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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Vampires

Starring: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin
Director: John Carpenter
Rated: R
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: October 1998
Genres: Horror, Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thriller

*Also starring: Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Don't believe what you see in movies about vampires," advises Jack Crow (James Woods) when clueing someone in to the conventions of the bloodsuckers. OK, Jack, we won't believe a thing we see on the screen, but we'll still have lots of fun watching the incredible pass before our eyes. Why is this movie such a lark? Two words: James Woods. Who else could do his job in putting his own brand of camp on this, one of the scores of vampire films that have always fascinated us especially around Halloween. The narrow-faced actor has performed in several dimensions as villains, hoodlums, and once even Roy Cohn and can evoke the hatred of the audience in movies like "The Onion Field." He can also turn be the good guy, but hardly saintly, as he is in John Carpenter's latest hoot, "Vampires." In his obsenity- spouting, highly-strung performance, he counsels us to forget some of the things we've been told about these undead. For example, they're not repelled by garlic, which makes them very powerful indeed, and they can even laugh at the crucifix, pick it up and, in this case actually seek it out to perform an exorcism!

Like the second (and inferior) half of "From Dusk Till Dawn," "Vampires" is a horror movie but it exudes much that belongs to the western. The action takes place in California, but we see nothing of Tinseltown; rather a the sort of wasteland that finds clumps of bushes blowing about, old, Spanish-style mission houses with abbeys who ring the bell when danger approaches, and one delightfully dilapidated shack that houses the most dangerous vampire of them all, the 600-year-old Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith). Clothed in black, played menacingly as a man with great physical strength and spider veins running up and down his face, Griffith does a sumptuous job of portraying evil incarnate, a man who in 1340 was a priest who challenged the rites of the Catholic Church, was condemned and burned as a heretic, and underwent a failed exorcism to wash the evil spirit from his body. He and his "children" can be killed only by driving a stake through their hearts and for good measure dragging them out into the sun, though they can be temporarily stopped by bullets, and if you're not prepared for his visit or expect to negotiate with him, you will have your body torn out from under you by one swift, leopard-like slash of his potent open hand or your jugular deveined by a swift jab of his feral nails.

Jack Crow teams up with Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and a small group to slay Valek, called "The Master," and others of his ilk. Armed with crossbows, machine guns and simple pistols, they sneak into hideaways with their truck hoping to catch the demons by surprise and, while driving stakes through their hearts, they like to drag the bodies out with a chain tied to their van so that exposure to the sun will fry them to a crisp.

The movie is filled with gratuitous nudity, suggestions of sexual bondage, blasphemy and rip-roaring violence, all of which set political correctness on its head. Female vampires are likely to be greeted with chivalrous dialogue like "How do you like your stake, bitch," and a priest is met by Jack Crow with the such religious sentiments as "let me get you a beer and then we'll get you laid." One priest gets blind drunk shortly before he is virtually decapitated, while a cardinal's virtues prove to be entirely questionable. In one scene, Tony Montoya ties a beautiful young woman, Katrina (Sheryl Lee) to a bed after having removed her clothes and makes sure the theater audience gets to see a good deal of her physical beauty before he covers her with a blanket. Katrina also gets tied to the roof of a van in yet another sexually suggestive position, all for the greater good of killing the undead.

Special effects are first rate, with the vampires turning charcoal broiled in second under the heat of the California sun and in one case the body of one of the slayers literally falls apart when Valek uses his mighty force against him. If "Vampires" falls short of being a must-see it ranks among the most original takes on the genre, is filled with gore, and has enough comedic situations courtesy of the talented James Woods to keep you happy.

John Carpenter is a director known for gripping the audience emotionally--as critic David Thomsen reports in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film"--and never letting go. Film buffs living in the Big Apple share a particular fondness for his "Escape from New York," which portrays Manhattan as a maximum-security prison from which Snake Pissken (Kurt Russell) must make a daring escape. Who can forget his "Halloween," the original one and not the bland, recent remake, one of the scariest films ever to hit the screen; and though it would be a stretch, you could almost say that the uneasy walk of the character of Beloved from Jonathan Demme's movie of the name was inspired by Jeff Bridges's performance in Carpenter's "Star Man." "Vampires" is a worthy addition to his repertory.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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