What I can explain easily is that monsters generally work best in the medium where they were created. That poltergeist tossing stuff around the room might be terrifying on paper, but it's a lot less scary when you're trying to decide whether or not you can see wires attached to the candlestick, and the reanimated doctor with snakes erupting from his palms as a giant penis drags him around the hospital by his head... Well, you can see from that sentence why he belongs in Hellraiser II and not in classy literature like, I dunno, The 120 Days of Sodom.
Vampires, however, seem to work in just about any context. Vampire cowboys. Vampire commies. Space vampires. The President and First Vampire. Dr. Acula, Ph.D. See what I mean? Vampires are like eggs: there are a million ways to present them.
All of this is leading me to John Carpenter's Vampires, which I somehow missed until this year. The film was released under the name Vampires in 1998, but fifteen years later nobody refers to it without adding John Carpenter's name to the front. I'm not sure if that's to identify this as Mr. Carpenter's unique vision of vampire lore, or to assign fault. Could be both, I suppose.
Vampires is part of the tradition of rowdy, over-the-top American vampire movies that began (as far as I can tell) in the late '80s with Near Dark and reached its zenith in 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn. They're fast and explosive, and ditch the effeminate vampires and the swooning Victorians and the traditional lore in favor of guns and bikinis and... I'm okay with that. And if movies like JC's Vampires and the Blade trilogy don't quite soar the way that FDTD does, well, it's not for lack of trying.
The premise: Jack Crow (James Woods) leads a team of mercenaries charged by the Vatican with killing vampires. The film opens in New Mexico as the team successfully dispatches a "nest" of vampires. Only one little catch: where's the Master Vampire? The answer arrives that night when, during a party with hookers and blow and the supervision of the local police force, The Master arrives and takes out the entire team, except for Crow and Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), who narrowly escape with the only other survivor, a prostitute named Katrina (Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee). Katrina has been bitten, which makes her a dangerous liability, but they need to hang on to her because she shares a telepathic link to The Master.
Crow arranges a meeting with Cardinal Alba, who shows Crow a painting of The Master. Turns out The Master is, in fact, Valek, the original vampire, created in a botched exorcism during the 13th century. Crow is assigned to work with a young priest named Father Guiteau, who, if I remember correctly, comes direct from the Vatican, which explains his American accent. Crow's new mission: prevent Valek from acquiring a powerful, ancient relic which is hidden in a church somewhere in the American southwest.
No matter. From here, the movie is a series of high octane action sequences as Crow uses naughty words, his bad attitude, and a winch attached to a pickup truck in his hunt for Valek.
Vampires is a hell of a lot of fun, but it's not good art, and I don't think it would work as good art. It's loud and violent and exhillarating, and you want to cheer at the awesome moments, and awesome is the right word. It's shallow, and it needs to be. The story is incredibly bleak; this is basically a revenge story where characters you wouldn't want to know personally relentlessly hunt each other down without giving much thought to the people they have to step on along the way. You have to temporarily desensitize yourself to violence to appreciate a film like this.
Is it a good movie? Yeah, I think it is. It's not scary, but it's exciting and the story was twisty enough to keep me interested. I don't think it's one of John Carpenter's best films, but hey, nobody agrees with me about Dark Star anyway.
Click here for the trailer.