While many films stand the test of time, others fade into obscurity. Whether this happens over a period of years or almost instantly upon a film’s release, each of these titles has slipped through the cracks of our collective memory to join the ranks of the Films That Time Forgot.
Vampires and movies is a pairing that goes way back. Some of the greatest early films concerned everyone’s favorite bloodsuckers, and their cinematic legacy has been remarkably consistent over the many intervening years. As one of the most recognizable movie monsters ever, there’s no shortage of vampire movies out there. Interestingly, though, despite being so simply titled, Vampires (also known as John Carpenter’s Vampires) has been all but forgotten.
Very loosely based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley, Vampires stars James Woods, Thomas Ian Griffith, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, and Tim Guinee. It concerns a team of vampire hunters backed by the Vatican and led by Jack Crow (Woods) as they uncover a planned ritual to give vampires the ability to walk in sunlight. After an ancient and powerful master vampire kills almost every member of Crow’s team, the remaining hunters are joined by a rookie priest in order to put a stop to the ritual.
Categorized as an independent neo-Western action-horror, Vampires fits an ultra-specific niche that may or may not have actually needed filling. Regardless, with John Carpenter directing and scoring the movie, it was clearly in safe hands. What’s more, it came out just a few months after Blade, which means that audiences’ hunger for vampire action should theoretically have been at an all-time high.
John Carpenter’s Vampires opens with a decently intense action sequence that introduces Jack Crow and his team (most of which don’t make it past the 20-minute mark). It’s an opening that sets the tone for the film: it’s fantastical, but it’s also pulpy and unexpectedly grounded, taking the time to introduce the feel of the world in which the film is set. Having this scene lead directly into the massacre of Crow’s team works nicely too – it dispenses with the formalities and simply sets the scene for the film’s story.
Perhaps the two words that best describe Vampires would be “dark” and “fun”. Its action exists to serve the plot – there are no needless shootouts or drawn-out showdowns, but simply the struggle of man versus monster. Its characters aren’t inherently likable, but that’s the beauty of the vampire movie: the heroes don’t need to be overly heroic, because they’re vanquishing evil. This is something Carpenter seems well aware of, with no real examination of morality, but rather of the drive and feeling of responsibility felt by its heroes.
Despite there being obvious narrative similarities to Blade, Vampires is a genuinely unique film. Its Western roots serve as an interestingly fresh take on the conventions of the genre, and Carpenter’s deft hands mean that his fingerprints are all over Vampires in the best way. However, the lack of originality in its general story is inescapable, and that does hurt the finished film.
It’s possible that the success of Blade is one of the main reasons that Vampires has largely been forgotten. Releasing so close to such a similar movie always runs the risk of competition, and Steakley’s novel was obviously little match for Blade‘s Marvel source material. The mixed critical reception to Vampires undoubtedly sealed the final nail in its undead coffin, and the rest is history. Still, John Carpenter’s Vampires definitely doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Sure, Vampires is no masterpiece. It recycles various vampire clichés and makes no real attempt at innovation. It even forgoes using its own source material properly in favor of a more generic action-horror offering. Even so, it remains incredibly fun – its masterful cinematography and unique visual style make for a genuinely enjoyable film, and Carpenter’s use of Western elements helps to truly Americanize the typically gothic European idea of vampires. Simply put, John Carpenter’s Vampires has a pulpy charm and distinct visual flavor that makes it far more enjoyable than its run-of-the-mill plot and generally unlikable protagonists would otherwise suggest, and Carpenter’s efforts make it well worth watching.
Summary: It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but there’s a lot to love about John Carpenter’s Vampires. It’s a fun and interestingly realized film that both succeeds and fails at reinventing the genre, but ultimately it comes off no worse for it.
Highlight: James Woods’ distinctly unpleasant approach to Jack Crow is excellent – it’s clear the actor had a great deal of fun in the role, which translates to a violently gleeful performance as a morally gray almost-anti-hero.