movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell

John Carpenter's Vampires

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Horror films have always belonged to females. Itís the heroine who lures the monstrous creature (in whatever incarnation) and weakens him with "beauty" and "innocence." The sexual context is obvious. The womanís lover is really a beauty disguised as a beast. Or he remains an animalistic, carnal beast and she likes it that way. With him, she can explore darker urges tucked away in daylight.

Every scary story has its own Freudian implications. In the late '70s and early '80s, women were stalked by hockey-masked psychos (1980ís Friday The 13th by Sean S. Cunningham), sister-slashing mental patients (Carpenterís genre-breaking Halloween, now celebrating its 20th anniversary), or leather-faced fiends (Tobe Hooperís Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974, the granddaddy of slasher flicks). These movies launched sequel-spawning clones such as Nightmare On Elm Street, among many others.

Scream (1996) exploited what audiences knew all alongóthat Freddy is just a song-and-dance man, that the old sexual stereotypes no longer apply, that the horror paradigm is watchable even when itís predictable (and self-consciously comedic). Kevin Williamsonís self-labeled "parody" stuck to the rules without scripting any new ones.

The elusive, Byronic vampire seemed the sole monster to retain his original bite, thanks to novelists such as Anne Rice, who understood womenís mutual dependence on this erotic nightmare. She also introduced modern elements to the myth--homosexual liaisons between male vampires; parallels with the AIDS plague; and clever details recently accepted as rudimentary. Forget garlic and crosses. These vampires leap buildings in a single bound and pursue prey in sunlight. Whatís stranger, they stop to consider the consequences of their actions and question Godís role in their existence. Call them organic objects: part sin-condemned human, part undead Ubermensch.

Modern horror movies suffer from a similar identity crisis. While attempting to cross genres and create a livelier hybrid, they botch both. The result is a humorless hodgepodge too aware of its conventions to let us soar with them. The vampire slayers in John Carpenterís Vampires (based on the book Vampire$ by John Steakley, despite the movie's possessive slug-line) crack jokes, not bones. Jack Crow (James Woods) is a typical loudmouth anti-hero in a gun-packingly glam setting, more Western than horror movie. Like Oliver Stoneís U-Turn (another failed cross-over between cowpokes and neo-noir) its dirty deeds set foot in day-drenched wilderness instead of smog-ridden cities. Itís easy to peg the vampire as a recycled indian, pitting savagery, manís id-driven instincts, etc. etc. against technological advancement (if not intellect in Crowís case).

Carpenter scored the film with his own compositions, also suffering from split-personality, one minute twangy, the next minute guitar-strangling rock. The special effects arenít so special. The cinematography goes by the book, as does the tiresome script. Thomas Ian Griffith has got the looks (if not charisma) for his role as Valek, a 600-year-old master vampire on the hunt for a cross that keeps him alive after sunup. Crow and his scuzzy team of white-trash Twister-chasers (oops, wrong movie) find Valekís "nest" in a ramshackle shed, somewhere in the middle of New Mexico. This makes for sizzling skylines that serve as convenient time-tables. As the tumbleweeds roll and the vampires are pulled out by Jeep-rigged harpoons, Jack spouts such diverting lines of dialogue as "Suck it up!" and inquires if the hippie-priest on-hand (Tim Guiteau) "got any wood" during the melee. (Homophobic and anti-clerical sentiments abound in this humor-desperate pic.) If Vampires had stooped to B-level proportions (à la From Dusk Till Dawn, its obvious movie model) it might ignite a few guilty guffaws. Such god-awful dialogue detracts from splattery slapstick that couldíve coaxed a mere smirk. Canned laughter wouldíve seemed subtler.

Forsaking psychological bonds with the baddie, the heroine of Vampires has been reduced to something less than bait. Many recent horror films have dabbled with "stronger" (translation: talkier) female characters. This is a ruse. These gals are all gab, no action. They simply exist to be tortured. The camera isnít on their side. Neither is the mostly-male audience. Sheryl Lee (who formerly enjoyed 15 minutes of Twin Peaks fame) plays Katrina, a hooker bitten by the master. Baldwin brother Daniel falls for the lady capable of consuming him. This makes perfect sense in a movie that views women as blood-sucking bitches. Jack was about to couple with Katrina before she was attacked. Her vampire-seduction scene is a reference to oral sex. (This isnít rape. Katrina takes pleasure in the act). When Jack discovers sheís been bitten, he decides to ditch her, then changes his mind because "We can use this piece of shit."

Katrina, the filmís most complex character, spends most of her screen time tied-up or pitching a fit (with or without her clothes on). Would any self-respecting vampire establish a mental link with his victim that allows her to follow him? Naturally, Valek attacks the only Catholic parish within miles, (or more specifically, the Hispanic cleaning lady), strolls by a bold-print signpost and opens a map. (X marks the cross.) He digs up some old friends but we never learn anything about them. These rules are so slippery; the characters keep spouting them by number. Rule Number One: if an American film is released in France before it finds a State-bound distributor, itís cable-bound. Carpenter mustíve forgotten about that one. Monster movies often follow the rules. Itís character-revelation, not twisty plot turns, that make them so interesting. Put simply, these films are psychological semaphores. Take away the romance between victim and vampire. Whatís left is something truly monstrous.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]


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