek, a master vampire searching for an ancient relic, Crow goes on a path of bloody vengeance.
Rather than aiming for sweeping Gothic epic, Carpenter keeps the story lean and mean. Vampires delivers simple, visceral thrills following the classic western framework of a lone man out for justice. The vampires are aggressive, primal monsters rather than brooding aristocrats.
Carpenter also embraces R-rated violence and gore as Crow decapitates vampires with glee. There are no deeper themes or allegories here – just a wildly entertaining battle between human hunter and monstrous prey.
James Woods’ Magnetic Lead Performance
Amid B-movie trappings, James Woods elevates Vampires with one of his most deliciously manic performances as the vampire-slaying priest. He chews scenery with swaggering machismo while downing whiskey between jobs. Woods makes Crow a magnetic anti-hero, tough yet troubled by past trauma and addiction.
His chemistry with Daniel Baldwin as his right-hand man creates a classic western dynamic between battered veteran and eager protégé. Sheryl Lee also leaves an impression as a prostitute transformed into a vicious vampire. Woods’ presence and gravitas inject soul into an otherwise formulaic creature feature.
Signature Carpenter With a Gritty Edge
Carpenter’s knack for executing simple genre premises with style is on full display. The desert setting and western tropes feel like a supernatural extension of his earlier film Assault on Precinct 13. Night scenes with creeping vampires maintain tension.
However, the added violence and a bar sequence set to rap and metal flaunt an edgier tone compared to his 70s and 80s classics. While not Carpenter’s best, Vampires captures his ability to craft taut, exhilarating B-movies better than most. For undemanding vampire action with a Carpenter flair, it delivers the blood-soaked goods.
Just before production began the studio cut the budget by 2/3, and the filmmakers had to furiously rework the story to fit. According to John Steakley, who wrote the novel, the finished film contained much of his dialogue and none of his plot.
Katrina has a snake tattoo on her back. Snake Plissken had a similar tattoo on his chest, the character from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Escape from L.A..
There are many similarities with this and another vampire film made the same year, Blade. Both are about a vampire killer, and they both have a similar plot of vampires trying to complete an arcane ritual that would allow them to move about in daylight. They also both feature a female character slowly turning into a vampire throughout. In addition, Tim Guinee appears in both films.