A Southwest flavor and engrossing characters make this blood-fest a treat for the senses.
When Hollywood trots out vampires, the results are visually enjoyable but usually predictable. Oral fixations. Elaborate graveyard scenes. Nubile women dancing the line between allure and decay. Only occasionally do cinematic chronicles of the undead rise above.
"John Carpenter's Vampires," an exceptionally bloody entry in the canon of Nosferatu, does. It's not just mediocre schlock. It's well-executed, engrossing, innovative ... schlock.
Carpenter, of course, knows how to do horror. From the original "Halloween" to his unsettling remake of "The Thing," he can push viewers' buttons like no other. But with "Vampires," he takes another dimension further: Visually, it's simply stunning.
In New Mexico, where the skies seem a deeper blue and the Earth a bloodier red, vampire slayer Jim Crow (James Woods) leads a high-tech team scouring the parched Southwest, looking for nests of the undead. Crow is a callous, often cruel man with a troubled, tragic childhood who does the Roman Catholic church's dirty work of eliminating the unholy.
At his side is Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), an alternately caffeinated, sullen, aggressive and protective partner who hides many dimensions behind his trusty-sidekick demeanor.
When most of Crow's team is killed during a motel party by a king vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) named Valek in revenge for a nest strike, Crow goes nuts. The 600-year-old vampire somehow knows Crow's name, so Crow knows he has been set up. Crow and Montoya band together with a prostitute, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), who has been bitten by Valek, and they go on the hunt. Along the way, they pick up a young priest, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), whose naivete and earnestness only angers Woods. Thus does the odyssey begin.
The role of Crow is perfect for Woods' unhinged, manic persona. He's as psychotic as the creatures he's killing, and he can carouse with hookers as well as any amoral slime ball. Yet he is the world's next best thing to a holy man.
Baldwin ("Mulholland Falls," TV's "Homicide") turns in an unexpectedly resonant performance as Montoya. His fate is tragic but altogether appropriate.
The haunted glamour that Lee used as Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks" serves her well here. She is a confused, angry young woman who slowly realizes she is becoming a vampire and begins to understand the appalling implications. The scenes where she is linked psychically to Valek are some of the most suggestive -- and intriguing -- of the film.
Maximilian Schell, in a small role, plays a priest who advises Crow.
Blood, to be sure, is a staple of vampire movies. Carpenter applies it to excess, but he uses a few early scenes to establish the almost cartoonish quality of his violence. So by the time a priest is decapitated and a group of monks are set upon by a pack of vampires, the gore, for better or worse, has been folded into the story.
What makes "Vampires" special is its look, rendered lovingly by production designer Thomas A. Walsh and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. They use Southwestern architecture to evoke gothic and Old West flavors, subtly linking the New Mexico landscape to the Old World stomping ground of cinema's traditional vampires. Adept uses of light, shadow and sunset round out the appearance for a sensory treat.