Here is an interesting example of Hollywood double-think: two films, released within months of each other, that have essentially the same plot. Each deals with a vengeful vampire slayer, whose parent(s) were bitten and/or killed by vampires; each protagonist is portrayed as ruthlessly efficient, almost as brutal as his quarry. Each begins with its best sequence, an attack on a vampire stronghold. In each, the female lead is bitten early on, and much of the rest of the plot concerns whether she will become a vampire. Finally, in each film the vampire antagonist is searching for a ritual/object that will render him virtually invulnerable by sacrificing of the protagonist.
What sets the films apart, mostly, is their stylistic reference points. Whereas VAMPIRES is clearly meant to look like a Western, BLADE takes its inspiration from Hong Kong martial arts fantasy films. This approach is a welcome one, as it allows Wesley Snipes to show off his athletic prowess, and it elevates the characterÕs abilities to the point where we do believe he could go up against a roomful of the undead and still triumph. Indeed, the real triumph of the film is these sequences (which capture the essence of Fant-Asia films like SAVIOUR OF SOULS and ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN far better than CarpenterÕs BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). The story telling, on the other hand, leaves quite a bit to be desired. Blade’s hunt for Deacon Frost (Dorff) is mostly staged as a series of action set-pieces, with little narrative momentum. What plot there is concerns Deacon’s attempts to overthrow the pureblooded aristocracy of those who were born vampires (not changed from being mortals) and turn himself into the uber-undead. As long as the confrontations are portrayed in terms of sword play, the film is on sure footing (despite all those fantastic leaps in the air), but once the guns start firing, director Stephen Norrington just doesn’t know when to stop – or how to make it look like the hero might actually be in danger. And the Disney Haunted House-style effects at the finale take the film out of the action-horror genre into outright fantasy, undermining much of the suspense. Here, David GoyerÕs script falters badly, abandoning its pseudo-scientific approach in favor a a blood-drenched magic ceremony at odds with the previous exposition. Equally misguided is the use of sunblock to allow vampires to walk in daylight: when the idea was first advanced in SUNDOWN ten years ago, it was meant to be a joke; now weÕre supposed to take it seriously.
Fortunately, Snipes is able to carry the film past these difficulties on the strength of his performance, which is all steel hard exterior masking the driven obsession glimpsed just beneath the surface (denying any friendship in his partnership with mentor Whistler, he subtly undercuts his own words). As Whistler, Kristofferson has a nice world weary attitude that allows him to deliver most of the exposition without boring viewers, and Udo Kier is great as head of the old guard vampires. Only Dorff is disappointing: though not untalented, he comes across like Leonardo DiCaprio gone bad; unlike Griffith in VAMPIRES, he never emerges as a truly threatening opponent.
Overall, JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES emerges as the better film, if only because Carpenter skills as a craftsman far exceed those of the flashy Norrington. VAMPIRES’ plot isnÕt that much more well developed that than of BLADE, but Carpenter always keeps the film moving forward, so that the audience is not simply sitting back and waiting for the next big confrontation. On the other hand, those confrontations in BLADE really are highlights that are worth the price of admission alone.
Copyright 1998 Steve Biodrowski