The pleasures are modest but consistent in “John Carpenter’s Vampires,” a part-Western, part-horror flick that doesn’t aim too high but nails the range it occupies. A tale of parallel quests in the photogenic American Southwest, pic centers on a vampire slayer on the Vatican payroll who’s intent on destroying a 600-year-old master vampire before the already superhuman creature gets his hands on a secret weapon that will afford 24-hour mobility. Few of the f/x on display will greatly impress youngsters who equate vampires with the over-the-top goons in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” but there’s a mild brainy streak running through Carpenter’s movie that could tickle slightly older, better-versed horror fans.
Pic world-preemed to decent numbers in mid-April general release in France, where Carpenter is a recognized minor auteur. Suspenseful to the end, the widescreen movie looks great on the silver screen and would seem exploitable there for reasonable theatrical results, even if it’s likely to generate the bulk of its biz courtesy of homevid and cable. No U.S. distrib has bitten yet.
Yarn opens just past dawn on a remote homestead in New Mexico as Jack Crow (James Woods) and his team of specially equipped mercenaries attack a vampire “nest.” No-nonsense Crow, who lost his parents to fanged critters, was raised by the church to drive stakes through vampire hearts or harpoon the undead and drag them into the sunlight using a winch-equipped Jeep. Forget garlic, forget crosses: It takes a lot of aggressive pummeling and blasting to subdue a vampire enough to get him out of a dark shelter.
As the story evolves, these particular vampires seem impervious to the so-called “magic hour” before sunset beloved by cinematographers. This makes for some very nice shots of the undead rising up out of the scrubby plains against a sky streaked with vibrant colors.
Not unlike Snake Plissken, tough, lean Crow is fearless, married to his work and looks mighty cool staring down the camera. He and his team are framed like gunslingers who happen to wear fang-deflecting chain mail on their throats. At the aptly named Sun God Motel, Crow is celebrating with his crew and a batch of prosties when master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, very tall, very Gothic) literally breaks up the party along with the chests and spines of most of the revelers.
Only ones to get out alive are Jack, his buddy Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker Valek has already bitten. Their plan is to use Katrina as a sort of divining-rod-cum-bait to find Valek, who’s been on the loose since a botched “inverse exorcism” in the 1300s rendered him unstoppable. Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) sends earnest young padre Guiteau (Tim Guinee) to accompany Crow. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his boss, Montoya has been bitten by the fetching Katrina. At showdown, every character plays a vital role.
“Vampires” taps into an appealing mix of anti-clerical sentiment, unsentimental rebel codes and gung-ho gouging and splattering. Unlike garlic, Carpenter’s humor-leavened handling of evil doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Woods is a laconic delight as the crusader with an unswerving cause, and Baldwin is OK as the lunk whose feelings for Katrina lead to a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion. Lee harnesses a certain look in her eyes and various gradations of trembling to convey a striking range of conflicted emotions. Her telepathic frissons, as she “sees” from a distance what Valek is up to, help deepen the pic’s basically irreverent stance. Griffith has the requisite stature to convince as malice incarnate, mixed with the studly Byronic looks of a tubercular poet.
Suspense is doled out in manageable packets, and it’s hard to anticipate exactly where the narrative is headed — except, of course, that reps of good and evil will end up duking it out. All the nudity, swearing, violence and gore fits smartly into the horror tradition — filling the envelope without pushing it.
Carpenter’s own musical score, which ranges from menacing to twang to forthright rock, is a plus. For the record, the coast is left clear for a sequel.