Vampires isn’t another John Carpenter horror film — it’s another John Carpenter western. Carpenter will be forever identified as the director of Halloween, but, like his idol Howard Hawks, he won’t be tied down to any one genre, even within the same movie. Vampires delivers on its title, but it’s not really about bloodsuckers; it’s about gunslingers, mercenaries, screw-ups and psychos — men who can stare down supernatural horror, blow it away, and pop open a beer. The movie is best understood, and enjoyed, as a classic piece of bad-ass cinema, a remnant of a less touchy-feely age. Bram Stoker, meet Sam Peckinpah.
These vampire hunters are realistically callous, rowdy, and ugly. Led by the scowling Jack Crow (James Woods), they drag vampires out into the sunlight to incinerate them, then celebrate with booze and whores. (They work hard and they play hard.) One night, though, their revels are interrupted by a sort of übervampire — Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a vicious Master vampire with the long black hair and long black overcoat of a decadent rock star. Valek tears through the motel in a matter of minutes, leaving Jack, his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), and a prostitute named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) to tell the tale.
Jack, it so happens, is being bankrolled by the Vatican; the Church has retained him to slay vampires, for reasons I won’t give away. The cardinal (Maximilian Schell) saddles Jack with a young priest (Tim Guinee) to replace the one he just lost, and James Woods’ violently impatient clashes with this cringing rookie are among his funniest on film. Woods plays Jack almost as a sequel to his best performance, in Oliver Stone’s Salvador; Jack is like Richard Boyle ten years later, recast as a vamp-killer with ambivalent feelings about the Church he grew up in. (Remember Woods’ great confession scene in Salvador? Jack Crow’s heated reaction to the mere mention of the word “confession” may be something of an in-joke.)
The motley band of Jack, Montoya, Katrina, and the priest drive around the desert, looking for Valek, who may soon convert at least one of Team Crow to Team Valek. The script, credited to Don Jakoby, takes most of the romance out of the pitiless vampires. They’re not remotely elegant or complex; if they see you, they butcher you. They have to be cut down like rabid dogs — or like the zombies in a George Romero film. In some ways, Vampires looks and feels different from other Carpenter movies — it’s more frenetic, its visuals less studied than usual — but its grimly relentless tone is perfect Carpenter. All the vampires do is kill. All the heroes do is kill vampires. In lesser hands, this could become repetitive and dull; Carpenter plays small, surprising variations throughout, as he does in his score for the film.
If Carpenter’s films tell you anything, it’s that he loves slobby anti-heroes who go in and get it done: Jack Crow has a long line of ancestors including Snake Plissken, R.J. MacReady, Dr. Sam Loomis, John Nada in They Live, Napoleon in Assault on Precinct 13, going all the way back to the bored astronauts in Dark Star, his first film. Vampires is grungy, disreputable fun — the kind of blood-and-tequila western that can only be made nowadays when disguised as a horror movie. The film gestures towards a deeper religious meaning, but what it’s really about is the showdown between good guys and bad guys — no, make that bad guys and worse guys.