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by: Scott Renshaw

It's refreshing to see a film about vampires that's actually about vampires. Not vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, not vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction, not vampirism as a metaphor for persecuted minority groups - just blood-suckin', sun-hatin', butt-kickin' vampires. John Carpenter's Vampires is the kind of slick horror package that's increasingly hard to find: raucous, sanguine, and almost utterly devoid of sub-text.

Based on John Steakley's novel Vampire$, it drops that oh-so-90s-vogue vocation of vampire hunting into the context of an old spaghetti Western. Jack Crow (James Woods) is one of many Vatican-funded vampire hunters dedicated to eradicating the plague of the undead; his team is obliterated by Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the oldest vampire ever to walk the earth; Crow and his one surviving associate Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), accompanied by a newly-recruited young priest (Tim Guinee) have to find Valek and kill him. Add plenty of flying body parts, stark Western vistas and Carpenter's own twangy Tex-Mex scoring, and you have a simple, economical horror yarn.

It all makes for fine gruesome entertainment, but it should have been even better. John Carpenter has always been able to incorporate wry, off-the-wall humor into his films - remember the crawling head in The Thing, or practically all of Big Trouble in Little China, for that matter? - and he manages again to pull off a few nice bits of black comedy. Woods, playing Crow with snarling relish and a seriously bad attitude, gets most of the choice lines, all of which are either unprintable or incredibly offensive or both. Carpenter's sense of the horrific usually involves a kind of self-aware outrageousness, turning his displays of blood-spraying special effects into absurdist cinematic goofs too purely escapist to get worked up over.

Unfortunately, Vampires keeps upsetting its delicate balance of humor and horror by taking frequent detours into mean-spiritedness. It's one thing to play with notions of political incorrectness; it's quite another to get off on it. The only human female characters in Vampires are prostitutes who hang around just long enough to bare their breasts and wind up as lunchmeat; when Crow really wants to insult someone, a disparaging reference to gays always fits the bill. Even if you grant Carpenter and screenwriter Don Jakoby the slack they seem to be searching for - it's okay that a woman is stripped and smacked around, because she's a vampire-in-waiting, and it's okay that a Catholic priest participates in a human sacrifice because another priest is a stand-up guy - the tone simply turns nastier than it needs to be. Everyone gets too unpleasant too often.

The thing about Vampires is that when Carpenter rolls up his sleeves and dives into genre action, it's a lot of fun. In fact, if he had rolled with the tone of the first 25 minutes, he might have had a minor classic on his hands. The opening assault on a New Mexico vampire "nest" is wild, silly and superbly paced; Valek's first attack is a creepy and crafty splatter-fest. From there, Vampires gets progressively more angry and ominous, before it finally rights itself for the climactic confrontation. There's not enough interest in characterization to make the casual brutality of Crow and Montoya somehow psychologically appropriate. Psychology's got virtually nothing to do with John Carpenter's Vampires, a slice of Halloween mayhem that works wonderfully when it lets its good times roll. For a vampire movie without a "message," it offers some mixed messages it could do without.

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