A moment of silence, please, for the talent of John Carpenter -- or perhaps a wooden stake would be more in order, since he seems to qualify as a member of the living dead. Carpenter's sci-fi satire "Dark Star" has become a scruffy low-budget classic; he essentially invented the slasher movie with "Halloween"; he has delivered solid genre entertainments like "Escape from New York"; and he made what's probably the best pop critique of late '80s capitalism with "They Live" (a film that's far smarter, more insightful and more relevant than "The Truman Show"). He's still making movies -- but he's making movies like "John Carpenter's Vampires," which, in the grand tradition of most films whose titles include such a possessive, is the sort of thing you can't believe anyone would want their name attached to.
It's the story of a crack team of vampire slayers, led by Jack Crow (James Woods), who resemble a photocopy of a photocopy of a Peckinpah clichi -- that is, a ragtag band of brutal, unshaven mercenaries who work for ... the Vatican! Like several other aspects of "John Carpenter's Vampires" (most of them associated with James Woods), this bit of back story is so ludicrous, it leaves you wondering if it might be a joke (apparently not). On the plus side, we get a scene in which Woods kisses a cardinal's ring. On the negative, there are countless attempts to wring humor from the spectacle of Woods using rough language with the green young priest (Tim Guinee) assigned to help him when most of his team gets slaughtered in New Mexico by a supervampire named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith).
In one of the movie's few good lines, Woods explains that the vampires he hunts are savage animals, not "a bunch of fags in evening clothes running around seducing people with Eurotrash accents." However, Valek -- raven-haired, handsome, spectacularly tall and hardly from Kansas -- wears what is unmistakably a black velvet cloak, and even if he does seem to be forced by his plastic fangs into breathing wetly and noisily through his mouth, he looks like a feverish Anne Rice fantasy made flesh. That's just one example of the confusion and ineptitude of "John Carpenter's Vampires," a movie full of exchanges like this: (Sidekick) "You can't do that, the rule book clearly states that [verbatim recitation of item from vampire slayer regulations indicating how thoroughly these guys are drilled]"; (Woods) "Somebody's changed the rules. We've got to do whatever it takes."
To the tune of grinding, bluesy electric guitars (Carpenter also composed the film's music), Woods spends much of the movie staring flintily at potential vampire nests, wielding a crossbow, defying Vatican authorities and spitting tough clichis at the hapless priest, a vampire-infected but not yet "turned" hooker (Sheryl Lee) and the last remaining member of his team, played by Daniel Baldwin. Some of this dialogue is so clumsy, so creakily expository, and delivered by Woods with such deadpan literalism that I occasionally thought, "They can't be serious." I oscillated between wondering if Woods intended to deliver a high-camp sendup of the extremities of cinematic machismo and suspecting him of being exceptionally vainglorious and stupid, even for an actor. By the end of "John Carpenter's Vampires," the second interpretation seemed the only viable conclusion.
As for Carpenter, has he forgotten the basics of setting up shots or did he actually want to photograph the swaggering Woods in such a way that you really can't help but notice that our hero is a tad, well, diminutive? Occasionally, "John Carpenter's Vampires" summons a shred of visual style by juxtaposing the dusty desert landscape, with its floridly colored light, against the inky, mitteleuropean Valek. But Kathryn Bigelow's 1987 gem "Near Dark" did the vampires-out-west thing first and so much better. Finally, while the movie opens with a bloodbath, and a certain perfunctory ultragoriness prevails throughout, it's never particularly scary. Carpenter could always induce a shiver or two, even in otherwise unsuccessful efforts like "Prince of Darkness"; now, even that's gone.
While Wes Craven's "Scream" series deftly deploys and parodies the genre Carpenter invented, the creator of "Halloween" can't seem to muster his own second wind. Of course, one of the conventions that Carpenter launched was the death-defying monster who, despite seeming finally and utterly defeated, pops back up like a jack-in-the-box to have another go at the heroine with a butcher knife, or to slink off into the shrubbery to return to terrorize another day. Perhaps that will be John Carpenter's story as well -- or perhaps we should tell ourselves that such feats, alas, only happen in the movies.