JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1998) (BLU RAY)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Tim Guinee
Running time: 108 minutes
Released by Powerhouse Films (Indicator Label) on Limited Dual Format Edition (7000 copies). Region Free. Out now.
Powerhouse’s Indicator label is a relatively new addition to the horror genre market but it has already impressed collectors with its clean presentations and wealth of extras. Following their excellent release of Carpenter’s Christine adaptation last year they are now adding two more of his back catalogue titles, Ghost of Mars and Vampires.
The Film: Based on John Steakley’s 1990 novel Vampire$, the film marked Carpenter’s 19th feature. It follows a similar premise to the novel as Jack Crow (James Woods) leads his team of vampire hunters including Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) across New Mexico flushing out vampire nests and tracking down Masters. However, after clearing out one particular nest his team is ambushed during celebrations by a centuries’ old Master called Valek (Eric Draven lookalike, Thomas Ian Griffith) and Crow’s team is brutally murdered. Along with a freshly bitten hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee), his only surviving team member Montoya and a young priest, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), Crow hunts Valek across the desert plains as he tries to stop an ancient ritual being fulfilled.
I had not seen John Carpenter’s Vampires since its release at the cinema back in the late Nineties. I remember being less than impressed at the time and unfortunately almost two decades later nothing has changed my opinion. The film is a horror/western hybrid and it is just bad. It outstays its welcome at almost two hours and sadly it doesn’t even work as a ‘tits, guns and fangs’ B-movie because the production values are just too damn good.
The acting is abysmal as James Woods doesn’t just ham it up, he literally chews up scenery in every shot he is in (check out the moment where he first meets the Catholic priests). The fight scenes look amateurish, for example Valek kicks a chair at someone but uses such little force it only just reaches its intended victim and as for Don Jakoby’s script, well where to start. I am certainly no prude but by today’s standards it is an embarrassment, littered with casual misogyny and homophobia. Woods character utters the majority of it and whilst there is a certain irony that the villain Valek does indeed look European (“Eurotrash”) and dresses in effeminate (“fag”) clothing, I am not sure the film is meta enough to have made that connection.
The only positives I can say about Vampires is that Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger’s make-up effects are excellent and in most cases are clearly too good for such a weak film. For example, the scene where Valek takes revenge on Crow’s team at a motel is a particular highlight. Vampires also marked Carpenter’s 15th original score and whilst it continues his interest working with synths, this time he has skewed his sound into a Western aesthetic as he pays homage to the classics of Ford, Hawks and Peckinpah.
The Disc: The main feature is presented uncut and picture quality throughout is very good, there are a few scenes where the image appears a little soft but for the most part detail is impressive. The film is dowsed in filters during the daytime scenes which gives the picture a red hue as though dusk is never far away. Night scenes are suitably dark but detail is never lost and as night fades into morning, those filters come into play again without detail ever suffering.
Sound options include 5.1 Surround Sound track and Stereo Audio. I watched the feature in 5.1 Surround and there were no notable issues. Carpenter’s score sounded crisp and prevalent, whilst dialogue was audible throughout even during some of the heavy firearm sequences. I also checked and English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are available on the disc.
There is no specific Chapters menu on the disc, however the feature has been separated into 13 chapters once the film is playing.
Audio commentary with director John Carpenter: A very dry commentary from Carpenter which mainly involves him describing what is happening on screen, rather than sharing interesting anecdotes. A missed opportunity, especially as there are several long periods of silence.
The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter – Part One, 1962-1983 (38 mins) the director discusses his career with Nigel Floyd at the National Film Theatre, London (filmed on 29th July 1994). Without a doubt the best aspect of the entire disc. Carpenter discusses his childhood memories and early attempts at filmmaking gradually leading to a formal education at film school. He describes how he got into screenplay writing and the critical reception of Assault on Precinct 13 in Europe finally leading to recognition State side. The origin of Michael Myers, his attitude to director’s cuts, The Fog, Escape From New York and a very interesting story about a preview screening of The Thing are also covered. In my opinion, this extra is more enjoyable than the main feature. Part 2 covering his more recent films is included on Powerhouse’s Ghosts of Mars release.
Behind the scenes (1999, 6 mins), Cast & Crew Interviews (1999, 9 mins), B-roll footage (1999, 9 mins). These three vintage additions can be played together as a ‘making of’ documentary or as separate interviews plus footage. Interviews with Carpenter, Woods, Baldwin, Lee, the SFX crew including Greg Nicotero are included but as they are essentially several mini-featurettes there is a lot of repetition in each section. However, each section adds a little extra information as you go through them chronologically.
Isolated score – Viewers can experience John Carpenter’s original soundtrack music as the film plays out with all other sound effects muted. It is a nice addition for fans but for the rest of us, it depends how eager you are to sit through the film again. It may have worked better as a literal isolated score track with a dynamic image gallery.
Original theatrical trailer – It does exactly what it says on the tin. Remastered in HD.
It is worth noting that during all the extras and particularly the vintage featurettes, there is very little mention that Vampires is actually based on Steakley’s novel and is not Carpenter’s own work. Instead, there is a strong emphasis on this being John Carpenter’s Vampires, presumably in a bid to sell it to his devoted fans. It would have been nice to have an extra about the man behind the original source material.
Also, whilst not included with the screener copy the sell-through edition includes an exclusive 20-page booklet with a new essay by Kim Newman, and a 2015 interview with John Carpenter about Vampires.
In conclusion: Powerhouse’s Indicator label continues to impress and as a back catalogue title with a limited audience, this is an impressive release. However Vampires is one of Carpenter’s weaker entries and despite the excellent Guardian interview, I can only recommend this release to die-hard fans.