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John Carpenter’s Vampires (US Blu-ray review)

Specs

Specs

Details

Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Steakly
Cast: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee
Year: 1998
Length: 108 mins
Rating: R
Region: A
Disks: 1
Label: Twilight Time
Release Date: October 27, 2015

Video

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Type: Color

Audio

Audio:  English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH

Extras
  • Audio Commentary with John Carpenter
  • Vintage Behind the Scenes Featurette
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Isolated Score
  • Booklet with essay by Julie Kirgo
JohnCarpentersVampires_BD_HighRes__80241.1442274699.290.400While he had made a few notable films prior, it was with Halloween that writer, director, producer, composer, all-around filmmaking extraordinaire John Carpenter exploded on to the scene. Following Halloween, Carpenter ran through a streak hardly ever matched in the industry, releasing classics — and I’ll add masterpieces — like The Thing, The Fog, They Live, The Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from New York. It wasn’t until the 90s that Carpenter’s output took a turn, but even during that decade he was relatively consistent. There are a few misses, a few minor titles, but most of it is still watchable and a great deal entertaining (and In the Mouth of Madness a brief return to greatness). The last film Carpenter would direct in the 90s would be on of his best of the decade. A lifelong fan of westerns, Carpenter had infused many of his titles with a western bent, but John Carpenter’s Vampires is probably the closest he ever got to making a real western. Vampires is probably a result of the success of From Dusk till Dawn, but, typical of his work, Carpenter always did things on his own terms. Vampires has never been one of Carpenter’s most praised films but it is increasingly unique and despite being very of its time still works very well today. As part of a string of genre titles they released this fall, Twilight Time have offered a limited edition Blu-ray release of the film.

Film

Vampires is set in the American west and follows the anti-hero Jack Crow (James Woods), a fearless and tough vampire killer. Adapted from John Steakly’s novel Vampire$ and written by ex-Cannon scribe Don Jakoby, Vampires follows Crow’s exploits as a vampire killer who is set to the task of tracking down and killing a master vampire hellbent on world domination. Recruiting a small but capable team of trained killers, Crow and his men spend their days roaming through the desolate deserts, uncovering and exterminating vampire nests. When master vampire Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) sets his sights on Crow’s men, however, their prowess is tested and a bloody battle ensues.

Full disclosure, I have not read the original source material, so perhaps some of the elements that make it to the film are a direct representation of that text. Further, while Jakoby is the presence behind quite a few beloved genre films (Death Wish 3, Invaders from Mars, and Lifeforce among others), his work is nowhere near as iconic or strong as Carpenter’s. — the script is certainly one of the lesser elements. As Carpenter is the most proven creative of the bunch, aspects of this review will enviably take an auteurist bent — something that is always an inevitable reality of films that have the director’s name as part of the title.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

As for Carpenter’s direction, beyond a few stylistic flourishes that simply do not work and feel very of the time, he proves that, even 20-plus years into his career the director still had it. The film is beautifully shot thanks to Carpenter’s main DP in the late 80s and 90s, Gary B. Kibbe (In the Mouth of Madness, They Live, Body Bags, etc). The use of wide-angle lenses open up the sundrenched orange-tinted environment, giving it an authentic western feel. At times the use of filters to create a hyper-stylized visual image goes somewhat overboard but, all in all, these flourishes add to the comic-like nature of the film.

Like many of Carpenter’s better late 80s era output, he lets the film seamlessly oscillate between comical and serious tones, a strength to Carpenter’s confident direction as it never feels tonally off even when the humor is less than perfect. Vampires has been a highly criticized addition to his oeuvre but its hard to see why. Its not Carpenter at his best but there is a lot to appreciate in this film. Towards the tail end, the film delves into a great deal of commentary about corruption within the Catholic Church, and it would really seem as if this is probably the aspect that drew Carpenter to the project the most. The takedown (albeit satirical) of the Vatican is very much in line with the type of transgressive cinema Carpenter was known for.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

Beyond Carpenter and his collaboration with Kibbe, the real force of the film comes from Woods’s performance. Woods is one of the most overlooked actors in Hollywood, despite his lengthy career (and even performances in some of cinema’s best films). Over the last 30 years, Woods has given countless phenomenal performances and yet he remains a tertiary figure for most and spoken of as a lesser actor by others when he is considered. He has his cult fans but hasn’t really been honored as he should. Like Kurt Russell, Woods knows how to imbue with perfect balance of edge and humor, making his anti-hero natures increasingly likable and making him a perfect fit to Carpenter’s style. Beyond Woods, the acting in the film can be a little rough. Thomas Ian Griffith was a poor choice for the role of Woods’s rival, as the actor lacks both the charisma and the acting chops to really pull it off. Griffith is serviceable and has a good physical presence in the role but nothing more. This is probably the film’s biggest weakness, as the lack of an iconic villain keeps it from ascending to greatness. A lot of people have criticized Daniel Baldwin’s performance as Crow’s right-hand man, Anthony Montoya, and while the actor doesn’t pull of the real emotional scenes well, he actually does quite a fine job. Baldwin’s turn from predatory asshole to, let’s just say, kinder is rather convincing. Likewise, Sheryl Lee, best known for her work as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, does respectable job playing a prostitute-cum-vampire, though she is somewhat limited in range.

The film really benefits by having seasoned effects veterans Kurtzman and Nicotera on staff. Their work here is perhaps not their best but they offer some nice special effects and few memorable kills. The film is actually a lot more cruel and explicit than Carpenter’s normal taste, so perhaps he was feeling pressure from the studio to meet expectations of the late 90s interest in more blood and guts. The editing is paced well and the film does get off to a great start but in the back half the length begins to feel a bit grating. Stylistically speaking, the biggest issue plaguing the film was Carpenter’s strange choice to add these ellipses of time during action scenes. It completely drains of the film of its intensity during the moments when adrenaline should be its highest and the film nonchalantly (and for no real reason) cross fades to another shot in the same location. It feels like a very 90s stylistic flourish, one that really dates the film.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

Video

Twilight Time has sourced their HD master from Columbia Pictures and the results are surprisingly pleasant. Given the film’s somewhat relegated status, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect of the film’s Blu-ray release. Yet Twilight Time stand by their reliable name and release yet another stunning high definition transfer. While the company cannot always be counted on for a slew of special features, their work presenting solid transfers has been growingly more consistent in recent years and this 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray looks stunning. The colors are crisp and extremely vibrant with a bold and true black level. Further, despite the late 90s polished aesthetic, the film retains a great, natural level of grain. There are virtually no signs of damage, leaving this print pristine.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

Audio

John Carpenter is one of my favorite composers, and the fact that he has done the score for nearly every film he has directed is something to marvel at. These later era scores, however, can be a bit goofier than his more boundary pushing, synth-laden earlier work. Vampires soundtrack is not Carpenter’s worst but it certainly isn’t his best either. Through some of the hokier guitar heavy riffs you can still hear the elements familiar to his style and it serves as a great example of a filmmaker adjusting for the times while retaining a great deal of the style that defines them — the same could be said of the entire film. This Blu-ray brilliantly presents the score, as well as the entire mix, via either a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0 mix. The 5.1 mix does open up the aural environment more but both offer a fine representation of the original elements.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

Extras

As noted, Twilight Time is not the place to go for a wealth of supplementary features, so if that is what you are looking for, you may want to hold off for a potential release elsewhere. With that said, there are a few special treats here. First, there is a vintage making of that I actually really enjoyed. Its short at only six minutes, but gives a great deal of information via behind-the-scenes footage as well as interviews with the cast and crew. In addition to the featurette, there is a commentary track with Carpenter (one that has been previously featured on DVD releases), which will be a pleasure for his fanatics. I’ve always enjoyed Carpenter’s audio commentaries; he’s very candid and funny. This isn’t one of his best but he’s still quite charming throughout. It would have been great to have him along with Woods — perhaps not with Kibbe who has proven himself to be the not quite the best co-host, as anyone who has checked out Mouth of Madness track will know. As per usual, TT have also included an Isolated Score (a nice addition for a filmmaker so interested in the musical element of the film), a great booklet featuring the writing of TT-historian Julie Kirgo, and the original theatrical trailer.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) [click to enlarge]

Bottom Line

John Carpenter’s Vampires is neither his best film, nor even his best film the 90s. Its uneven and can be a bit dated. Yet, in a decade that wasn’t always so kind to the master, Vampires does feature a great deal of inspired filmmaking. The lead performance by Woods matched with the beautiful cinematography (presented here in attractive form thanks to Twilight Time’s acquired HD Master) makes the film an easy recommend for fans. Twilight Time is given an unfair shake. Their limited releases are prone to attract collectors and (worse) flippers, and their slightly higher than normal prices don’t help to fight off this distaste, but their work is consistently solid and their catalog is filled with fantastic releases. Given their dedication to presenting quality films and their continual use of Kirgo to imbue the films with a critical and historical perspective, Twilight Time should be held in much higher praise. Vampires stands as one of the label’s better releases in recent memory and its one that collectors should definitely seek out (if they haven’t already). As of this writing, the disc is still available but it won’t last much longer.

While he had made a few notable films prior, it was with Halloween that writer, director, producer, composer, all-around filmmaking extraordinaire John Carpenter exploded on to…

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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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