Thursday, June 08, 2017
Their Later Films (Vol. 2)
Vol. 2 – Vampires.
Vampires, as a sub-genre of the horror cinema genre, is not an uncommon playground for genre film directors to flash their talents in at the beginning of their careers – George Romero gave us Martin at this beginning of his, Tony Scott bestowed the bloody arthouse supernatural opus The Hunger at the beginning of his, and even Tobe Hooper went all Stephen King on us with Salem's Lot – also an early novel for genre king King. Post-seventies and -eighties, Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino got into the toothy action as well, with their collaborative gore-a-thon From Dusk till Dawn. However, my recent musings on this is not about those early vampire films from these celebrated genre directors; instead, I'd been thinking about the later films of celebrated genre directors – filmmakers who decided, later on in their careers, to dabble in cinematic vampire lore, and how these films differed (apart from been more poorly received than their colleagues' early vampire movies). It's really no mystery as to why early-career vampire films were better received than later ones; in the horror genre early films in general have a wider and more boisterous cult following and cult reception than later films in genre directors' careers. But what's interesting about these receptions when it comes to vampire films is just how thematically different the vampire film can be depending on the directors' career trajectory and artistic disposition at that point in their careers. Martin and The Hunger were genius arthouse experiments, and completely different from each other aesthetically. Salem's Lot was a for-hire gig by Warner Brother produced fo broadcast television. From Dusk till Dawn was just a wild ride by two filmmakers at the hugely energetic start of their careers (and which was also a loose rip-of of Richard Wenk's freshman film, Vamp). Later on, though, the vampire film gets more creative, and a little more high-concept, and not always to the appreciation of the audience. Because, really, we're going to out-concept strippers and vampires?
A Vampire in Brooklyn came about in Wes Craven's career between his excitedly-anticipated masterpiece New Nightmare (a Freddy Kruger meta-re-boot) and his insanely successful launching of the Scream franchise. In fact, Wes Craven is the only genre film director I can think of who was so conceptually talented that he was able to start two successful long-running horror franchises, both of which even spawned their own television series. His vampiric collaboration with comedian Eddie Murphy was not exactly a commercial success, and unfortunately marked a personal low-point in Craven's career when Angela Bassett's friend and personal stunt double was killed when filming a stunt-fall on set. However, when looking at the film itself, few people realize that it was Craven's and Murphy's vision that really reignited the idea on not only the horror-comedy, but in having the lead character playing the oblivious straight-man to his far more comedic sidekick, taking the cue from Young Frankenstein. Since Craven's vampire film, this shtick has come back into style with a vengeance. Also moving in on the comedy-vampire territory was John Landis with his movie Innocent Blood, about a vampire who takes it upon herself to wipe out a mob family. When she fucks that up, the mob systematically goes about turning themselves into a gang of vampires. This high-concept guilty pleasure suffered for no other reason than the fact that horror fans would only be comparing it to Landis' masterpiece, An American Werewolf in London. No matter what Landis threw at us in Innocent Blood, he was not going to exceed the giddy excesses of his early horror-monster film. If anyone other than Landis had directed this movie, it would never have had the baggage of comparison attached to it – but on the flipside, really only Landis could have delivered this vampire movie. Stupid catch-22s. Tobe Hooper, who had helmed Stephen King's Salem's Lot, returned to the vampire sub-genre by going sub-sub-genre with his concept and bringing us an adaptation of Colin Wilson's “Space Vampires” under the moniker Lifeforce. Here, a group of astronauts discover, and bring back to earth, the corpse of a female space vampire, only to have her resurrected where her “Lifeforce” begins jumping from one victim's body to the next, until the entire story winds up caught in an apocalyptic-disaster scenario. Without a doubt, this is Hooper's wildest film, which was produced after his catastrophic collaboration with Steven Spielberg and before he signed his groundbreaking horror film work off to Michael Bay and the Hollywood-franchise circle of hell.
Some popular horror genre directors managed to go without touching on the vampire sub-genre at all, such as Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi, and for a long time it seemed Dario Argento would be avoiding the entire vampiric affair as well (although this was not ultimately to be), when in 1998 John Carpenter himself helmed his own vampire opus. Loosely based on the novel by the late John Steakley, John Carpenter's movie was the fist to associate the obvious themes of the vampire and the western movies, and it was also one of the only films to bring the intense idea to the audience that the vampire monsters are actually really hard to kill. This latter fact of the film is really what drives the interest in it, with the heroes constantly stressed and struggling to kill the supernatural beings in a dusty, down-to-earth way. The film unfortunately does come undone despite its stellar cinematic themes, due to the winding-down of Carpenter's career at the time, and the budgetary decision to utilize only the first three chapters of Steakley's clever novel and to extend those limited concepts into a feature-length story. It's a shame, as Steakley's novel (titled Vampire$) shows us the vampire-hunting team as what is really a glorified pest-control unit in the midst of a global infestation, and ultimately as a band of misfits who were clever enough to cash in on the world's situation. All of this was lost in Carpenter's filmed version, including the team's heroic arc, but Carpenter nevertheless left us with one of the meanest, grittiest, vampire scenarios ever put to film, in only a way that Carpenter could have done. In the end, this was probably the last great John Carpenter film.