Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Gentlemen's Guide To Vampire Slaying

With rare exception, John Carpenter's films have traditionally met with disdain or indifference and have had to wait - sometimes for years - to be embraced by fans and critics. Thirteen years after its release, I think it's time to get an answer on 1998's Vampires.

Of Carpenter's latter-day pictures, Vampires is usually held up as proof that, even if he isn't coming up with a classic like The Thing, he's still got some chops. But fans of the John Steakley novel Vampire$ insist that Carpenter squandered the potential of the book. Still others fault Vampires for indulging in misogyny, citing the abuse that Sheryl Lee's character suffers throughout the movie.

I can't speak as to whether Vampires does its source novel justice because I've never read it but the misogyny charge is more easily addressed. The bottom line is that it's kind of a bum rap. Oh sure, the hooker character of Katrina that Lee plays isn't exactly treated like a lady but her abuse at the hands of James Woods' merciless vampire slayer Jack Crow has been misreported and misremembered. The character that Crow really uses his pimp hand on is Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), a young priest assigned to aid Team Crow.

Reviews of Vampires commonly cite the ugly incidents of abuse regarding Lee's character (a recent mention of Vampires in Fangoria noted that "seeing hooker Sheryl Lee getting the crap beaten out of her every five minutes ain't funny") but the actual film tells a slightly different story. In the wake of a car crash, Crow slaps the recently bitten Katrina a couple of times to get her to wake up and walk. Later, he pulls open her mouth to check for fangs and then pushes her face away when he's done but there's none of the beat-downs that some people seem to remember. The only time that Katrina is struck by anyone is when Crow's right hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) slaps her after she's infected him with a vampire bite.

Contrast that with the abuse that Father Adam receives. This poor milquetoast gets the full treatment. At one point, Crow violently yanks him out of the passenger seat of the truck he's in, throws him down on the side of the road, and kicks him across the dirt as he helplessly tries to crawl away. Later, in a hotel room, when Father Adam attempts to make a phone call to Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell), Crow takes the phone from Father Adam and cracks him across the face with it, sending him flying into a nearby wall. Still later, there's a confrontation in another hotel where Crow is looking to get information out of Father Adam and he chokes him, stuffs a washcloth in his mouth, then takes a knife and slices open his hand. I believe he also delivers a punch to his gut sometime during all this. Crow doesn't have the time to beat the shit out of Katrina - he's got his hands full with Father Adam.

Some would say that any way you look at it, Crow is just too unlikable and that Carpenter made a miscalculation in letting his behavior be so over the top. Carpenter is no stranger to anti-heroes but even many fans of Napoleon Wilson and Snake Plissken find Jack Crow to be too much to stomach. I say that Vampires does have its faults but that its abrasive characters aren't one of them. While I wouldn't refer to the movie as camp, there's clearly an element of over-the-top humor here that has gone slightly unappreciated. I mean, when you have a nice Catholic priest being beaten like a dog and then afterwards be asked by his abuser if that sexually aroused him, you've got to concede that the movie is deliberately crossing a line.

A case could be made that Carpenter let Woods improv a little too much, allowing him to play his role like a parody of a macho hard-ass (in contrast, Baldwin delivers a sincere, low-key performance as the loyal Montoya) but it's also hard to deny that his performance helps to make Vampires memorable. Even if it sometimes feels as if he's trying too hard to get a laugh ("Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata!"), at the end of the day you've got James Woods as a vampire hunter so even if it isn't perfect, it's still pretty awesome.

From the start, Carpenter has shown a kinship with anti-authority figures - from criminals to rock and rollers - and Vampires may represent his most gleeful celebration of that rebel streak (it's neck and neck with 1996's Escape from L.A. - sending the whole planet into the Dark Ages is awfully hard to top as a "fuck you"). In the wake of L.A.'s failure to reestablish him as a commercial force, Vampires seems to be a case of Carpenter acknowledging, with a middle finger held high, that he's out of step with Hollywood, out of step with the public, out of step with what's fashionable, and not giving a fuck about any of it. This is not a movie that was made by someone looking to ingratiate himself to the masses.

At the time of its release, Vampires suffered from comparison with the much slicker Blade, which had proceeded it into theaters by a few months. That film was state-of-the-art in a way that the lower-budgeted Vampires wasn't and I think that initial perception of not being "top of the line" still haunts Vampires. But while Vampires' action isn't so hot (watching one vampire after another be dragged out of their nest via a steel cable gets to be sluggish), the practical FX from KNB are nicely accomplished. More importantly, the relationships between the characters play out in a satisfying fashion and that's something that doesn't date with the passing years.

Yeah, in the short run it might have been cool if a bigger budget had allowed Vampires to compete head on with other films in the market then but I still love it when Father Adam steps up and blows a hole through the traitorous Cardinal Alba's chest, or when Montoya fights on after having his neck ripped open and he rides to Crow's rescue.

Those are the moments where Vampires' heart lies and whether the film is ever seen as classic Carpenter or not, that's something that time won't be able to drive a stake through.



5 comments:

J.D. said...

I really like this film as well. I think the key to enjoying it is that you really have to engage it on the B-movie exploitation level that I think Carpenter intended. As you pointed out, you've got James Woods chewing up the scenery and a deliberately un-PC tone throughout. This film is designed to thumb its nose at the mainstream. I agree that the film has its flaws - the climactic showdown is a bit of a letdown and partway through when Montoya and Crow come to blows I was hoping for a THEY LIVE style dust-up but these are minor quibbles. The western, Sergio Leone meets Sam Peckinpah vibe is right on the money.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I think there's too much about this movie to enjoy to dismiss it over a few shortcomings. I do wish the action had more panache to it but like I said in the post, the way the relationships play out is strong. It's easy to see that Carpenter had an affinity for these people.

Jonny Metro said...

Jeff,

I was never a huge fan of this movie, but your review has made me want to check it out again. Maybe time has altered my perceptions...

Just wanted to let you know that I included a link to this article in the latest "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!

--J/Metro

SN said...

I've never read it but the misogyny charge is more easily addressed. The bottom line is that it's kind of a bum rap.

Well yeah, it would be easy for you to dismiss the misogyny. You're a guy.

How is the only female character in the movie getting tied to a bed and beaten not problematic? If you think that's cool, you have serious issues.

Jeff Allard said...

I didn't say it was cool. I just said the movie shouldn't be labeled as misogynistic. Misanthropic, maybe, but not simply misogynistic. If the treatment of Sheryl Lee's character is problematic shouldn't it be equally problematic that a meek priest is repeatedly abused? No one ever seems to raise an eyebrow at how Tim Guinee's character is treated and I have to wonder why that is.

And by the way, not to put too fine a point on things but saying that Lee is "tied to a bed and beaten" is misleading. Yes, the character is tied to a bed at one point and at later point - off the bed and in another context - is slapped once. To say "tied to a bed and beaten" implies a scenario that isn't in the movie. That's something out of VICE SQUAD.

If I wanted to emulate Jack Crow and his crew, I agree that would imply I have some issues - not just with women but with life in general. But if I could only appreciate films where the protagonists behaved according to my own moral code, or where I considered their actions to be "cool," there'd be a very long list of movies I'd have to avoid - everything from PEEPING TOM to TAXI DRIVER to THE WILD BUNCH to HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. You know, in real life I would never approve of a vigilante taking justice into their own hands but I couldn't even count how many movies with shoot-first-ask-questions-later heroes I've enjoyed.

There are some movies that do cross a line I'm not comfortable with or that feel irresponsible to me - I'd put I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (either version) in that category - but VAMPIRES isn't one of those films.