Monthly Archives: September 2020

John Carpenter’s Vampires Blu-ray Review

John Carpenter's Vampires - Square

When I saw Vampires in the theater, I quite liked it. So I finally broke down and bought it on Blu-ray.

It’s a pretty standard SHOUT Factory release for a John Carpenter film. You get the standard commentary, some interviews, and an old making-of featurette. I’ll discuss those in more detail below. I’d say it’s a bit less than Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.

The film itself is highly polarizing. Some people love it and others hate it. I’m the same way: I love it and hate it. But there is no doubt that it’s an incredibly good film — as well made as anything Carpenter has ever done.

Synopsis

A team of vampire hunters led by Jack Crow (James Woods) clears out a nest of vampires in an abandoned house in the Southwest. They do this in a very cool way: shooting an arrow attached to a line into each vampire and then dragging them into the sunlight where they burst into flame.

John Carpenter's Vampires - Valek

Team Is Destroyed

That night they have a drunken party with a group of prostitutes at a motel. A “master” vampire, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), shows up and kills everyone except for Crow, his second in command, Tony (Daniel Baldwin), and a prostitute, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), who was bitten and thus “infected.”

In their escape from Valek, they crash their truck. They steal a car from a guy (writer/director Frank Darabont) whose only crime is being in a film with asshole √ľbermenschen. Then they drive back to the motel where they spit up. Crow will stay and dispose of the bodies and Tony will guard Katrina elsewhere.

Crow goes to meet Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) who bankrolls him. He sends Crow off with Father Guiteau. Crow treats him as bad as he treated Katrina. But we’re still supposed to like him because he is Saving the World.

Meanwhile, at the hotel, it’s clear that Tony likes Katrina. She tries to kill herself but he saves her. He cuts his arm in the process and she, attracted by the blood, bites (and thus infects) him.

John Carpenter's Vampires - Jack Crow

New Team Hunts Valek

The four all together now, they search for Valek. Because she was bitten by him, Katrina has a psychic connection with Valek. She can see what he sees. Eventually, they learn that Velek has acquired the Bérziers Cross, which he can use to allow himself to live in the daylight. It only took abusing a prostitute and threatening the life of a priest.

They learn where Valek and his group of “master” vampires are hanging out. So, despite having nowhere near the physical and human resources they did before, they go hunting with Katrina rapidly turning into a vampire.

They kill one vampire but not before a lame joke about soccer players not being real men. (Get it?! It’s funny because it isn’t a popular game in the US!) This is the first scene of Father Guiteau turning into a badass (which is the best part of the film).

They kill another vampire but night comes suddenly and the remaining vampires attack. Tony and Katrina race away in a jeep. She’s now a full vampire and bites him. They crash the car. Katrina joins the other vampires. Tony observes from afar.

John Carpenter's Vampires - Captured Vampire Starting to Burn

Crow Is Captured

Father Guiteau hides in a local shop and Crow is captured by the vampires. They learn that Cardinal Alba is working with Valek because he’s getting old and is afraid to die. They need Crow for a ceremony with the cross. So they bind him to it.

Guiteau climbs on to the roof of the van and shoots and kills Alba. It’s almost sunrise and Crow tells Valek that he can’t do the procedure without Alba. Valek counters, saying Guiteau will do it. And if the priest doesn’t, Valek will burn Crow alive.

Before Valek can torch Crow, Tony drives through, shoots an arrow with a line into the cross, and drags Crow away. Father Guiteau unbinds him and the vampires flea from the sun.

Crow and Valek fight. Eventually Crow destroys some of the roof causing Valek to burst into flames and then explodes. (He’s no ordinary vampire!)

Tony saves Katrina and puts her in the van away from the sun. Crow lets them go because Tony saved him — giving them two days head start. They drive off and Crow and Guiteau go back in to kill vampires as the badasses they are. Who needs sleep after you’ve been awake for two days straight?

John Carpenter's Vampires - Standoff

Analysis

Carpenter says that he made this film as a western — specifically Red River. It’s almost impossible to miss the similarities. But I think it explains the things that I don’t like in the film.

In Red River, there is a father-son dynamic and a shared history of the father’s lost love and the son’s potentially happier future. Additionally, the woman in the story has agency.

Jack Crow

In Vampires, the main thing we get is that the main character is thoroughly unlikeable. I generally appreciate dark and difficult characters. But Crow is abusive to his comrades. And that just doesn’t work for me.

It isn’t a problem with the film itself. But it’s a choice. And it keeps me from liking the film more. Jack Crow is no Snake Plissken. He’s more like an advertisement for toxic masculinity. And I know I’m supposed to like it.

But I could argue that it’s brilliant. It isn’t a problem that Jack Crow is horrible and doesn’t grow in any way during the course of the film. That’s because he is the opposite of Valek who is also unchanging in his horribleness. But I can’t do those kinds of intellectual gymnastics while watching the film.

John Carpenter's Vampires - Banner

Character Arcs

The other characters are much better. Tony, who is arguably worse than Jack at the beginning, has an arc that ends with him developing human empathy even as he becomes a vampire.

Katrina spends the whole film turning into a vampire. The part is more like an animal than a human. But it’s fascinating to watch her and Tony struggle together is distinct ways. She also has an incredibly sexy scene with Valek early on.

Father Guiteau changes in ways that I don’t love. But he experiences a solid movie arc. He stops being a book-worm (because that’s bad) and becomes an action hero badass. Okay. Since I naturally identify with bookish characters, I prefer when they clearly hold on to those values even as they transform. But it works just fine.

Weird Third Act Transition

In the film, after Crow escapes from the vampires, there is a dissolve to a slightly later time and we see the vampires rushing back to their hideout. It’s almost as though the film ends at this point and the rest is just a coda.

This is curious. It happens with about 7 and a half minutes of story left. I’d like to see more of this. I would even go for two or three codas. At least in these cases, the filmmakers would need to come up with something interesting to do rather than arbitrarily expanding their second acts.

Other Delights

The rest of the film is outstanding. It has a great look both inside and outside with its John Ford like vistas. The fire effects are cool. So is the gore — especially when Mark Boone Junior is cut in half. And it’s edited swiftly so that the film seems over almost before it’s begun — a notable trick for a film that runs over an hour and a half.

The acting is also excellent. The stand-out is Sheryl Lee. She isn’t given much to do other than slowly change yet she becomes more sympathetic with each scene — even after she becomes a vampire.

John Carpenter's Vampires Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details

The print looks great. The only downside is that much of the film is at night. And it seems that there just isn’t as much contrast on video as there is on film. So it’s one you definitely want to watch with the lights out.

The audio is available as 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 DTS-HD. They both sound fine. There is also an isolated score, which is more listenable than most.

The film is only in English and it comes with subtitles only in English. It is subdivided into 12 chapters.

Interface

The interface is typical of newer releases with a static base menu with pop-up menus for the selection. Personally, I don’t like this system. I find it annoying to navigate. I wish everyone would go back to having different screens.

But if we are to have this system, it’s best to paginate the extras so that you don’t have to press down 9-times to undo a accidental button press on Extras. It also seems a little slower than on other SHOUT Factory releases.

It’s still better than what Arrow has been doing recently.

Extras

The extras are fairly good on this disc although certainly not up to what we often see from SHOUT Factory.

Commentary

The best extra is the 1999 commentary with John Carpenter. He generally provides solid commentaries and this one is no different. It includes a lot of information about the production.

It may just be me but it seems like he’s a little bored doing it. At times, he sounds like he’s reading off a list. But it’s still interesting and valuable.

Featurette

There is an odd 24 minute video from the time of the film’s release. It’s rendered at 4:3 aspect ratio. And it’s really just a set of shorter featurettes, with a lot of duplication:

  • Making of (6 minutes)
  • John Carpenter interview (2 minutes)
  • James Woods interview (2 minutes)
  • Daniel Baldwin interview (2 minutes)
  • Sheryl Lee interview (2 minutes)
  • B-roll footage (9 minutes).

New Interviews

The new interviews are better because there is less of the typical promotion-tour happy talk. Everyone does seem aware of not trying to offend anyone, however.

  • Time to Kill Some Vampires: Interviews with Carpenter, producer Sandy King, and cinematographer Gary B Kibbe. It runs 12 and a half minutes. My main takeaway from it was that everyone found James Woods difficult to work with but didn’t want to say it.
  • Jack the Vampire Slayer: Interview with James Woods — Jack Crow (22 minutes). He talks a lot of nonsense and seemed to think that Carpenter wrote the script. I’ve always figured he was very smart and he certainly comes off that way in the 1998 interviews. One interesting thing he says is that Jack Crow is one of his favorite roles and that he had wished for a sequel (other than the direct-to-DVD releases). He also spoke nicely about their efforts to keep Sheryl Lee from getting hurt during the scenes when she was abused.
  • The First Vampire: Interview with Thomas Ian Griffith — Jan Valek (10 minutes). He is very excited and friendly in this interview. He discusses how Carpenter kept him from the other actors and how much fun he had making the film.
  • Raising the Stakes: Greg Nicotero — special effects make-up (10 minutes). He talks about working with special effect coordinator Darrell Pritchett to create burning victims moving while on fire (inspired by The Thing). There are many other details about how they created particular effects. This interview could have been a lot longer!
  • Padre: Tim Guinee — Father Adam Guiteau (13 minutes). He’s very friendly and positive and offers a few good stories. One is about farting when James Woods was on top of him. He seems to have a sincere admiration and fondness for Carpenter.

Other Extras

The rest of the extras are the standard things that you might watch once:

  • Theatrical trailer (just over 2 minutes)
  • Five TV spots including a longer one for Japan, I think (3 minutes)
  • Photo gallery of 81 images including a fair amount of dreck (6 minutes). But the stuff from the press kit is great. So are the alternative and foreign posters.

Other Versions

There are lots of other ways to get Vampires, but the SHOUT Factory Blu-ray is the best way.

  • 2000 VHS: If this is your thing, you can probably find this at garage sales and thrift stores for nothing. I assume it is cropped to 4:3, which is criminal with this film.
  • 1999 DVD: Original DVD release of 2.35:1 print with the Carpenter commentary and an image gallery. It features the same two English tracks and a French dub. There are matching subtitles.
  • 2002 DVD: Region 2 (Europe) release of 2.35:1 print with the Carpenter commentary, image gallery, and the first section of the featurette on the Blu-ray. It comes with English and Spanish language tracks and subtitles for English, Spanish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish.
  • 2002 DVD: Region 2 (Europe) release of 2.35:1 print with unknown extras. Although it claims to be uncut, it is 5-minutes shorter than the US release so less sex and gore. It includes 5.1 tracks in English and German. The same version seems to have been released on Blu-ray.
  • 2003 DVD: Superbit release of 2.35:1 print with only the trailer on the disc and an insert with some making-of information. It does, however, come with English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles.
  • 2005 DVD Vampires Collection: Region 1 release along with the direct-to-disc follow-up films Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) and Vampires: The Turning (2005). The first and second films are presented as 4:3. The last is widescreen. It’s all on one disc so it’s unlikely to have any extras.
  • Streaming: Amazon Prime offers HD and SD versions of the film to rent or buy. Generally, these come with cast and informational text screens.

There are other version besides these. In particular, there is a Region 2 French release (unavailable) that includes the hour-long episode of The Directors called “The Films of John Carpenter” from 1999. You can generally find it online.

Bottom Line

This is a solid release of a really well-made film that is chock-full of psychotronic delights. Regardless of how annoying I find the main character, this is not a film to miss. I like all of the Apocalypse Trilogy vastly more than Vampires, yet it is in many ways just as good.

Obviously, if you’re crazy for Carpenter, you should get this version. And if you like the film at all (and you should), it’s worth picking up. I’m certainly glad to have it.


Blu-ray cover images via Amazon, the banner image from the Blu-ray, and the film stills from the trailer. All taken under Fair Use.

The Woman in Black (1989) Blu-ray Review

The Woman in Black (1989)

Most people know of the 2012 feature film The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It was based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name. But the novel first found its way on to film through an ITV production that first aired on Christmas Eve 1989.

This widely loved film has not been well distributed. It was releases as a PAL VHS and later on a Region 1 DVD. Both these versions are long out of print although you can still find them. Thankfully, ITV has released the film as it should be on a Region B/2 Blu-ray. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the first printing. They have already run out and are doing a second run.

Story

The Woman in Black is a Gothic ghost story. The central character is Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) — a young lawyer in 1920s London. He has a wife and two small children. His boss sends him out of town to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman.

Once he arrives, he gets odd reactions from the locals. But no one tells him anything specific. Few people have even met her, since she was a recluse. One woman does show up at the funeral, but he is never able to talk to her.

At the house, he sees the same woman. But this time, he’s terrified. And when she approaches him, he runs into the house and locks the door. Then he turns on every light in the house and has a look around. Except for one room that is locked that will later be a major part of the plot.

He finds an old audio recording device and learns from the former owner that she is visited often by some unnamed woman. “Last night, she did not come until four in the morning. Then it was bad — a bad night.”

Eventually, he learns that owner adopted her younger sister’s bastard son. One day, the younger sister came back and kidnapped the boy. But they were both killed will traveling through the marsh away from the house. Now, whenever the ghost of the sister is seen in town, a child dies due to accident or illness.

The Ending — Briefly

Kidd has many terrifying experiences before a total breakdown. Eventually back in London, his assistant tells him that a woman who dressed as though she were in mourning was hanging around outside the office. This sets Kidd off again and he destroys much of his office in an effort to burn the last of the deceased woman’s things.

Later, Kidd takes his family on holiday. They are in a boat on a lake. The woman in black appears and a large tree falls on the family’s boat — killing them all.

Analysis

The ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that the ghost was known for causing the deaths of children. In the book, the protagonist doesn’t die — just his wife and child.

But I don’t think this much matters. It does finish out the plot in a fulfilling way. And all things considered, I’d rather be dead than haunted by this woman.

Otherwise, this film exemplifies what is best about horror. Even as I write this — having watched the film 5 times recently — I have chills. It doesn’t have many jump scares. It’s just the whole feel of the film. It’s overwhelming.

A big part of its success is due to the character of Arthur Kidd and how he is played by Adrian Rawlins. He’s likable and believable. He’s even a bit goofy at times like when he discovers the recording device. So everything he goes through really matters to me.

A Beautiful Film

It’s also a thoroughly well-made film. The sets are great. The exteriors are shot so as to edit well with the indoor shots. It’s also cleverly shot. A couple of stand-out moments are when the woman in black shows up at the house, she appears from nowhere during a single shot. Then, at the end, after she appears and the tree starts to fall, Kidd’s wife rises up in the boat to obscure the woman’s body.

It’s nice to see such care taken in a film. But it’s wonderful when it results in such effective storytelling.

Blu-ray Quality

The first time I saw this film was with a terrible YouTube print — probably not even as good as the original VHS release. But the film was shot on 16 mm negative with well-lighted sets. So I knew better video was possible.

There are two versions offered on this disc. There is the original 4:3 televised version and a 1.78:1 widescreen version. Both show some grain on the scenes with less light. And it can be a bit more pronounced on the widescreen version. But overall, the film looks great. And that’s especially true for the scenes that are most important.

The 4:3 version includes title cards between the acts, as the film appeared on television. These are removed for the 1.78:1 version so that it plays as it would in a movie theater.

The sound is presented in mono, but it is well mixed. The music and voices are distinct. It also includes clear and accurate subtitles.

Special Features

There aren’t that many extras with this disc. But I often think releases provide a lot of useless extras just to impress people. Seven short interviews are better than one long feature that puts them together in some cohesive way? Not really.

Apart from the widescreen version of the film, which is an extra I suppose, there are three extras.

Image Gallery

This is a minor feature. It consists of 34 images displayed over the course of one minute and 35 seconds. Some are rather good but this is nothing special.

Commentary Track

Commentary tracks range from excellent to useless to abusive. The track for The Woman in Black is good. It is hosted by writer Kim Newman. With him is Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame. Both of them love the film and much of the commentary is simply them commenting on things they appreciate in the film.

For example, they note that what makes the big jump scare work so well is that slightly before we see her, we see her shadow cast on Kidd’s body. It’s the sort of thing you feel but don’t usually notice consciously.

They also discuss various aspects of the novel and how the film got made.

Andy Nyman is also included. He played Jack, the shorter law office assistant with curly brown hair. He adds some colorful stories to the mix.

Viewing Notes

For me, the high-point of the extras was a little 20-page booklet, The Woman in Black: Viewing Notes by Andrew Pixley. It goes through the original book, the play, this film, and the later one. It also goes into depth about Nigel Kneale and his approach to rendering it for the screen.

I highly recommend reading this book. You will learn some of it with the commentary. But if you want to know about how this film got to screen, you should really start here.

The Other Booklet

Along with the Blu-ray came a 24-page booklet The Woman in Black. It appears to have been some kind of promotional material for the film when it was released in 1989 — a press book for the media. There are even corrections on it. The first page says it will show at 9:35, but this is crossed out in red pen and “9:30” is written under it.

It provides basic information about the plot, characters, cast, and crew. But mostly, it contains short interviews with cast members Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, David Daker, and Pauline Moran. These are the sort of interviews that would today be extras on the disc.

But I don’t think it is officially part of the Blu-ray release. The booklet is too large to fit inside the case and it isn’t mentioned on the case. So you might get it or you might not.

Final Thoughts

I’m pleased to have this. The film is great and it rewards multiple views. It’s also a film you can show to older friends and family members since it is classic horror. It is, however, scary. I just showed it to my Stephen King-loving father and he was impressed — and frightened.

Sadly, it is only available on a Region B/2 disc. But if this gets you to buy an all-region Blu-ray player, great! I purchased it directly from Network on Air for just $21.23. The total shipping charge was less than what Amazon charges and it got here in a week! So they are a company you can trust (and I have absolutely no business relationship with them).

This is a fitting release for an excellent film.


Blu-ray image taken from Network on Air under Fair Use.