Carpenter is rarely given credit for being a consummate landscape artist. Perhaps it’s because for him, the landscape is less a thing of natural beauty and more an active, if cryptic, participant in his horror narratives (the same might be said for the landscapes in Westerns by de Toth and Nick Ray, amongst others) . Most obliquely, one could reference the barren urban landscapes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Prince of Darkness and They Live (all decrepit and underpopulated). More directly, The Thing takes place entirely in the barren no-man’s land of Antarctica (no one can hear you scream); in Ghosts of Mars, the red planet literally comes alive to destroy the human invaders; Vampires ironically situates its sunlight-averse bloodsuckers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, with an intense, palpable heat constantly beating down, natural light flooding the frame courtesy of cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe.
Carpenter begins Vampires by introducing the location before anything else – traveling shots of the New Mexico landscape dissolve into one another as the opening credits crawl across the screen.
|New Mexico Death Trip.|
Lateral tracking shots and lap dissolves finally give way to the propulsive forward momentum of a
traveling helicopter shot, moving closer and closer to a decrepit farmhouse.
|House of the Devil.|
The camera finally settles on two lone figures, James Woods and Daniel Baldwin, surveying an empty house and deciding how to proceed. Once they’ve decided to attack (the house is presumably a vampire ‘nest’), Carpenter presents each of them entering a vehicle on opposite sides of the frame. They are partners, but there is a distance between them (subtle staging that acts as a kind of context for the gradual disintegration of their relationship throughout the narrative proper).
James Woods opens up his vehicle to reveal a team of vampire hunting bad asses. Their assault on the vampire nest is one of Carpenter’s single greatest action set pieces, but it begins quietly, with a finely calibrated Hawksian moment – finding the door to the nest locked, one of the men uses a kind of pneumatic press to blow out the door knob. Another man goes to jimmy open the lock, before James Woods says simply, ‘my turn.’ There’s no argument, as he’s unmistakably the boss, but there’s also no surprise – he’s obviously done this before, this team takes turns, no exceptions. It’s a testament to Carpenter’s conception of the scene and James Woods’ acting that when he goes to stick his hand through the hole, reaching blindly for the door lock, there is a sense of panic – quiet and controlled, but most discernibly panic.
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John Carpenter’s affinity for Howards Hawks is well-known, and there’s certainly something to be said for both directors affection for rough-and-tumble men’s men, professionals doing a job of work to the best of their abilities, the pleasure of a job well done their most satisfying reward. But there’s a streak of anti-authoritative individuality in almost all of Carpenter’s films – he often favors anti-heroes fighting against a corrupt system, whether metaphorically in The Thing and The Ward, ironically juxtaposed ala the police station of Assault on Precinct 13, or quite literally in Escape From New York/L.A. and They Live. James Woods’ Jack Crow is cut from the Snake Plissken cloth. Ostensibly employed by the Catholic Church to hunt vampires, Crow delights in blasphemy, and at one point goes so far as to torture the young priest that the Vatican has sent to oversee him. It’s a testament to James Woods performance that he doesn’t delight in the act, it’s simply the quickest, most direct way to garner certain information (Hawks gone vulgar, so to speak). And it’s a testament to Carpenter’s deep distrust of codified systems of power that the Church in fact is to blame for the creation of vampires (a neat bit of mythological ret-con that turns the Church into something like the corrupt U.S. Government overseen by Donald Pleasence in Escape From New York). Vampires exists in the late-period region of Carpenter’s filmography, along with Village of the Damned, Ghosts of Mars and The Ward, films either ignored or outright despised during their initial releases. Here’s hoping that the faithful come around, and that the unconverted can use these series of pieces as signposts for seeking out works otherwise written out of the official history of genre cinema. Vive la Carpenter.