Late-period John Carpenter has gotten a bad reputation, but there are two real gems in there: In The Mouth of Madness and the unfairly maligned Escape From L.A. Then there are the two films released by Powerhouse , Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. The latter made Carpenter so burnt out on filmmaking that he has only directed two episodes of Masters of Horror and one feature since—The Ward, which even the most hardcore Carpenter fans probably haven’t seen.
Vampires was his sole excursion into the Vampire genre, which is surprising given the “master of horror” label Carpenter has been given. That label is somewhat unfair because the majority of his best films are actually science fiction (for example, They Live or Escape From New York) albeit with elements of horror thrown in for good measure. Vampires is also arguably the closest Carpenter has gotten to making a western, a genre Carpenter loves dearly. Sadly, he has never been offered a straight up western.
It’s about a gang of vampire hunters led by James Woods’ Jack Crow and sponsored by the Vatican. In the opening most of Crow’s team are killed during a drug-fueled party, and all they have left is one team member and Katrina, a prostitute who has been bitten by the master of the vampires—as have Tony and a priest they work with, although Tony is trying to hide the fact that he has been bitten. For the rest of the film, Katrina, played by Sheryl Lee (who played Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks) and Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), and Jack (James Wood) are chasing the master vampire.
The film works primarily because of Woods, who turns in an enjoyable performance as a sleazy, wisecracking asshole, the kind of role he has made his name with. Although Woods has a reputation of being similar to the characters he plays, word is that Carpenter found him enjoyable to work with despite their wildly different political views. The actor chose the part as he had not done this kind of horror film before.
The film runs at 108 minutes, probably a bit too long for the trajectory and longer than a typical Carpenter movie. It was only one of his works to be successful in the 1990s, and actually spawned two direct-to-video sequels, without the director’s involvement. Don Steakley, author of the original novel on which the film was based, found it disappointing as it included his dialogue but none of his plot.
The film has an overt Sam Peckinpah visual influence which isn’t surprising given he was massive influence on most directors Carpenter’s age. and the last proper John Carpenter score (in fact, it is somewhat derivative of the score for They Live). While a fun film to watch, especially for Woods’ performance, it’s not one of the director’s best.
Ghosts of Mars was originally going to be Escape From Mars, and it’s basically Escape from New York… on Mars. Desolation Williams is a prisoner, played by Ice Cube and very much in the Snake Plisskin mould. Supposedly there were not many changes to the script with the name change. Ghost-possessed Martian miners attack prisons and prisoner guards, who have to find a way out a la Assault on Precinct 13. When ‘killed,’ the Martian spirits leave the dead body and find a new live one to inhabit. The lead characters have to somehow get Desolation Williams back onto a spaceship to transport him to Earth.
The film clearly had problems from the start. Carpenter wanted Jason Stathem to play Desolation Williams but the studio demanded Ice Cube. Several major actresses turned down the main female role, including Courtney Love, leaving Carpenter with B-movie actress Natasha Henstridge (Species), who has followed up with a few TV roles and working the genre convention circuit. It’s OK, sort of mash-up of Assault on Precinct 13 and Carpenter’s Escape series. The ‘ghosts’ look like they came out of a nu-metal video from the same time period and hilarious to look at. It also has by far the worst score Carpenter has ever done, his synthy bits are drowned out by ridiculous guitar riffage by Steve Vai, Buckethead and Anthrax. Jason Statham appears in a secondary role—it would have been a far better film with him or Kurt Russell in the lead.
It’s still an amusing film, and marks the end of Carpenter’s long filmmaking run. There is a pointless, non-linear structure that makes it confusing, and really is out of character for Carpenter, whose films are all about get in-get out narrative.
The discs includes an two-part “Onstage with John Carpenter” at the NFT, where the director is totally self-deprecating about his own work and talks about his film influences and career. The second part includes his answers to wide-ranging questions from the audience. There are Carpenter commentaries on both disks, as well as a “Making Ofs” feature and various interviews with cast members. It’s a dual DVD/Blu-Ray format, and includes booklets on each film with interviews and essays.
Vampires ★★★½ Ghosts of Mars ★★★