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The F*cking Black Sheep: John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)!

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

VAMPIRES (1998)

DIRECTED BY JOHN CARPENTER

Y’all seen HALLOWEEN yet? Oh wait, given the whopping $76 million is just stuffed in its pillowcase last weekend, I guess the real question ought to be who hasn’t seen HALLOWEEN yet? Point being, I find little coincidence between how well the movie has been received so far – both critically and commercially – and how involved John Carpenter was in the production of the movie. He not only updated the infamously chilling film score, word is he consulted on the screenplay as well. Straight up, the influence shows!

But while we’re on the topic of Carpenter, one movie of his that has not received such universal affinity, one movie of his that has been, in our estimation, unjustly quarantined as a sickly invalid away from his horror bona fides, is the 1998 release of VAMPIRES! Granted, this flick is no doubt minor Carpenter, and little more than an unabashed B-movie, but damn has this movie gotten a bad rap in the last 20 years (October 30th marks its two-decade anniversary). And we get it. Not only does the movie fail to deliver legitimate scares compared to contemporaries (BLADE comes to mind), but the disappoint doubles when stacking it up to the Master of Terror’s Hall of Fame film canon. But you know what, f*ck all that. VAMPIRES is a damn entertaining movie no matter how you cut, and easily one of the goriest vampire movies ever assembled (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN also comes to mind). And if that isn’t enough, do I really need say more than an irascibly foul-mouthed Jimmy f*cking Woods?! Thought not, but in case you’re still a skeptic, find out why John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES is a F*cking Black Sheep below!

First off, the origins. Word is Carpenter was approached by Largo entertainment with two different scripts, one by Don Jakoby (LIFEFORCE, ARACHNOPHOBIA) and one by Dan Mazur (NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW). Carpenter read both in conjunction with the source novel by John Steakley and decided to mix and match various portions from each story and patch them together with one goal in mind: to make a western under the guise of a horror film. Now, if you know that much, you might excuse a movie that was never really intended to be scary to begin with, but was a mere a bucket list aspiration for Carpenter to complete. It’s also the movie that reinvigorated Carpenter’s desire to direct movies after a period in the 90s he deemed was no longer fun.

Story wise, you know the gist. A band of grizzled vampire hunters led by the lean, mean, tight-jean and ever obscene Jack Crow (James Woods) and his kickass mechanical crossbow get the action going by storming a nest in the New Mexican desert they believe to be harboring a “master.” A gory incursion ensues, but no master is found. However, it turns out the first vampire created by the Catholic Church, a flamboyant fop named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, the ponytailed slime-ball from KARATE KID III) - appearing as if Loki underwent a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover – is hell-bent on obtaining a Black Cross so he can live in the sunlight and walk among the daytime. He dispatches a legion of bloodsucking vamps to overrun the American western landscape in search for the cross, gruesomely gouging any human interloper along the way. It’s up to Jack, Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), Katrina (Sheryl Lee) and a few others to quell the vampiric takeover and deliver those sick sumbitches back to hell where they belong!

Again, no one will ever confuse VAMPIRES for a scary horror movie, but you cannot tell me the movie lacks in entertainment value, genuine laughs, some good and gory action, and a mordantly magnetic turn from the always reliable James Woods (Gene Siskel actually suggested Woods be nominated for an Oscar for his performance). Honestly, considering how producers slashed the budget of the movie by two thirds just prior to filming, I’m surprised the movie ended up as well as it did. It’s still a bit long at nearly two hours (108 minutes), but there’s nary a dull moment or boring bit about it. Would it have been better starring Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren, as originally proposed under director Russell Mulcahy? Perhaps. But Woods opted to take on the role of Crow because he had never played an action hero before, and given how well he and Carpenter reportedly got along (despite Woods being infamously difficult to work with), the decision seems to be the right one. Besides, without all the funny foul-mouthed one-liners and obstreperous sneers from Woods, the movie would cease to be as entertaining as it is. Another case in point? The classic Frank Darabont cameo as a Buick owner who gets brutally berated by Jack “eat f*cking” Crow.

For me though, where VAMPIRES actually eclipses most vampire flicks is in its graphic depiction of gory violence. Truly, can you recall a gorier vampire flick outside of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN? Hardly. Vampire yarns rely less on overt gore and more on brooding atmosphere and sinister seduction. In VAMPPIRES, Carpenter goes for the jugular, as evidenced by Mark Boone Junior getting savagely sliced in half in the early going (with great VFX done by KNB veterans Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman). In fact, so extreme was the onscreen gore in the first version shown to the MPAA that the movie almost received an NC-17 rating. According to producer Sandy King (Carpenter’s wife), "We satisfied the ratings board by just cutting short of a few things that went into really gruesome stuff." Just imagine if Carpenter got away with the level of intended violence. I’m willing to bet the movie would be far better received than it has been over the last 20 years. Not commercially, mind you, as VAMPIRES is actually the most financially successful movie Carpenter made in the 1990s. Critically though, had the exorbitant violence remained intact, the not-so-scary elements of the flick might have been more excusable.

Also, as alluded to above, it’s worth noting how BLADE - another big-budget vampire flick from 1998 - far overshadowed VAMPIRES by the time it was released on Halloween. Remember, BLADE came out in August of 1998, a full two months prior to VAMPIRES, which surely lead to a comparative drubbing (BLADE is the better movie), if not a complete sense of vampire-overkill among horror audiences. It’s not that VAMPIRES shouldn’t be assessed on its own merits, but it’s hard to give the movie kudos when it came in after a far better and more unique vampire yarn. Who knows, had the release dates been swapped, perhaps VAMPIRES would be remembered more fondly. I know I will always think it a f*cking Black Sheep, not only among vampire flicks, but even more specifically among Carpenter’s legendary filmography. If nothing else, remember that in a way, VAMPIRES are supposed to suck!

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