"Forget what you've seen in the movies," ace vampire hunter Jack Crow (James Woods) advises young priest Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) about 30 minutes into "John Carpenter's Vampires." The vengeful Crow, whose parents had to be killed after being bitten by the bloodsuckers, then proceeds to detail the methods -- a stake through the heart, exposure to the sunlight -- sure to destroy contemporary denizens of the Undead. Sound familiar?
Carpenter's blood feast, despite that jab at old-school Dracula flicks and a funny, pointed dis of Neil Jordan's "Interview With the Vampire," hardly is an exemplar of the once sturdy genre. The latest horror exercise from the director of the original "Halloween" is neither as stylish as that aforementioned Tom Cruise vehicle nor as sexy as Tony Scott's "The Hunger."
Even the special effects aren't anywhere near as impressive as those in this summer's otherwise abominable "Blade," and the only true frights come from the remarkably wooden performances of actors who ought to know better than to sign on for this nonsense.
Gore and gross-out moments, though, are in great supply in "Vampires," the strongest candidate for an NC-17 rating for graphic violence since "Saving Private Ryan." Vampire slayers and victims alike are subjected to the most grotesque series of murders we've seen since George Romero's "Dead" trilogy. Heads are crushed and decapitated, bodies are sliced in half, stakes are drilled into heads and chests (accompanied by the sounds of squishing and crunching), limbs are sliced off, fangs are buried deep in flesh, blood is splattered everywhere and bodies are burned alive. Shame on those who thoughtlessly bring young children to witness these all-too-realistic executions.
Unsettling streaks of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment also stain Carpenter's exercise in bad taste: Women, sometimes nude, are battered and verbally abused, and one running gag has Crow repeatedly suggesting that his priest pal is a sexual deviant. Ugly stuff.
The convoluted plot, plagued with problems of internal logic, concerns an ongoing Church-sanctioned battle with the rulers of the night, who these days prefer to hole up at dilapidated shacks in the Southwest.
The steely Crow, longtime associate Tony Montoya (a beefy Alec Baldwin) and their tough-talking band of slayers, dressed like a SWAT team and equipped with an arsenal of crossbows, spears and sometimes efficacious firearms, raid a vampire's nest in New Mexico and triumphantly mount the nine skulls on their jeep.
A victory celebration, complete with half-dressed hookers, free-flowing booze, a cop and a priest, is interrupted when ferocious vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, a poster boy for the ugly pale) arrives at the ominously named Sun-God motel for a little payback. Crow, Montoya and fangs-infected prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) are the only survivors.
Valek, it turns out, is a Prague-born priest who turned against the Church in 1340, was excommunicated and mysteriously disappeared from his grave. Now he's back, in order to kill Crow and retrieve a black cross that, if accompanied by the blood of a crusader during a ceremony to climax at dawn, will allow the vampire to walk during the day. Got that? Or as Father Guiteau offers during one of many goofy lines that might make this movie a bad-good classic, the guy will be "unstoppable, unless we stop him."
Katrina, who is telepathically connected with her new master, is used as a tool for our heroes' search for the evil one. The suspense has sagged, though, long before Carpenter reveals one player's unholy collaboration with the vampires and attempts to tantalize us with the prospects of a final confrontation. If you've seen one skull collapse or one mouth foaming with blood, you've seen 'em all.