Entertainment Today:
October 30-November 5, 1998

Prince of Darkness

By Eric Layton

All it takes is a hunk of ham. Listening to John Carpenter explain the origins of the squishy, squirty sound effect of a wooden stake being plunged into a vampire’s heart is not unlike hearing your high school biology teacher explain a frog dissection. "Traditionally, you go down to the butcher shop and buy a giant ham, put a bunch of mikes real close to it, take a butcher’s knife, and start jamming it into it," the thin, gray-haired director says.

One wonders how many pigs had to die to create the sickening noises abundant in
JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES. For the first time in his career, Carpenter, the visionary behind such horror classics as HALLOWEEN, THE FOG and PRINCE OF DARKNESS has ventured into the realm of these fanged, daylight-phobic creatures. He’s pitted fearless vampire killers jack Crow and Tony Montoya (James Woods and Daniel Baldwin) against a wicked, 600-year-old vampire master named Valek, gloriously (and gruesomely) fleshed out by the towering Thomas Ian Griffith in a marvelous bit of casting. Rounding out the film’s talented coterie of players is FIRE WALK WITH ME/TWIN PEAKS actress Sheryl Lee, who plays Katrina, a hooker bitten by Valek. As she gradually turns into one of the walking dead, Katrina is used by Jack and Tony to lure their vile enemy into a mortal confrontation.

JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES was adapted from John Steakley’s novel "Vampire$" by screenwriter Don Jakoby. But as Carpenter tells it, it was a "loose" interpretation. "Vampire$" really had nothing to do with the movie that we made. (It started out with) a script by Don Jakoby and a script by Dan Masur. Each one of those was something different. One ended up back in France, in some church where they were fighting the vampires, while the other ended up in the city, with all these teenagers from the mall turning into vampires. It was all over the place."

Though Carpenter finally settled on a script he was happy with, his current excursion into the realm of the undead is still a tad unorthodox, at least in vampire movie terms. Here, crucifixes don’t ward off the vile blood guzzlers; to the contrary, it’s an ancient cross that Valek is coming after—one that will give him the power to walk in the daylight. Also, the mercenary team of vampire assassins headed by Woods uses an unusual vampire-killing method: they employ wire and a winch to reel them out into the sun, where they combust in a screeching frenzy. Carpenter’s ashen-faced bad guys aren’t even concerned with the typical pursuits (i.e., making "more" vampires)—they’re mostly assisting their master in his quest for that all-important Berziers cross. Carpenter mentions that he’s pleased his new effort goes in some peculiar directions, especially since the Dracula stereotype had been bled dry by popular cultures over the years.

"Dracula is so generic—kids dress up like him. We own him on a key chain—he’s nothing special anymore. Through Bela Lugosi, he became such a cliché, (and) really doesn’t have much left in him anymore. He had a lot of meaning back in the Victorian era—he represented the dying European aristocracies feeding off the working poor. But he was also the lonely, brooding, melancholy sexual figure." And what, precisely, do Carpenter's vampires represent? "Savagery," he deadpans. "They’re just like tigers. They’re like animals, and they’re after you."

While speaking of all things vampiric, Carpenter recalled the first time he came into contact with a Dracula film. "I grew up in the ‘50s. A lot of the Universal horror films were on TV at that time—"Shock Theater" was the name of it. I saw DRACULA, and was like, 'What is this? Who is this guy, this weird Hungarian?' In 1958, I saw HORROR OF DRACULA with Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing played Van Helsing, ‘That,’ blew my mind—first of all, it was ‘in color’—there was actually blood, and these beautiful women in low-cut dresses. I was 10 years old, so I (was fascinated). When Dracula came into the bedroom, these girls would open up their nightgowns and get bitten, so I thought, ‘What’s going on here? What is all this about?’ So that’s when I started getting really interested in the vampire legend."

JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES has a distinct western setting—Jack Crow and his team are initially seen exterminating a next of vampires in rural New Mexico, and the remainder of the film takes place in the state as well (the movie was actually shot there). But placing VAMPIRES in an exceedingly American milieu wasn’t politically motivated—a ploy to amplify the differences between the patriotic, U.S.-born heroes and the decadent European monster. According to Carpenter, it was simply a decision based instead on aesthetics and language. "I (had this setting) for a really selfish reason: I was afraid of getting stuck in a costume picture in a castle, with butler’s outfits and Edwardian dialogue. I don’t know what to do with that."

Carpenter is know for gliding between genres. There’s horror, of course, but he’s also acquitted himself admirably with sci-fi and action fare like
STARMAN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Inciting terror in his audience, however, is probably the talent that’s won him the most recognition. In a refreshing bit of candor, the director pointed why making horror films is one of his favored bags. "Well, the "paycheck" is really appealing to me. I get hired a lot to make these films. I got typecast as a horror director after HALLOWEEN." Carpenter proceeded to list the other genre categories he has experience in, but it’s apparent he’s never quite realized his longtime goal. "I got in the business to make westerns. I wrote a western (BLOOD RIVER) for John Wayne right before he died—I worked with him. I wanted to make westerns, but they went out of popularity. No one wants to see them."

In an offhanded way, JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES is a western, if you take into account the gun-slinging vampire killers and its high noon-style climax in a dusty ghost town. Actually, Woods’ ass-kicking role is a twist on a Wayne character (albeit one that’s exaggerated to the degree of being cynical and impossibly sardonic). As it turns out, Woods had more to do with his role’s wiseacre tendencies than what was on the written page.

"James Woods makes 'everything' about his character James Woods," Carpenter remarks with a laugh. "He just brings that intensity to the film. What I found interesting is that he usually plays psychotic heavies—cruel, second leads. Now he gets to play this bizarre action hero who beats everybody up."

Upon further review of the male heroes in Carpenter films, a pattern seems to emerge—a Jack Crow/Snake Plisskin archetype, so to speak. What do they have in common? They’re all alpha male protagonists who bust heads and take names. But why the machismo? "It’s an aspect of my personality. You get involved in the arts and music and writing, even directing, and you’re still kind of an art wimp. I’m a skinny kid from Kentucky," says Carpenter.

He may just be a skinny Kentuckian, but he’s also a legend whose meagerly-budgeted, widely copied 1978 feature HALLOWEEN stirred up a tidal wave of slasher films in the ‘80’s, from the FRIDAY THE 13th series to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise. (For those of you who think otherwise, Carpenter "was not" involved in any of the HALLOWEEN sequels, though he wrote a script for HALLOWEEN II. Though it’s a bit suspect, he claims he didn’t see this past season’s HALLOWEEN H20.) Filmgoers nowadays, depending on their age demographic, can also thank Carpenter for indirectly influencing the SCREAM / I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER phenomenon, as the mastermind of those films, Kevin Williamson, cites the director as an inspiration. However, Carpenter is quick to deflect credit away from himself, giving props to a certain cinematic giant whose impact is immeasureable.

"All of (these films) were born with a movie called PSYCHO—that’s the granddaddy. Hitchcock invented this genre with PSYCHO. It had never been done that way before. He took an old dark house movie, which was a ‘30s cliché, and he added a psychopath to it. That’s what HALLOWEEN was, and that’s what (all the slasher films) were patterned after."

Pulling on a cigarette, Carpenter shared his perspective on the late-‘90s horror resurgence that started with "Scream"; he’s not as dismissive as one might think. "In SCREAM, they managed to recycle a late ‘70s, early ‘80s slasher sub-genre into this postmodern cynicism that everybody seems to subscribe to today. They did it pretty well—the characters in the movie were echoing the opinions of the teenage audience, which is, ‘I’ve seen all this and I know what’s going on,’ and it struck a nerve. And you’ve got the young TV leads out in front, and people like them."

Though SCREAM has done tremendously well at the box office in its two installments, not all of Carpenter’s films have. For every
THE THING or STARMAN, there’s a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED or an ESCAPE FROM L.A. It begs the question: When a film he’s invested two years of his life into hits theaters, and it just goes away, how does it affect him? "I don’t know. It’s part of life. No one escapes being successful, because that does something to you…when you’re a failure, you have to be really strong to keep going. It’s a matter of ego strength—of getting up everyday and saying, ‘I can do this.’ And being lucky."

Despite the competition in Hollywood and moviegoer’s famously mercurial tastes, Carpenter’s not about to fold up his director’s chair just yet. He still has a fervent passion for his occupation, despite the hours and stress it so often entails. Like a vampire craves blood, Carpenter craves filmmaking. "It’s like an addition," he admits, ironically taking another drag on his cigarette.

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