Call me old-fashioned, but there are few things at the movies that excite me more than the prospect of a new release from either John Carpenter, Brian De Palma or Walter Hill.
All these directors won glory in the 1970s but, unlike Martin Scorsese, were primarily associated with popular genres like Westerns, thrillers, action and horror films. But they were also innovators, bringing such pop forms close to the kinetic beauty and cool abstraction of some European art cinema.
Twenty years down the track, that mix of pop culture and experimentation has turned out to be a mixed blessing for these game artists. Their box office fortunes and mainstream critical acclaim have waxed and waned in strict accordance with the standing of the genres they use. When action movies were declared formulaic and barbaric, Hill was dismissed as a mere journeyman director; when horror movies became decadent and jokey, Carpenter was seen as washed-up and irrelevant.
It takes about two minutes for Vampires to prove that Carpenter is far from a spent force – at least to those who can appreciate a master filmmaker at work. A crack team of vampire slayers led by Jack Crow (James Woods) assembles outside a seemingly abandoned farmhouse in New Mexico. They speak little and move deftly, lining up like Peckinpah's Wild Bunch at the front door. Before the action proper begins – and as Carpenter's own wonderful rock music score builds in intensity – the camera repeatedly moves in on Jack's grim, determined face. The effect is exhilarating.
After the initial, superbly choreographed flurry of blood, gore, flames and dismemberment, Carpenter begins filling in the backstory. The one that got away at the farmhouse – master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) – returns with a vengeance, and superhuman strength, when the slayers' guard is down at a motel party. With incomparable storytelling skill, Carpenter leads us to gradually anticipate the worst – the apocalyptic moment when Valek will take possession of a certain black crucifix and free his undead army to feast in daylight.
Like The Lost Boys (1987), Vampires self-consciously refers to and alters the hoary old movie mythology attached to these fearsome, supernatural creatures. Sunlight and a stake through the heart still do the trick, but forget the garlic and holy water routines. Religion is, however, one of the big issues of the film. Jack is in the employ of Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell), and has to carry in his team the bumbling Father Adam (Tim Guinee), but he makes no bones about asserting that Valek was "created by the Catholic Church".
Sex is the other big issue. From the moment at the motel when Valek gives the prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) a rather voluptuous vampiric initiation, the film locates much of its poetic mystery and suspense in the tense triangular relationship between her, Jack and his principal sidekick Tony (Daniel Baldwin). As Katrina wavers between a human and inhuman condition, Carpenter presents her as a perverse femme fatale, both repelling and attracting the men.
Ultimately, Vampires may be less interesting for its themes – treated more passionately in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) – than for the sheer force, majesty and wit of its style. With its terrific ensemble acting (Woods' underplaying is a delight), heart-thumping set-pieces and breathtaking command of film language, this is Carpenter's most exciting and satisfying effort since In the Mouth of Madness (1995). If only this fine filmmaker could break free from the ghetto of his cult reputation...
© Adrian Martin December 1998