Carpenter goes for the throat in VAMPIRES
By Dennis Hunt
Gore! Gore! Gore!
Thats not the screaming headline in the newspaper ads for JOHN CARPENTERS VAMPIRES, which opens Friday, but it could becomplete with blood dripping from each letter of the title.
Overkill? Not for this movie.
Gore-filled vampire movies are nothing new, but even die-hard horror-flick junkies would be hard pressed to come up with one thats more violent. In this one, directed by Carpenter and co-starring James Woods and Daniel Baldwin, the blood flows freely, body parts are flying and corpses pile up at a frightful rate.
Carpenter is a renowned horror-meister. The 50 year-old native of Carthage, N.Y., has been directing since he made DARK STAR, a sci-fi comedy, while still a film student at the University of Southern California in 1974.
Hes dabbled in many genres, like sci-fi romance (1984s STARMAN) and actionESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and the 1996 sequel ESCAPE FROM L.A.but hes best known for scaring audiences with movies like HALLOWEEN (1978), THE FOG (1980) and THE THING (1982).
Is Carpenter proud of his latest gore-fest? As he talked about one of the scenes from VAMPIRES, dwelling on the gruesome details, he punctuated his words with an evil chuckle, much like the one the chief vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) unleashes in the movie, just before ripping one of his victims to shreds.
"I pushed things to the limit because thats what this movie calls for," chortles Carpenter, in the midst of a chain-smoking binge in his hotel suite. "I pushed the violence in every scene, pushed it over the top."
But it was too over-the-top for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which issued an edictprune some of the mayhem or be saddled with an NC-17 rating rather than R.
According to producer Sandy King, who is Carpenters wife, the cuts were minimal.
"We didnt cut out scenes; we just shortened some," she said in a separate interview. "We didnt want to ruin the movie and spoil its rhythm, which is what you do by cutting out whole scenes and leaving big holes. We satisfied the ratings board by just cutting short a few things that went into really gruesome stuff. Real Carpenter fans wouldve loved to see the scenes that were cut out."
Carpenter was out to inject machismo into a genre he contendswith the rare exception, like Wesley Snipes BLADE has gone soft.
"Theres that Anne Rice stuff, with vampires as tortured, lonely and misunderstood creatures," says Carpenter with a sneer. "Vampires are supposed to be nasty and mean. They kill people. The suck blood. They scrounge around at night. How can you glamorize creatures like that? I wasnt about to make a sissy vampire movie."
His film is about vampire slayers but, with Carpenter at the helm, theyre not like the cream puffs on TVs "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Woods and Baldwin play surly roughnecks leading a team of mercenaries tracking vicious vampires in the Southwest. If you get the feeling youre watching a Western in disguise, thats no accident.
"Its no secret that I love Westerns and I include a Western story-line whenever its appropriate in a movie," explains Carpenter, whos always involved in crafting the scripts for his films.
"Doing this movie was just an excuse to do a Western. The story is set up like a Western. Its about killers for hire. Theyre a Western cliché. In this movie theyre paid to kill vampires. Nothing would be more fun than doing a real Western, but people dont do those anymore."
Carpenter, whos slightly built, with thinning gray hair and a foghorn for a voice, was born too late. He's an old-fashioned man's man, the kind of guy who would have fit in perfectly decades ago with Western directors like John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, smoking, boozing, playing cards all night, hanging with the guys.
"One of the things I liked most about making VAMPIRES is that I was hanging with the bad boysJames Woods and Daniel Baldwin," says Carpenter, as if he were talking about rampaging nights with rugged Humphry Bogart and notorious Errol Flynn. "This was a fun movie to make."
Baldwin thought so too. To hear him, youd think hed just worked with Orson Welles. "John knows how to get the best out of actors, which isnt easy," he explains. "Im not the easiest guy to work with, and neither is Woods, but John knows how to push the right buttons, he knows the psychology to get you to the point where you do what he wants you to do.
:And you know what he wants is right because hes one of the few guys who have a vision and the guts to stick with it. When youre working with him, you know he knows what hes talking about and you know hes doing whats best for the movie."
It may sound like typical sucking-up-to-the-director phony baloney, but its not.
Kurt Russell, who worked with Carpenter on THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and ESCAPE FROM L.A. and Jamie Lee Curtis, who vaulted to stardom in Carpenters HALLOWEEN, gush about him the same way.
"Ive worked with a lot of directors, but not many have Johns vision, visual sense and his ability to tell a story," Russell said in the spring of 1996 on the set of ESCAPE FROM L.A."
As talented as Carpenter is, hes not, in the eyes of the studios, an A-list director because he hasnt had a big hit in recent years. The expensive ESCAPE FROM L.A. was supposed to be his ticket back to the big time, but fans didnt turn out in huge numbers to see Russell as Snake Plissken rummaging around in quake-torn L.A.
A grizzled veteran of the Hollywood wars, Carpenter is no stranger to dry spells.
When THE THING wasnt the big hit it was expected to be, I couldnt find a gig for a while," he recalls. "I was poison. People thought I couldnt deliver. I was crushed. I was miserable. I was much younger so I wasnt that equipped to deal with failure."
"Its different because I see things differently," he says, rearing back in his chair, puffing on his cigarette in a way reeking of confidence.
"This is a cold, cruel business. If youre lucky enough to have some success, enjoy it because it wont last. Youll fail somewhere. Thats part of the process. I know that now. You have to get back up, stop whining and jump back into the war and keep battling. Thats my approach now. If VAMPRIES doesnt do it for me, something else will."