For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
I fell into vampire stuff this month.
It started with our annual viewing of the classic Dracula from 1931. I love that movie. We watch it on or around October 1 every year. Most of the time we include Philip Glass’ superb 1999 score, which adds to the movie’s otherwise somewhat-barren, early-talkie soundscape. An audible desolation that adds to the atmosphere of the film but, well, so does Glass’s string quartet. I love that movie, and it remains my favorite depiction of the story onscreen despite the liberties taken.
From there, I read the book in its entirety for the first time, which is a shameful admission. I followed my reading with Francis Ford Coppola’s utterly gonzo Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is certainly the most faithful and flamboyant of the adaptations filmed. His phantasmagoric take on the story mostly works except when it doesn’t. The last third of the movie is an absolute bore, and the performances are all over the place. It’s a four-star movie wrapped in a two-star shell.
Then I moved on to some wilder takes: the old Hammer exploitation takes on Dracula starring Christopher Lee, the 1970s blacksploitation classic Blacula and finally 2000’s Gerard Butlersploitation masterpiece Dracula 2000, I also revisited the first two Blade movies, their gore and outrageous sexuality putting other takes on vampire lore to shame. I started to feel like I was searching for something specific in all this nonsense. A movie that would really scratch the itch.
In the Marvel vein, I started reading through their classic 1970s Tomb of Dracula series, in which Blade was introduced. It’s good shit and fun comics, and to my surprise, it inspired a wildly divergent anime adaptation. In that version, an anti-heroic Dracula cuckolds Satan and then fights God out of spite, a subplot Stoker must have forgotten to include in his original text.
Amid all of this, I ended up watching Monster Squad for the first time. Shane Black’s foul-mouthed kids and their utter lack of decorum in blowing away monsters and werewolves with deadly weaponry spoke to me. Is this the kind of shameless shit I’d been truly seeking all month?
It turns out what I was seeking in all this vampire fluff wasn’t seductive nobility from far-off lands like Bela Lugosi or beautiful fallen angels that look like Gerard Butler. It wasn’t Wesley Snipes smiting suckheads (although that’s pretty awesome) or even the brief moment of sexual phantasmagoria in Coppola’s film wherein Winona Ryder runs through the rain in an abundant but artistically thin nightgown to find her friend Lucy getting fucked by a dickless vampire werewolf. (Incidentally, I read a book called Image of the Beast by Philip José Farmer this month where the werewolves and vampires are decidedly endowed. An old coworker recommended it years ago, and it was the funniest book I’ve read in ages. Don’t look at me that way).
What I was searching for this whole time was a movie that strips vampires of all their mythology, all their powers, all their decorum. That presents the vampire hunters as real pieces of shit, portrayed in fact by very real pieces of shit. A film budgeted at $60 million before a last-minute cutdown to $20 million, necessitating rewrites and creative thinking that only an old pro like John Carpenter would muster.
I’m talking about Vampires, the 1998 vampire Western starring human shit-stain James Woods as a Catholic Church-retained vampire hunter whose crew of misfits and miscreants travel around New Mexico massacring the undead in heinous and excessively bloody ways. Lean, mean, nasty filmmaking about bad people doing bad things to even badder people. It’s a Western in the most prototypically masculine fashion and a no-nonsense fest of absolute action fuckage.
Vampires came about during the vampire renaissance of the 1990s and plays like the angriest and most desperate product of that wave. It lacks the sheen of Blade, the pomp of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or even the finesse of From Dusk till Dawn. It certainly doesn’t have the thoughtfulness or heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Carpenter took on the project after being burned out by Escape from L.A., looking for something smaller and more straightforward. He got his legs cut out from under him. But Carpenter is a survivor, and his films reflect a creative ethos that produces incredible work even under constrained budgets (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness).
Simplicity is the Carpenter charm, and Vampires is as simple as they get: Jack Crow (Woods) is a jeans-and-jacket-wearing vampire hunter sponsored by the Vatican to clean up what is, secretly, their mess. In this story, vampires were created when the Church executed a disgraced priest, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith). Crow and his men travel to vampire nests in daylight, shooting their prey and then dragging them with tow cables into the sunlight, where they’re immolated. In this story, vampires are bloodthirsty monsters with only a weakness to sunlight and stakes. All that garlic, holy water and crucifix stuff is out the window. See? Simplicity.
Valek ambushes and brutally murders Crow’s men; only he and Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), his right-hand man, survive. They kidnap Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a woman bitten by Valek and thus psychically connected to him. Woods is spot-on risible as Crow, a man you’re not supposed to like but enjoy watching as he badmouths everyone and just acts like a total piece of shit. Baldwin is … well, a Baldwin, who took the role after his brother Alec passed on it but does a pretty good fraternal impression. Lee (of Twin Peaks fame) was hired because Carpenter liked her performance in the show and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. There’s little for Lee to do in the script, and it’s essentially on the level of a female lead in a mid-tier Western film … except for a moment where she receives cunnilingus from Valek. Not even Coppola was so literal. She also screams a lot.
There isn’t much else to Vampires besides carnage. Crow is a total fucking asshole in the classic Carpenter vein, in that he’s also just the right level of lame. His one-liners are cheesy, the stuff of a 15-year-old’s concept of cool. When he faces down Valek in single combat, Crow’s only question: “Let me just ask you one thing. After 600 years, how’s that dick workin’? Pretty good?” A far cry from Van Helsing’s steely gunslinger stance when facing down Dracula in the 1931 movie, to be sure. Crow also has a silver crossbow that looks completely worthless, but somebody in the props department was clearly quite proud of it. And should be.
Carpenter’s customary score is present, of course, which leans heavily on twanging guitars, saxophones and, of course, synths for maximum impact. Inject it into my brain.
This month I’ve learned a lot about vampire literature and have found a number of other books, comics and, of course, films I’d like to watch eventually. Maybe I’ll make my way into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series at some point! The versatility of the classic monster and its different attributes depending on the story being told makes for some great storytelling that speaks to me on some undefinable level or another, and I’ll ride this train of interest until I inevitably burn out and find some other dumb thing with which to be obsessed. For now, though, I’ve learned I’m happiest when their stories are told with minimal emotional impact and maximalist brute force.
Some say Carpenter’s career ended in the mid-1980’s. But you should never listen to those people. Vampires is the kind of pitch-perfect trash movie that makes you cheer “fuck, yeah!”