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Why John Carpenter’s Vampires Is Awesome

October 28, 2022 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
John Carpenter's Vampires James Woods Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Hello, everyone. I’m Bryan Kristopowitz, host of such “regular” columns as The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, Cult TV, The Good and Bad of…>, and From the B-Movie Vault (I also do the occasional movie review. Here is my latest). This “Why…” piece, much like the one I recently did for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (check that out here) is a reworking of something I wrote several years ago for The Gratuitous B-Movie Column and that has, sadly, been lost to the ravages of the internets. This time, it’s about John Carpenter’s Vampires.

I think I might do more of these kinds of pieces in the near future. They’re fun to put together. I’m thinking of doing one about Punisher: War Zone next. Or maybe something completely out of the “ordinary,” like the classic Disney movie Pollyanna (yes, that’s what I said. Pollyanna).

Okay, so on with the reasons as to why John Carpenter’s Vampires is awesome. Enjoy.
Why John Carpenter’s Vampires is awesome!

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Intro: John Carpenter’s Vampires debuted in movie theatres in October 1998. I remember seeing it opening weekend and being completely blown away by it. I didn’t really know anything about the movie when it debuted beyond John Carpenter directing it and the movie being about vampires. I saw some TV commercials for it, I checked out its website at the time (when it decided to load, that is. It may have been the computer I was using at the time but I distinctly remember the official site for Vampires never regularly loading until about two weeks after it came out), and I knew that James Woods, the guy from The Hard Way with Michael J. Fox was in it. How the hell was that going to work? I mean, outside of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and that Cat’s Eye movie James Woods wasn’t much of a horror guy. He was The Hard Way, or Cop, or that Dolly Parton movie where she’s the radio talk show host (Straight Talk). He could be an intense guy, yes, but how the hell was he going to fight a vampire? So there was a lot of stuff about the movie that I didn’t quite get right before it came out. I knew, though, that it was, at least, going to be interesting as Carpenter was the director behind it. To me, the man very rarely ever failed.

So I went on that Saturday of opening weekend and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t figure out why the theatre wasn’t packed with people (the movie did open at #1 but then its box office basically trailed off after that). People needed to see this. It was amazing. It was brutal. It was profane. It was as badass as a vampire movie could get. Fuck Coppola’s Bram Stoker movie, fuck Bela Lugosi, and fuck From Dusk Till Dawn (those pussies wouldn’t last five seconds in Vampires. No fucking way). John Carpenter’s Vampires was, and still is, the shit. And after damn near twenty-five years, that’s a testament to the movie, the performances, and Carpenter’s directing prowess. When he’s on, he’s on big time.

So why, specifically, is John Carpenter’s Vampires. awesome?


It’s a western with vampires in it: If you’re a John Carpenter nerd you know how Carpenter is a big time westerns guy. That’s what he wanted to do back when he started in Hollywood, and he’s made several “disguised” westerns over the years (Assault on Precinct 13, both Snake Plissken movies, Ghosts of Mars, Big Trouble in Little China features western elements, and Carpenter had said that In the Mouth of Madness is a kind of western, and if I remember correctly he explains this on the In the Mouth of Madness DVD commentary track). Vampires, though, is Carpenter’s only full on western he’s personally made to date. It has bloodsucking monsters in it, but when you look at the setting of the story (the American southwest), you listen to the soundtrack (more on that in a moment), and you look at what the vampire slayers are (hired guns brought in to take down vicious killers), it’s a western. The only thing the movie is missing is someone wearing a goddamn cowboy hat and carrying a six-shooter and riding a horse.
Now, I do remember plenty of people saying that Carpenter was just copying Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn because Vampires featured vampires in the desert. Outside of that “similarity,” the two movies are really very different. From Dusk Till Dawn features some western elements, but, in its totality, it’s a “grindhouse” mash-up of all kinds of things that both director Rodriguez and screenwriter/actor Quentin Tarantino were/are into. It’s a crime movie, a kidnapping movie, a bar movie, and vampire movie, among other things. Vampires is two genres, westerns and vampires, and nothing more. Vampires is also more sure of itself than From Dusk Till Dawn. Vampires knows what it’s doing, it doesn’t waste time, and has no problem being a western with vampires in it. It really is “The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler.”

It’s a shame that Carpenter has never been able to make a full on western that’s just a western. I think the world be a better place if that happened. But since it likely isn’t going to happen ever (Carpenter seems to be pretty content with his musical career at the moment), at least we have Vampires.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

James Woods as the lead vampire slayer- brilliant: As I said at the beginning, I wasn’t sold on the idea of James Woods as a vampire killer when I first heard about his casting. The man can be an intense actor, yes, but how the heck was he going to believably kill vampires? The whole thing sounded ridiculous. After actually watching the movie, though, casting James Woods as the lead vampire slayer Jack Crow is truly brilliant. He isn’t physically imposing (you know, big), but he doesn’t have to be. He’s intense, mean-spirited, and smart, the three most important things when taking out a vampire nest or just a single vampire. Crow has the technology (that crossbow weapon is badass), the experience (he was raised by the Catholic Church to be the world’s master vampire slayer), and the energy to take the bastards down.

Watch him in the beginning, ramming that vampire with two stakes, one in the head, and one in the heart. How the hell are the vampires going to battle that?

And think about Crow’s philosophy when it comes to confronting a real deal vampire. Listen to what he says.

The vampires don’t stand a chance.

And think back to that scene where Crow tells Father Adam all about what he saw as a child when his family was attacked by vampires. Gene Siskel was on to something when he told everyone that he thought Woods deserved an Oscar nomination for Vampires because of this scene. The scene isn’t on YouTube (I can’t find it) so you’ll have to watch the movie to see it (and you should own Vampires). You can bet your ass that if someone more “important” than Carpenter had made Vampires and featured that scene Woods would have been on all sorts of awards lists.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

The other vampire slayers are major badasses, too: Jack Crow isn’t the only one being paid by the Catholic Church to roam the world hunting and killing vampires. The Church also has Montoya (Daniel Baldwin in full on fat sleazebag mode), Catlin (Mark Boone Junior. I think I could make a good argument that he wouldn’t have been on Sons of Anarchy if he didn’t do this movie back in 1998), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and noted stuntmen Thomas Rosales, Jr., Henry Kingi, Clarke Coleman, and David Rowden. You probably wouldn’t fuck with any of these guys if you saw them in the first place, but when they’re all geared up and ready to go, watch the hell out. These guys are mean professionals and they’ll do whatever it takes to kill as many vampires as they can.

Now, sadly, all of these guys (except Montoya) end up getting killed in the first twenty minutes of the movie by the lead bad guy, master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), but then that just shows you how badass Valek is. If Valek can take these guys out he may be the most dangerous vampire in the history of the world. How is Jack Crow going to battle that?

I do want to say, though, in defense of Crow’s team, when they were ambushed by Valek in the hotel they were all drunk and full of pizza and surrounded by hookers. If they had been on the ball at the time, I bet they would have kicked Valek’s ass. Yes, in the movie you can’t kill a master vampire at night, that’s one of the “rules,” but the team could have maimed Valek. They had the weapons and the know-how and the experience. They would have been fine.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek: Griffith is a fascinating choice to play the lead vampire/master vampire Valek because he is able to embody both the “classical” vampire look (I seem to remember producer Sandy King saying that she liked Griffith in the role because he was “sexy/sensual”) and the ferocious monster that Carpenter wanted for his vampires. Griffith is tall and imposing, plus he’s also a real deal martial artist so you know he can throw down in real life and wipe the floor with anyone if he so chooses. My only real complaint with Valek is that he doesn’t get that many interesting lines (he seems to say “Jack…” an awful lot). It would have been cool if he got at least one or two quippy one liners. Like when he forced Father Giovanni to shoot himself in the head with the shotgun? Right after that it would have rocked if he had said something “funny.” Or maybe when he first entered the hotel room at the start of the eventual hotel massacre? Despite that lack of lines, Griffith is terrific in the role. Where the heck is his officially licensed action figure?

The opening twenty minutes: The opening twenty minutes of Vampires are nothing short of amazing. It sets up the world of Vampires, who the slayers are, and what a master vampire is. The slayers are highly trained badass individuals working as a team to take out incredibly dangerous supernatural creatures. And the slayers have to be highly trained individuals because, if they’re not dangerous, there’s no way they’d be able to survive. And when Valek shows up the whole tenor of the movie changes because, holy shit, if the slayers team can be completely destroyed by one master vampire, how the hell are the remaining team members going to kill him?

On a technical level, the first twenty minutes also show that Carpenter, just in case you didn’t know, is a master of suspense, atmosphere, and tone. He knows when to slow it down, speed it up, and crank up the gore (Carpenter has only made two full on gory movies in his career, Vampires and The Thing). He also knows how to do that time compression/fade in and out thing that we see in Valek’s attack on the hotel. Look at the way the scene sort of flashes over itself again and again when Valek is killing Crow’s team and the prostitutes in the room. Tell me you don’t get queasy watching that. Great stuff.

The soundtrack: Carpenter’s soundtrack for Vampires is easily the director/composer’s best to date. With his collaborators The Texas Toad Lickers (go here for the full Music Department list), Carpenter creates a bluesy western rock theme that helps you realize just how badass and dangerous Crow’s team is. It’s similar to “Snake’s Uniform” from Escape From L.A. but harder, nastier. Carpenter also performs some synth stuff throughout that is classic Carpenter but “modern” (pretty much every time Valek shows up you can hear this music). It is, in many ways, a perfect score.

If you don’t believe me on this, I encourage you to track the score CD down and listen to the entire thing. You’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about as soon as you hear the first note of the first Carpenter piece of music.

Oh, and am I the only one who, back when the movie was out and the movie still had an “official” website, continually opened the “Vampires theme” page just to listen to the end credits theme, “Padre’s Wood?”

Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee are one messed up couple: The first time we see Baldwin’s Montoya and Lee’s Katrina together and alone, Montoya has Katrina tied, naked, to a bed in a hotel room. Katrina has been bitten by Valek and is in the process of “turning” into a vampire. Montoya is pissed that he has to babysit a prostitute (he’d much rather be with Crow tracking down Valek), so he’s a complete asshole to her. As the movie progresses we see, after Katrina bites Montoya on the arm and he starts turning into a vampire, that they belong together. Montoya suddenly becomes sensitive to Katrina’s needs, and Katrina sort of bides her time, fulfilling her job as the psychic link to Valek (vampire victims have a psychic connection to the vampire that turns them and can “see” what the vampire sees) all the while becoming more and more vamperific. And when the change happens Montoya becomes Katrina’s kept man. Yes, Montoya does help Crow escape and kill Valek, but he doesn’t then kill himself so there’s one less vampire in the world. No, Montoya keeps Katrina safe and concocts a scheme to drive off into the desert to hide and live the full vampire life with her.

Now, I ask you all, did any of you see that happening at the beginning of the movie? I know I didn’t.

The movie has no problem attacking religion: According to Vampires, the Catholic Church is directly responsible for the whole worldwide vampire plague as it created vampires. Sure, the Church at the time probably didn’t intend to create blood drinking monsters that live forever in darkness, but it engaged in some nasty shit back in the day, fucked up big time, and the world is a more dangerous place as a result. Now, the Church is trying to “fix” the vampire problem by having teams of mercenaries hunting the creatures down all over the world, but then when you look at who the Church hires, good God, what the hell is wrong with the Church?

And take a look at the way Crow treats Father Adam and Maximilian Schell’s Cardinal Alba. Crow beats the crap out of Father Adam multiple times, insults his faith, and asks him “inappropriate” questions (the whole “wood” thing),, and Crow shows absolutely zero respect for Alba. I mean, Alba tells Crow to forget about tracking Valek down and instead rebuild his team and Crow tells him to fuck off. Crow eventually sort of listens to Alba but that only happens when Alba threatens to withdraw the Church’s funding for the team. Crow may give less than a shit what the Church wants him to do, but he’s smart enough to know that he can’t do what he needs to do without money.

Now, in this day and age, how many movies really go after organized religion and blame it for stuff like vampirism?


Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

The movie has no problem being gory: As I said earlier, Carpenter has only made two truly gory movies at this point in his career, Vampires and The Thing. When it comes to the gore on display in Vampires, it’s sticky and nasty and brutal, both when it comes to killing vampires and killing humans. Crow’s team kills vampires by dragging them into the sunlight, but in the process of getting them ready to “go outside” the team just butchers them with machine guns, shotguns, and all sorts of spears and wooden stakes. Watch the opening twenty minutes again. When it comes to humans, all you need to see is Mark Boone Junior’s Catlin split in half to see just how far Carpenter is willing to go here. That sequence is still a winner.

Now, could Vampires work without all of the blood and guts? Maybe, if the story was reworked a bit. But, with the story the way it is now, the movie just wouldn’t work. It needs to be absolutely disgusting. Would you take the slayers seriously if you didn’t get to see them destroy a vampire? Would you take Valek seriously if he didn’t have the ability to cut a human in half with the swipe of his hand? Doubtful. Very, very doubtful.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Frank Darabont is in it. Briefly: Yes, the Frank Darabont shows up right after Valek kills Crow’s team and Crow, Montoya, and Katrina need a vehicle. Darabont plays some sort of businessman who shows up at the wrong gas station at the wrong time and ends up getting his car stolen. It’s a little scene that will likely only appeal to full on horror nerds, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t cool. And I knew who Darabont was back when I first saw Vampires, but I couldn’t figure out why the guy who directed The Shawshank Redemption would want to do a bit part in a John Carpenter movie. I mean, I know why I would want to do a bit part in a John Carpenter movie, but why Darabont?

The ending: Some people are disturbed/annoyed by the way Vampires ends. They can’t believe that Jack Crow would allow the soon-to-be vampire Montoya drive away with the full on vampire Katrina in the back of a truck. It just didn’t make sense to them. But when you realize that Crow and Montoya are brothers, are family, and that since Montoya “covered Crow’s ass” for two days after being bitten, Crow really did owe Montoya two days. The slayers may be mercenaries, but they’re not savages. In an odd way they’re men of honor. And Crow, above all else, is a man of honor.

It’s a sad scene, watching Crow and Montoya hash out what’s likely to happen next and then hug for the final time. I still get choked up when Montoya tells Crow “Vaya con Dios, my friend,” and Crow replies “Vaya con dios, slayer.” Still amazing stuff.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

The promise of a kick-ass sequel: Vampires has had, to date, two “sequels,” both direct-to-video affairs. The first one, Vampires: Los Muertos, has Jon Bon Jovi as the lead slayer Derek Bliss and is, basically, a slow, low budget rehash of the first movie. It does contain some interesting performances and ideas, but the director, old Carpenter pal and collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, is unable to give the story much life. It’s boring. It also implies that Jack Crow is dead and that Derek Bliss is somehow a better and tougher vampire hunter. That’s just fucking bullshit. The other “sequel,” Vampires: The Turning, takes place in Thailand and features some nifty martial arts hooey in the midst of dirt bike riding and whatnot. The Turning is actually pretty okay, and is something I wouldn’t mind seeing again (I reviewed it a long time ago but the review has, sadly, disappeared from the internets. Maybe it will pop up in a future From the B-Movie Vault one day). But does it deserve to be a sequel to John Carpenter’s Vampires?

Absolutely not.

A real sequel to Vampires would involve James Woods as Jack Crow building up a new slayer team and going after Montoya and Katrina. It would pick up two days or so after the end of the first movie and try to be just as awesome. It would also have Carpenter directing a somewhat major movie again, something the major studios should be begging Carpenter to do. The man is a genius.


Vampires is the second-to-last big movie directed by John Carpenter so far. It’s a movie that needs to be seen, savored, internalized, and celebrated. It’s a badass piece of horror action cinema, a grotesque western chock full of blood drinking monsters that are too dangerous to be left alive. It, much like most of Carpenter’s movies, needs to be rediscovered. It needs to be seen for the great movie it is.

John Carpenter’s Vampires is awesome. If you haven’t seen it, what the hell are you waiting for? Track it down and see it now! Now!

Image Credit: Scream Factory


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