In the opening scene of John Carpenter’s 1998 film Vampires, a group of hunters lay siege to a vampire “nest” in remote New Mexico. A vampire surprises them and sets upon one of their men. Though heavily armed, the creature surrounded, not a shot is fired until the vampire is disengaged and a clean shot available. Contrast this to the next scene, in which, during celebrations at a hotel, surrounded my booze and prostitutes, the vampire master Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) sets upon the team in retribution. Valek makes short work of the party and at one point, as the team members unleash a panicked volley of ineffective bullets at him, grabs one of the women to use as a shield. The men fire without hesitation, their bullets ripping through the woman, barely affecting Valek. The differential treatment between their teammate and the woman is stark, and the implication clear: these men possess allegiance only to each other, and everyone else is collateral damage.
John Carpenter’s post-1980s work has been largely derided, written off as inferior works of a master past his prime. Consequently, these works have largely been overlooked for analysis in lieu of his 80s output, a great shame, as this era is unfairly maligned and largely misunderstood. Vampires is one of the best films of his later period, and as deserving of praise as his earlier works. Carpenter has always been vocal about his love of Westerns, with many of his works, including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981), and Ghosts of Mars (2001), essentially functioning as stealth Westerns, strategically dressed up to capitalise on Carpenter’s reputation as a horror and sci-fi filmmaker. Here the garb is that of horror, but Vampires is about as close to a straight-up Western as Carpenter has ever made.
The Western genre, and the action film in general, has always been a hyper-masculine one, a trait many of Carpenter’s films share, although none of his films were ever as possessed of the mean streak as the one on display here. He has always populated his films with tough guys, but in Vampires his heroes are truly savage. Though testosterone-laden they are, his films have also consistently had good roles for women, often proving themselves more interesting characters than their male counterparts. Sheryl Lee’s character in Vampires, Katrina, receives no such honours. She is put through a particularly gruelling experience and given a particularly hard time of it.
Throughout the course of the film her character Katrina will be: shoved to the ground for no discernable reasons while already struggling to walk, slapped, punched, repeatedly bound, naked and prone to a bed — where she is grabbed and told her neck will be snapped if she protests — repeatedly called a whore, and just generally treated like absolute crap. And this is by the “good” guys. Being bitten by a vampire is the least of her worries.
Katrina is the sole survivor of the women in the hotel attack. Jack (James Woods) and Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), all that remains of the vampire hunting team, almost leave her for dead as they flee, and only decide to bring her along when they realise she could be of use to them. Katrina is telepathically linked to Valek after being fed on and infected by him, and as such can lead them, via visions, to his whereabouts. She is little more to the two men than a human vampire compass; an object. Fitting, given that in the book on which the movie is based it is not Katrina that Jack uses to pursue Valek, but a literal object.
In fact, Katrina’s functions to the men as little more than a conduit through which they can gain access to other men, or as a foil that threatens the relationships between them. It is a story of affection between men, where such affection can be achieved only through violence. It is not a misogynistic film, but one about misogyny, of violent and aggressive men, and the byproduct of that violence. Katrina’s visions of Valek’s wrath are also consequently visions of her own future. Trapped between that which awaits her, and her present predicament at the mercy of two cruel, uncaring men, Katrina chooses death. Montoya manages to stop her from throwing herself from a window, but cuts himself in the process. This spurns Katrina’s growing hunger and she bites him, which earns her in incapacitating punch to the face. Jack grills Montoya about the mark on her face, and Montoya lies about the bite. It might seem Jack’s questioning is out of concern for Katrina, but this is not so. Jack senses something amiss; he smells a betrayal.
Betrayal requires the delineation between “us” and “them”, self and Other. Vampires in Vampires may not be “a bunch of fags hopping around in rented formal wear” but they are “cocksuckers” and they will “take a ride up your strada chocolata.” In short, they are couched explicitly in terms of “Other.” They are which we are not. The hunters act as if on the word of God. They are employees of the church. A priest blesses their vampire raids. Jack carries a cross in his car, hung from the rear view mirror, but shows little sign of having faith. The only time he speaks of crosses is to attest to their futility against vampires. Its function is instead similar to that of a sheriff’s badge, a claim to authority, a license to act with impunity. Earlier, Montoya tells one of them women in the hotel scene, “We know vampires are stalking the earth. We also know there’s a God.” Vampires are thus proof of God’s existence but, far from the implications of such a reality, their existence is less about God and more about the hunter’s own righteousness. In the service of God’s work, anything is permissible. It is a creed and a language through which bloodlust can be both justified and satiated: “us” and “them”. When Katrina asks “What about the other girls?” it is clear she has lost her own group, her own “us”, but neither man gives this a second thought. Their own brotherhood is all that matters. Betrayal is a violation, and it requires restitution.
Betrayal is an ongoing theme in the film, for betrayal undermines communal bonds. Immediately after questioning the bruises on Katrina’s face, Jack sets to work putting some of his own on Padre’s (Tim Guinee). He suspects Padre knows more than he lets on and, when he won’t fess up, Jack confesses that as a boy, after lying to he and his mother for several days about being bitten, his father turned and attacked them both. “I killed my own father, Padre. Don’t think I won’t kill you.” The father’s offense is clear: his lie was a betrayal that compromised the integrity of the family unit, betrayal a crack that threatens the coherence of male relationships. Jack senses the same lie, the same betrayal, from Montoya. It was after killing his father that Jack was bought into the church and raised as a hunter. It is there that he found his new family, the blood of the covenant truly thicker than the water of the womb. The cold efficiency with which these hunters dispatch their prey in the opening sequence, and how the bonds between them give fuel to the fire of their violence, highlights that this is not only a working relationship, but that these men are, too, an effective family unit. They look out for each other; when a hole is drilled in the door and someone must put their hand through into the unknown darkness beyond, team member Catlin (Mark Boone Jr.) volunteers, but Jack insists, “It’s my turn.” Although they work with the pretence to some greater good, their only true allegiance remains to each other. The only real affection in this movie is between men. The burnt skulls proudly collected from their quarry, on which Jack strikes a match to light a victory cigarette, attest to the fact that their violence is more than a duty, it’s a sport, and, together, they enjoy every minute of it.
The film makes several such associations between violence and pleasure. Valek’s assault of Katrina is staged as though he is going down on her, and her reaction is one of pleasure mixed with pain. Similarly, when Katrina finally turns and tears a hole in Montoya’s neck, his expression too is one of pleasure. As she feasts, he lovingly cradles her head, interpreting a violent assault and act of revenge as the consummation of their relationship. Even Jack and Montoya’s final parting, staged like a lover’s goodbye, is framed as a threat. And earlier in the film, after the first of many times Jack will beat Padre for information, Jack asks him, “When I was kicking your ass back there did you get a little wood?” He is joking, of course, but only partially. Violence is pleasure.
Jack assaults Padre several times, in fact, pressing him for more and more information, assuming, correctly, given their failure to find Valek at the nest, that he knew they were coming, and that they were set up. And yet, despite Padre gradually spilling more information, Jack remains something of a slow study, unable to connect the dots. It is only when Padre spells it out for him — that Valek seeks the black cross to complete a ritual that will allow him to walk in the sunlight — that finally the penny drops. Until that point, and indeed after it, his has been purely a quest of vengeance and of injured pride. When Padre speaks of Valek’s plan to shift the balance, it is a language Jack understands, even if it is dissociated for him from its greater implication. Valek has emasculated him. This insult cannot be tolerated. The balance must be restored. The greater good is of little concern.
The film is, ultimately, about the bonds between men, a love story between Jack and Montoya. The two, after the death of their team, argue over their burial. Jack wants to go it alone, and have Montoya watch over Katrina. “Never bury a team member by yourself!” says Montoya, one of several rules espoused between the pair. “Somebody’s changed the rules,” says Jack. This is the threat the vampires represent: they undermine the code that allows the brotherhood to cohere, a code less about the specifics of the rules and more about the underlying presumption that allegiance to each other is paramount. “Kill the whore, bury the team together,” says Montoya. Jack rebuffs him, “If you’ve got something else to say, spit it out.” “Yeah,” Montoya says, “Don’t take too fucking long. I get nervous when you’re not around.” The sincerity of the remark is disguised behind an ironic smirk. Affection can never be overt, and is best hidden behind violence. Even Jack’s decapitation of his fallen comrades in preparation for burial has about it a strange, ritualistic brand of intimacy. There is also a strange callousness to the manner in which the dead women are left with heads intact, simply left to burn, fuel for the fire.
Katrina’s presence compromises the affection between the pair as Montoya gradually, in his own possessive way, falls for her. At one point he strips her and ties her naked to a bed, and in his own twisted logic this is framed as an act of caring. When she bites him, she is no longer Other to him, they are Other together. This allows him to assume an ownership over her and he almost immediately begins addressing her as “baby.” When Jack once again shoves her around, Montoya defends her, and Jack retorts, “You’re not going to fall for this half-dead cunt.” Montoya slugs him, and the two almost come to blows before Padre interjects and reminds them they have better things to worry about. Katrina never reciprocates this affection in all the film, and, in fact, physically recoils from him up right until her transition. She is last seen at film’s end fleeing from the sunlight, as Valek is defeated his plan finally stopped. When Jack and Montoya have their final goodbye, Katrina is, apparently, in the truck behind them, physically absent from the scene but there in the sense that their final exchange occurs around her. “You really love her that much?” Jack asks. “We make the perfect couple,” says Montoya. Katrina’s thoughts on this arrangement are of absolutely zero consequence. She is but a possession to be used up, a proxy through which they can give voice to their fondness for each other. Affection in Vampires is a twisted affair.
And so too for the audience, as for Jack and Montoya, does Katrina’s body provide a site of unease and ambivalence, one that threatens the foundations of the hyper masculine world. The film is an entirely different one by virtue of her presence; in her absence the spectator would be free to enjoy the violent display, unfettered from the complication of a moral sensibility. Instead, that the pair treats Katrina with such callousness and disregard generates a conflict of sympathy. The audience is invited to invest in Jack’s story and his relationship with Montoya, but also to identify with Katrina, to whom the biggest threat is not Valek, but Jack and Montoya. For her transition to be prevented Valek must be destroyed, and she therefore relies on the two men who treat her so cruelly. Thus, the audience’s sympathy remains in flux, with nowhere stable to truly land.
Just as the film encourages an uneasy empathy with its two leads, so too does another matter complicate things: the movie is as entertaining as hell. Wood’s performance, like vampires spitting flames in sunlight, simply crackles. He creates just about as likeable a bad guy as you could hope for on screen, and it is one of the best performances in Carpenter’s entire oeuvre. It’s fun to watch him spit sharp one-liners. It’s fun to watch the precision efficiency of two professionals going about their work. It’s fun to watch vampires erupt into flames in the sunlight, fun to watch the mechanics by which this is achieved. The dialogue is snappy and humorous, the action scenes lively and spirited (the opening scene and a later plot in which Padre is used as “bait” to lure vampires out, especially). It is not, however, fun to watch Katrina dragged around and beaten through the entire movie, a mere prop. “Bait.”
When Katrina is told she is bait, she is being told her place. When Padre is told the same, it is apologetic. His acceptance into the vampire hunting fraternity is gradual, spending most of the film, like Katrina, as the repeated subject of violence. The first sure sign of his acceptance is when, during his tenure as “bait”, a vampire grabs him, and Jack, as in the opening scene, holds his fire until he has a clean shot. Padre’s initiation in a way mirrors Jack’s own. It was the betrayal of Jack by his father that baptised him into life as a vampire hunter. When Cardinal Alba betrays them all, renouncing God and, consequently, the authority under which they assume their dominion, Padre in a sense too loses his own father, and after dispatching him with a swift shotgun blast through the back, becomes himself an official hunter initiate. As the film closes, Jack asks Padre again “Did you get a little wood?” Padre surprises Jack with his response, “Mahogany. Ebony. Teak!” No longer the subject of violence, he ends the film not only as a perpetrator of violence, but an enthusiastic one at that. All three male leads receive a conclusion of sorts, a mercy not afforded to Katrina. She simply vanishes from the narrative, relinquished to the back of a van, sight unseen, while the two men say their goodbyes, her use to the narrative, and to Jack, used up.
To completely remove Katrina of her agency, to subject her to so much, is a highly questionable decision, but an undeniably effective one. And herein lies the contradiction at the heart of Vampires. It is not the first work to be at the same time violent and to comment on violence, but it is perhaps one of the few to not do so explicitly. Unforgiven (1992) waxed lyrical about the futility of violence but, at the end of the day, when Clint Eastwood donned that duster, sidled a six shooter to his hip and jumped on that horse, the bloodshed was inevitable. Welcome. Expected, even. Violence is why we’re here, dammit. Vampires makes no such apology. The viewer is made complicit by virtue of the contradiction, and the contradiction is made more visceral in the absence of any pontificating or apologia. Jack and Montoya are out for blood. So too is anyone watching a John Carpenter movie. It is expected. Craved. We thirst for it. But violence inherently requires prey, bodies to be used up and exposed of, obliterated. It’s easy to celebrate the destruction of vampires, for they provide a convenient subject for destruction, as they represent a threat to humanity. But what if, as in Vampires, the brush strokes of humanity do not paint a pretty picture? To revel in destruction in Vampires is not to revel only in the destruction of vampires. Jack, in his thirst for blood is not so different from the vampires he hunts, or the audience from Jack, for that matter. Not all vampires, it seems, have fangs. But they are, all of them, always, thirsty.