Vampires (1998)

This is one of those films which I have come across from time to time on TV, but always only caught some part of. Now I finally got hold of the DVD of Vampires and watched it start to finish.

A team of Vatican vampire hunters has just eliminated a nest full of vampires, but the vampire master is not among them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to the church and their leading slayer Jack Crow that these events cannot be defined as your regular vampire activity, but that something bigger is going down. And so Crow finds himself in a race against time to discover (and foil) the vampires’ plans.

There is little of note about this film. The story is written and narrated well, and as an audience, we mostly know what is happening and why – even though the film has to use a couple of lines of forced exposition at times. The plot is a bit thin, but holds together well; and the film looks good – it takes place in the American Southwest and has a bit of a Wild West vibe to it. That vibe is underlined by the music, written by director John Carpenter. The camera work is appropriately cinematic, and the practical effects are good (even though you can always see the moment when the stunt people are replaced with dolls right before the vampires are getting roasted in the sun). As for the genre-mix: apart from being a vampire film and a bit of a Western, the film also has clear elements of old-fashioned sexploitation.

John Carpenter does not shy away from the dirt. There is a lot of blood and dust in this film: vampires are creatures of the night, and vampire hunting is a hard and grimy business. This is 1998, and Carpenter seems to want to distance himself from the elegant salon vampires that had previously been in fashion. And I believe Crow’s line about vampires not being “romantic”, not being “a bunch of fucking fags hopping around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Eurotrash accents”, is a clear dig at films like Interview with the Vampire and Coppola’s Dracula.

Thematically, there is little that goes beyond the pure plot. There is an element known from classic spy thrillers: a possible mole and consequently distrust and even paranoia. And there is some lingering doubt as to whether Crow is driven by his will to fulfil his mission or by his thirst for revenge. But both of these themes are only introduced and then never used in an intelligent or intriguing way. A further theme that can be read into the film is criticism of the Catholic Church.

Minor characters aside, there is only a very limited cast. The acting is mostly good, including by Thomas Ian Griffith as vampire master Jan Valek, and Tim Guinee as Father Adam. And, of course, Maximilian Schell adds a lot of class to the project.

Unfortunately, the acting from our two lead actors, James Woods and Daniel Baldwin, is less than stellar. Woods tends to overact in more than one scene. His character is supposed to be a battle-hardened tough guy, but he comes across as a psycho badass. Moreover, this (unwarranted) intensity feels staged; in many a scene it does not feel real but phoney. A result of all this is that the interaction between Woods and Guinee in intense scenes never seems convincing or natural

Daniel Baldwin is burdened in this film by his inherent personal blandness. His character might have benefited from some of the badass intensity of Woods’s acting. Baldwin, however, seems to go for some “heartfelt” intensity, which equally feels like overacting and makes his character come across as soppy.

I believe that the director should shoulder part of the blame for the tonally inconsistent performance of his two leading men.

This film is not bad, but the acting by Woods and Baldwin means I cannot rate this film any higher than 6.0 or 6.5 out of 10. Still, well worth a watch if this kind of modern Western is your cup of tea.

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