A vengeful vampire slayer must retrieve an ancient Catholic relic that, should it be acquired by vampires, will allow them to endure sunlight.
"Forget whatever you've seen in the movies."
Sometimes a director can work in and around certain genres with a deft touch while also pulling in the strongest elements of other genres to create a richly layered and entertaining film. Horror films that work as comedies, dramas that work as science fiction or fantasy pictures - this sort of cross-genre pollination is what makes many movies fun but also memorable long after you've sat down to watch them at the theater or in your home. John Carpenter has long been considered one of the "Masters of Horror" but the man has a searing wit and a love for the classic American western. With 'John Carpenter's Vampires,' an adaptation of the novel "Vampire$," the director gets to combine his talent for horror, his wry sense of humor and create a lasting entry in the Vampire genre while also creating a modern version of the classic-style western.
Jack Crow (James Woods) has one job to do. This job is his life's work. Some men paint gigantic murals, some men design tall buildings while some fight for world peace - Jack Crow hunts down and slaughters vampires. After the death of his parents by vampires, Jack was raised by the Catholic Church and trained to become their best vampire slayer. With a team of slayers including his friend Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and Father Giovanni (Gregory Sierra), Jack travels around the country rooting out vampire nests and dragging the blood-sucking beasts into the sunlight by any means necessary.
After a successful hunt, no one on the team can understand why Jack is in a bad mood. After clearing out a nest, Jack is worried to realize that the master of the nest wasn't at home. While his team parties, gets drunk and saddles up to numerous ladies of the night, Jack broods on his thoughts. Even the beautiful Katrina (Sheryl Lee) can't grab the man's attention. However, when a powerful vampire master crashes the party, Jack's worst fears are realized. In quick order, Jack's team is brutally slaughtered by the master vampire. Jack, along with Montoya and a bitten Katrina are the only three survivors. After regrouping, Jack is informed by his mentor Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) and Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee) that his mysterious master vampire is nonother than Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the first vampire ever created - and the most powerful.
Jack learns that Valek is searching for a legendary Black Cross, the very cross that was present at his damned crucifixion and rebirth as a vampire. With the Black Cross and the blood of a vampire slayer, Valek and his brood will be able to reverse part of their curse and enable them to walk in the day without fear of the deadly effects of sunlight. Undermanned and with little ammo, Jack must use the growing psychic link Katrina shares with her master to root out Valek and his growing hoard of vampires and recover the Black Cross before it's too late to save all of humanity.
I have fond memories of going to see 'John Carpenter's Vampires' in the theater with my Dad on opening day. We loved the film's fountains of gore, the buckets of blood, its western/horror sensibilities and the film's wicked machismo sense of humor. It quickly became one of our favorite movies of the year and one that we wore out on VHS and DVD through multiple viewings. After not having seen the film in several years, I'm pleased to see that the film still holds up well. The humor has plenty of bite left in it, the gore effects from the legendary guys at KNB are still gooey and impressive, and the vampires are brutal violent monsters that are void of any romantic qualities - just the way they should be!
Vampires have long been a staple of horror movies dating all the way back to the eery and disturbing 'Nosferatu.' The last ten years has seen dozens of vampire movies come and go, none the least of which was the infamous 'Twilight Saga.' These movies, with very few exceptions, put vampires to the forefront of the story and made them empathetic characters you're supposed to feel something for. It's refreshing to see something like 'John Carpenter's Vampires' again where the ghouls in question are truly evil creatures that you should fear with all of your life. On top of that, when they hit the sunlight they don't sparkle, they don't sizzle, they don't delicately turn into ash, these vampires burn in raging infernos that rival another great vampire flick 'Near Dark.' It's a painful way for these demonic hell spawn to go, but that's also part of what makes this one so much fun!
One almost could argue that someone like James Woods would be slumming it to be the lead actor in a movie like 'John Carpenter's Vampires.' It would be okay to think that, but the man is clearly having a lot of fun in the role and is giving it his all. As John Carpenter himself points out in one of this Blu-ray's extra features, for once James Woods isn't the slime ball, the bad guy, or the sleazy lawyer. He gets to play the antihero. Jack Crow is a brutal man with an almost cruel sense of humor and James Woods nails it. At his side is Daniel Baldwin as Jack's friend and partner in slaying Montoya. Baldwin fills the role nicely and proves the man had some talent. It's unfortunate his substance abuse issues temporally derailed his career right around the time of this film's release, but it's nice to see the man is back in action again working in front of and behind the camera. Sheryl Lee bring's her role of Katrina the same level of intensity and dedication that made her portrayal of Laura Palmer on 'Twin Peaks' so memorable. As great as everyone is in this movie, it's Thomas Ian Griffith who deserves a big shout out for his portrayal of Valek. He doesn't get to say a lot, but Griffith brings a strong and lethal physical presence to the vampire that was desperately needed if this film was going to work at all.
Adapted from the novel by John Steakley, 'John Carpenter's Vampires' is actually a rather slim and poor adaptation using only the bare roots of the novel's framework, but that's okay. By not strictly following the book - which had an odd out-of-left-field third act twist, the movie is able to open up its world and feel genuine. John Carpenter brings a lot of life to the film by playing homage to the classic Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone westerns of old and was able to create a visually interesting and distinct vampire film. Top off the gas tank with a rock-infused yet brooding score from Carpenter and the movie becomes one hell of a ride. 'John Carpenter's Vampires' may not stand the test of time as one of the director's better efforts, but the film is a lot of fun and worthy entry in the man's filmography.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'John Carpenter's Vampires' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Twilight Time pressed on a Region Free BD50 disc and limited to a run of 5,000 units. Housed in a standard clear Blu-ray case, the disc comes with a booklet featuring stills from the film with a very good essay from Julie Kirgo. The disc opens directly to the main menu.
In the lead up to this release, Twilight Time stated through various social media outlets that there would be a delay so Sony could make some last minute fixes to the transfer including some color balancing and restoration of some edits that were made to the film's European Blu-ray releases. After recently sitting down to look at my old DVD, whatever Sony did to make this 2.35:1 1080p transfer look as good as it does, it was worth the release date delay! One of the things I loathed about 'John Carpenter's Vampires' previous VHS and DVD releases was how the film had been artificially brightened with boosted contrast levels so the film no longer looked dark and brooding. I'm happy to report that those issues have been fixed. This is the visual presentation that I remember seeing in theaters. Blacks are deep and inky with plenty of rich shadow separation giving the film a nice sense of depth. Colors also look far more accurate allowing for primaries to have plenty of pop, especially the gallons of fake blood, without creating any problems for flesh tones. This is especially important since the film's daylight scenes were shot using heavy filters to create that magic hour before dusk look. Film grain has been retained providing some pleasing detail levels. While this transfer may not be the greatest restoration effort ever, it is certainly leagues beyond the previous standard definition presentations and any fan of the film should be very happy with this release.
With a rock solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix, 'John Carpenter's Vampires' has some auditory bite. I'd forgotten just how squishy this movie was until this audio track kicks in. Every gunshot is met with an appropriate meaty squish sound effect and the results are glorious. Dialogue is crisp and clean without any issues, and for the most part, keeps to the center channels. Imaging is strong as throughout the movie there is always something going on, even subtle background sound effects, to keep the surround channels engaged providing plenty of movement. Each of the sound elements, dialogue, sound effects, and the score by John Carpenter have plenty of space so everything sounds natural without any kind of distortion. Levels are well balanced and as the movie shifts into and out of the heavy action scenes, the spikes aren't so sudden as to require any volume riding. For the most part, the track keeps to the midranges, but when Jack and his team enters a nest, the low towns subtly creep up creating a nice dissonant tone that really sets the mood.
Audio Commentary: This is the original commentary track that came with the DVD and Laserdisc releases. It's a solid track and Carpenter does a great job of keeping things informative and entertaining. He has a tendency to describe what's happening on screen, but it still works because the description usually leads to some kind of interesting anecdote.
The Making of John Carpenter's Vampires: (SD 6:10) This is an older making-of featurette from around the time of the film's initial release. It's very brief but still informative.
Original Trailer: (HD 2:05) I remember loving this trailer and getting really excited for this movie when I was 16 and it still grabs me! Highlights all of the best qualities of the movie without giving away the whole show.
'John Carpenter's Vampires' is finally on Blu-ray in the United States. After living in standard definition limbo, this wild, gory, and creepy vampire/western mashup gets the HD treatment that it deserves. Twilight Time has put in a solid effort to bring the best quality version of the film possible to disc and the video transfer shows. With a strong DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, some archival supplement content and an isolated score, this is a pretty great release and one fans should be very happy with. Some fresh extra features would have been fun, but I'm glad to see the old commentary track made the cut. If 'John Carpenter's Vampires' is your cinematic cup of tea, consider this release recommended.