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I’ll admit that I was hoping that John Carpenter’s Vampires would be more than what it turned out to be. Carpenter’s The Thing is a classic of creepy, atmospheric horror... surely he could do some interesting things with the fascinating lore surrounding vampires. Alas, Vampires is fun to watch, but it’s not really a particularly good movie.

Vampires (John Carpenter's)
Movie
The opening scene shows us Team Crow, a group of “slayers” led by Jack Crow (James Woods), hard at work exterminating vampires in modern-day New Mexico in the United States. Then they stumble across a “master” vampire who is more than he seems... and more than they can handle. Some of the plot elements, particularly later in the movie, are shaky and don’t bear much close attention, so it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s not a very surprising ride, as the movie follows a fairly direct trajectory from opening to conclusion. When a twist does happen in the plot, it’s more of a “Hm, interesting” twist than a “Wow, cool” twist.

Carpenter seems to have been intrigued by the visual side of making Vampires. Unlike The Thing, which presents its psychological tension mostly within the claustrophobic interior of an Antarctic science station, Vampires plays a physical-action story out on the open, desolate, sun-baked land of New Mexico. Filmed entirely on location, the movie does present a setting with a distinct character of its own. During the day, broiling sun shines down unmercifully on plains, roads, and Spanish-style mission houses; during the night, darkness falls completely, allowing evil things to emerge and strike at will. And in the twilight hours between full day and full night, the “slayers” can come face to face with their ancient enemy, the vampires.

The ambiguous heroes of Vampires fit right into this twilight landscape. If we grant the existence of vampires, creatures that prey and feed on humanity, then the slayers are performing a service for the good of all, yet in the film they are as brutal and amoral as the vampires they kill. Like garden-variety racists, the slayers call the vampires “goons,” attaching a derogatory tag to the creatures they slaughter like so many cattle... allowing them, of course, to kill without thinking of the vampires as the human beings that they once were. I wonder if Carpenter intended the audience to question whose side we ought to be on in this us-versus-them struggle.

Vampires (John Carpenter's)
Video
Vampires has a nice transfer overall. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image has some soft noise, but otherwise is fairly sharp and clean. It’s lacking a certain “something” to make the image quality particularly outstanding, but it’s a pleasing viewing experience in general. A pan-and-scan version of the film is included as well, but who would want to watch a hacked up version showing 40% less of the original image? They should have used the space to put in a featurette or other special features instead.

Audio
Whatever its other failings may be, John Carpenter’s Vampires sounds great. There’s nothing like having 5.1 channels of growling and snarling all around you to make you feel like vampires have invaded your living room. The music soundtrack is prominent during dialogue-free scenes but is kept nicely in check the rest of the time, making for a nice balance of sound. Interestingly, the score was composed by Carpenter himself, who proves to be not a bad hand at making music as well as movies. The moody, modern soundtrack complements the “bad boy” protagonists as they go out to kick some vampire butt. On the other hand, if he’d paid more attention to the script instead of the score, Vampires might have been a better movie overall, so I’m not sure it was such a great idea.

Vampires (John Carpenter's)
Extras
Vampires is about average in the extras department. An audio commentary by Carpenter is the main special feature, with a photo gallery and trailer rounding out the extras section.

Overall
Vampires is a film to watch once, with friends over and a big bowl of popcorn. It’s enjoyable but not particularly memorable.


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