BY JESS PEACOCK
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of John Carpenter’s Vampires, a movie I have had a love/hate relationship with for the last two decades. While there is a lot for horror fans to enjoy within the film (and it is cited by Carpenter himself as the motivation to keep directing films), it unfortunately bears very little resemblance to its source material. The novel Vampire$ by author John Steakley is, in my estimation, one of the more interesting and original pieces of vampire fiction of the twentieth century and could have served as the blueprint for an epic cinematic tale of horror, revenge, tragedy, and faith. Rather, we are treated to an in-name-only rendering of the novel, and one of horror cinema’s greatest missed opportunities.
Steakley’s novel, originally published in 1990, is an enthralling endeavor, an action-adventure/horror hybrid turned up well past eleven. From the swaggering, tougher-than-nails John Wayne presence of protagonist vampire hunter Jack Crow, to the malevolent, godlike, and nearly indestructible nature of the vampires, to the embodiment of vampiric literary tropes enlarged to mammoth proportions, it is a literary experience that leaves the reader tattered, bruised, and beaten, and still stands as an inventive and original reformulation of the vampire hunter motif, a jet-fueled narrative that does not let up until the surprisingly thoughtful conclusion.
That said, John Carpenter’sVampires has always held a special place in my heart for what could have been. The budget for the film was allegedly slashed at the last minute from $60 million to $20 million dollars, forcing radical changes to the script and the overall structure of the film. It is possible that more of Steakley’s novel was intact before the budget crunch, which unfortunately left us with a distinctive but unimaginative storyline featuring the Black Cross of Berziers, the Roman Catholic Church being responsible for the creation of the first vampire as a result of a convoluted reverse exorcism, and the efforts of James Woods to halt a dark ritual that would enable vampires to exist in the daylight. None of which bears any resemblance whatsoever to Steakley’s novel.
“The film also embraces the overt religious tone inherent in the western vampire mythos”
Despite these issues, the film is still worth our attention for several reasons twenty years later. First and foremost, the master vampire Valek is played with appropriate menace by Thomas Ian Griffith, who assumes an unabashedly gothic look that, while somewhat out of place in the stark desert of New Mexico, is effectively monstrous. And any portrayal of the vampire in the 1990s as a savage monster, eschewing the increasingly popular Anne Rice-esque romantic strains within the subgenre, is noteworthy and appreciated.
And, of course, there is James Woods as the manic and hardened anti-hero Jack Crow. While nowhere near the hulking team leader described within the novel, the controlled psychotic aura of Woods is magnetic, his intensity and charisma (despite the overt misogyny of his character)working overtime to carry the film through a somewhat lackluster script.
The film also embraces the overt religious tone inherent in the western vampire mythos, making it a worthy addition to the pantheon of Hallowed Horrors. As Father Adam (Tim Guinee) explains to Crow, Valek, a former priest, was transformed into a vampire after being declared demon possessed and forced into an ancient version of the Catholic exorcism ritual. The process went horribly wrong and actually inverted the intended purpose of an exorcism, the end result being the death of Valek’s body and the survival of his possessed soul. The crucifix that was used during the inverted exorcism, known as the Black Cross of Berziers, would give Valek increased powers, including that of immunity from the effects of sunlight. While director Carpenter doesn’t dwell on the issue, the subtext of Valek as a dark Christ represented within his own profane icon of deliverance is abundantly clear.
It is difficult for the vampire to not, in some manner, serve as a religious symbol or Christ figure, but Carpenter drives the point home in his film. After the resurrection but before the ascendance into heaven of Jesus within the overall narrative of the gospels, the Nazarene plunged through the mortal coil of the organic order of life and death, straddling the invisible chasm between the two. Neither dead nor alive and inhabiting a realm that can only be described as undeath, the numinous aura of the Christian demigod is evident to all who bear witness to his post-crucifixion exploits. So it also is with Valek, a once human priest that conquered death and now offers the same freedom from the unassailable laws of God and death. The respective modus operandi regarding the salvation offered by both Jesus and Valek are too similar to dismiss.
Finally, John Carpenter’s Vampires gets an “A” simply for effort. The cultural appetite for vampires, at least within cinema, had been somewhat paltry at the time of the film’s release, with From Dusk till Dawn making a respectable impact a full two years earlier, and Blade being released the same year. Vampires were far from a hot commodity at this juncture, and the decision to produce the film was far from a guarantee of success. Notwithstanding this, for better or for worse, Carpenter dove into his undead production with a malicious and hardcore representation of the classic vampire, and for that alone the movie is worthy of praise.
“Carpenter dove into his undead production with a malicious and hardcore representation of the classic vampire”