Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

—————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Advertisements

Review: “House On Haunted Hill (1999 Remake)” (Film)

Well, for the next review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d take a break from the comedy genre and re-watch one of my favourite horror movies.

I am, of course, talking about the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”. Surprisingly though, I’ve only seen a few clips of the 1950s film that this movie is based on (the only William Castle film I’ve actually seen is “The Tingler”. In fact, I saw it at the cinema.. but that’s a different story).

Although I first encountered this terrifying, but somewhat overlooked, modern horror classic on late-night TV when I was about fourteen or fifteen (and got a DVD of it a few years later), it has been way too long since I last watched it.

So, without any further ado, let’s visit… the House on Haunted Hill! Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS and CREEPY IMAGERY. Likewise, I should probably warn you that the film itself contains some FLICKERING/ STROBING EFFECTS. (although I don’t know if they’re fast or intense enough to cause problems or not)

“House On Haunted Hill” begins in 1931 at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute For The Criminally Insane. It’s a fairly ordinary evening – the orderlies are doing their rounds and keeping their records up to date, whilst Dr.Vannacutt performs cruel experimental surgery on one of the patients. However, his malevolent dissections are interrupted by a violent riot.

Egads! A cacophony! I fear that there may also be a scuffle too! Nurse, fetch me my duelling sabre!

In the ensuing chaos, the institute almost burns to the ground – with very few survivors managing to escape.

And, yes, there’s even an old-fashioned newsreel about it! This film is awesome!

Flash forward to the late 1990s and debonair theme park owner Steven Price is showing off his latest attraction, “Terror Incognita”, to the press.

However, his thrilling premiere is interrupted by a phone call from his wife Evelyn who has just seen a segment on TV about the institute and wants to have her birthday soiree there. After an argument, he agrees to it, but decides to rewrite the guest list and make some theatrical alterations to the party to spite Evelyn.

And, yes, as his name suggests, Steven Price bears at least a passing resemblance to Vincent Price.

However, when the guests show up to the institute, Steven is shocked to see that they weren’t on his revised guest list. Evelyn doesn’t recognise the guests either. The guests are completely bewildered too. Still, the show must go on.

Given the institute’s horrific history, Steven has decided that he’ll add a bit of spice to the party by promising anyone who manages to stay the night there one million dollars. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh…. that’s what could go wrong.

One of the first things that I will say about “House On Haunted Hill” is that it is pretty much a perfect horror movie!

It is an absolutely brilliant mixture of knowing theatricality, vintage-style horror, late 1990s style gothic horror (think J.K.Potter, Cradle Of Filth album covers, Tim Burton, Marilyn Manson etc..), dark humour, creepy set design, psychological horror, suspense and gruesome horror. And, yes, it isn’t a movie for the easily shocked!

Even though this is one of those horror films that will scare you the most when you watch it for the first time, I was still surprised at how creepy this film remains after several viewings. Even when you know what to expect – the atmosphere, style and premise of the film will probably still subtly creep you out.

Seriously, even the opening credits are at least mildly disturbing…

And, yes, this film has style! I usually wait until near the end of a review to lavish praise on a film’s set design and lighting design – but, this film is often a visual masterpiece!

Not only is it filled with loads of really cool gloomy lighting, but the creepily mysterious institute (which is a chilling mixture of art deco architecture and something a bit more “Silent Hill“-like) is one of the things that really adds a lot of extra atmosphere to the film.

It’s a glowing coffin, filled with several smaller coffins!

Ah, I KNEW that hiring Gunther Von Hagens to do the interior design was a mistake!

I say it in all of these reviews, but people REALLY knew how to use lighting well during the 1990s!

Likewise, this stylishness also extends to the film’s dialogue, which contains some brilliantly witty and acerbic lines. Although this film is a scary one, it doesn’t take itself ultra-seriously either. There’s just enough cynical comedy to lull you into a false sense of security, so that the later parts of the film will be extra scary by contrast.

In addition to the film’s disturbing backstory, one thing that really helps to make this film more creepy and suspenseful is the fact that it’s basically a survival horror videogame in movie form.

If you’ve played games like the original “Resident Evil” or “Alone In The Dark“, you’ll know what I mean by this. Most of the film takes place inside a locked building, where the characters have to fend for themselves. Like an old-school survival horror game, the main focus of the film is on both exploring and trying to escape a dangerous environment.

You have entered the world of survival horror…

The scary setting of the film is also complimented by both the cast of characters and the writing. Both Steven and Evelyn are brilliantly theatrical and creepily unpredictable characters. The bitter and acrimonious relationship between them also provides equal amounts of dark comedy and chilling suspense too.

Seriously, this is far from the most menacing confrontation they have with each other…

As for the other characters, the institute’s nervous caretaker also helps to add a sense of paranoia to the film. Likewise, the mysterious guests are a mixture between ordinary and eccentric. Seriously, although this film doesn’t contain a gigantic amount of characterisation for some of the characters, both the acting and the characters really help to make this film what it is.

The film’s pacing is really good too, with the narrative remaining fairly focused throughout the film. Likewise, the film uses suspense expertly whilst never feeling too fast-paced or too slow-paced either. Best of all, the film tells a satisfyingly complete story within the space of just 89 minutes too!

In terms of the special effects, they still just about stand the test of time. Even the few CGI elements in the film are dark, subtle and/or mysterious enough to still look ok by modern standards.

For example, this scene involving an evil Poirot-like character uses a really cool oil painting style CGI effect that still looks really cool, even to this day.

Interestingly, although this film contains some very well-made gore effects, it isn’t really that much of a splatter film. Even in the grislier moments, this film often still aims more for “disturbingly creepy/grotesque” rather than “buckets of blood“.

Well, except for the scene featuring a literal bucket of blood, of course…

Musically, this film is superb! Not only does the film’s soundtrack contain the kind of gothic orchestral music that is reminiscent of vintage horror movies, but it also contains an absolutely amazing cover version of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” performed by Marilyn Manson. This song plays twice during the film and, on both occasions, it adds instant atmosphere and drama.

All in all, “House On Haunted Hill” is an excellent horror film! The tone, style and atmosphere of it is an absolutely brilliant blend of old-school horror and late 1990s gothic horror.

Not only has it stood the test of time well, but it’s the kind of film that also still has the power to be creepy after repeated viewings. It’s a film that manages to be terrifyingly dramatic whilst not being “ultra-serious” either. It’s also (sort of) the cinematic equivalent of an old-school survival horror videogame too, with a strong focus on scary exploration and constant danger.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Today’s Art ( 10th June 2018)

This the next digitally-edited painting in my “Gothic Aberystwyth” art series (and, before I go any further, here’s a version of it without rain).

Originally, this was going to be a slightly “film noir”-style painting of some of the old buildings at the very end of the town’s high street. But, thanks to messing up the lighting in one part of the picture, it ended up looking more like something from an old 1980s/90s horror movie, so I decided to run with this instead.

As usual, this painting (and the rain-less version of it too) is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Aberystwyth – Haunting” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (9th June 2018)

Well, here’s the next digitally-edited painting in my “Gothic Aberystwyth” art series. Surprisingly, there are two alternative versions of this picture – the usual “rain-free” version and a “blue sky” version.

This painting was inspired by the fact that I was watching “Nightmare On Elm Street” when I suddenly remembered that the road near a house I lived in for two years back when I lived in Aber was called “Elm Tree Avenue”. Since it has a small park nearby, this seemed like the perfect setting for a gothic horror painting. Although, interestingly, the “monstrous” tree/shrub creature in the background was kind of an afterthought.

As usual, this painting (and the other versions of it) are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Aberystwyth – Nightmare On Elm Tree Avenue” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Practical Magic” (Film)

Given that I’m absolutely fascinated by the 1990s and that comedy horror is one of my favourite genres, I’m genuinely surprised that it took me as long as it did to discover a film from 1998 called “Practical Magic”.

But, after finding a vaguely sensibly-priced secondhand DVD of it online, I thought that I’d check it out. And, surprisingly, it was a very different type of film to what I had initially expected.

So, let’s take a look at “Practical Magic”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

“Practical Magic” is a romantic comedy, with horror and dark comedy elements, that focuses on two sisters called Sally and Gillian Owens (played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) who come from a family of witches and live with their two eccentric aunts, Frances and Jet (played by Stockard Channing and Diane West), in an old mansion.

Needless to say, Gillian is more of an extrovert and Sally is more of an introvert.

However, due to the tragic history of one of their distant ancestors, their family is also cursed too. The ancient curse claims the life of anyone that a member of the family truly falls in love with. Although Sally tried to protect herself from falling in love by casting a spell when she was younger, she eventually ends up starting a family with a fairly ordinary guy called Michael. Gillian, on the other hand, leaves town and ends up with a stunningly handsome and intriguingly mysterious guy called Jimmy.

Of course, things start to go wrong for both sisters after a while. After narrowly avoiding being run over by a swarm of cyclists whilst crossing the road, Michael is promptly hit by a truck. Stricken by grief, Sally returns to her aunts and begs them to bring him back from the grave. But, they refuse, claiming that such things don’t usually end well. Eventually, she decides to settle in her ancestral home and open a shop in the nearby town.

A while later, Gillian breaks up with Jimmy after he becomes violent towards her. When Sally goes to pick Gillian up from a motel, Jimmy shows up and kidnaps them. However, a while later, Sally accidentally ends up poisoning him. Panicked, the sisters attempt a resurrection spell.

With whipped cream, no less!

Jimmy suddenly returns to life as a zombie and, after a brief fight, Sally ends up killing him again with a frying pan. The sisters bury him in the garden and decide to keep the whole matter secret from their aunts. But, a few days later, a detective arrives in town looking for Jimmy….

I have very mixed views about this film. One the first things that I will say is that it is both more depressing and more uplifting than I’d originally expected. Although the film certainly contains some brilliantly comedic moments, it really isn’t as much of a comedy as I had expected. Likewise, the film’s horror elements are somewhat creepier and more “serious” than I’d originally expected too. In addition to this, at least one of the film’s romances is both predictable and implausible at the same time.

I don’t know, the film foreshadows this part of the plot, but their romance progresses in a somewhat random way.

Yet, it was a film that really had an emotional impact on me after I’d finished watching it. Although the actual story of the film is a somewhat strange mixture of tragedy, comedy, joy, tedium, creepy horror and emotional drama – this film is much more than the sum of it’s parts. Thanks to the characters, acting, settings and general “atmosphere” of the film, it is the kind of film that will linger in your imagination long after the credits roll.

What initially seems to be one of the film’s main weaknesses – the slightly slow pacing and occasional lack of narrative focus – actually helps the film quite a bit. This is mostly because it allows the film to focus more on the characters, the “atmosphere” and the settings. And this is where this film absolutely excels!

Both the acting and characterisation in this film are absolutely brilliant, with the friendly- but somewhat complicated- dynamics of the Owens family being a central part of the film.

And they even have random late night cocktail parties too.

All of the main characters are really interesting too – whether it’s Sally’s somewhat introverted personality and conflicted attitude towards her magical powers (and towards teaching her daughters magic), or Gillian’s more extroverted (and somewhat paranoid) personality, or Frances and Jet’s brilliantly sarcastic and relaxed attitude towards life, the characters in this film are absolutely excellent.

In addition to this, the film also creates an atmosphere of community through the adversity that the witches face. Whether it is the family curse, the business with Jimmy or the fact that everyone in the nearby town seems to be somewhat suspicious of them, the main characters often have to rely on each other a lot. This feeling of community is another emotional element that will probably linger with you once the credits roll.

However, there is a somewhat implausible (but incredibly uplifting) plot twist later in the film when a lot of people from the town suddenly rally around the witches in their hour of need, despite despising them earlier in the film. This sudden shift is a little bewildering, but it carries a surprising amount of emotional power. It also seems to carry a very slight amount of LGBT subtext too, with Sally’s mention of her own powers being likened to coming out.

Yes, the film tries to explain why some of the townspeople suddenly help out the witches by showing some of them mentioning vaguely intuitive/paranormal experiences in their own lives. Even so, their change in attitude is somewhat sudden/random – even if it works really well in emotional terms.

Likewise, the set design, lighting and effects in this film are astonishingly good too. The film’s locations often have a wonderfully interesting “olde worlde” look to them that is also very distinctively “90s” too. The old wooden mansion that a lot of the film takes place in is almost a character in and of itself, and it’s the kind of place that will linger warmly in your imagination after the film finishes.

The lighting in this film is, in a word, spectacular. As I’ve probably said before, people in the 1980s and 1990s certainly knew how to use lighting well and this film is no exception! Not only are many scenes filled with beautifully gothic gloom, but there are also some absolutely beautiful exterior shots of the mansion at night and even a really cool montage scene when Gillian drives a car.

Seriously, the lighting alone in this scene is brilliant, not to mention the cool time-lapse effects too.

And, wow! Just wow! This scene is a work of art!

And just check out the lighting here too. As I said, filmmakers certainly knew how to use lighting during the 1990s!

The film’s special effects are also really good too, mostly because – for a film about magic – they are surprisingly understated. Since they aren’t the main focus of the film, they often just seem like an organic part of the film rather than a “special effect”.

Although the film probably uses some CGI effects in a couple of scenes, these don’t really stand out as “old CGI” due to the fact that the audience’s attention is drawn towards the events that are happening, rather than the effects themselves.

For example, I’m not entirely certain whether the dust effects in this scene are CGI or not. Since this film’s effects are a bit more understated, it avoids the pitfall of “old CGI” that other films from the time can experience when viewed these days.

Likewise, if you’re a fan of the 1990s, then this film is crammed with 90s nostalgia. Whether it’s the fact that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” plays during one scene, or the gloriously retro costume design in the film, or the optimistic parts of the ending, or the total lack of mobile phones, or the set design etc…. this film is very much from the 90s.

All in all, this is a film that is worth watching for everything except the story. The characters, the atmosphere, the set design, the lighting, the 1990s nostalgia, the comedic moments, the positive emotional moments and the horror elements are all absolutely brilliant. The story, on the other hand, is somewhat unevenly-paced, somewhat unfocused, occasionally implausible and occasionally rather depressing though.

Even so, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those films which may not seem that impressive when you’re actually watching it but will linger in your imagination after you’ve finished watching.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.

Review: “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (Film)

Although I’m not a fan of *yawn* slasher movies, there is at least one exception to this rule. I am, of course, talking about Wes Craven’s “Nightmare On Elm Street” series. And, although I’ve seen the first and the fourth films in this franchise before, I ended up finding a cheap second-hand DVD boxset of all seven “Elm Street” films a while before writing this review.

It’s also a fairly hefty thing that rattles ominously when moved.

Even though I don’t know how many of these films I’ll watch or review, I thought that I’d take another look at the very first film in the franchise today. I have vague memories of watching it about a decade or so ago but, apart from a few scenes, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about it. So, this seemed like the perfect time to re-watch and review it. So, let’s get started.

Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

“A Nightmare On Elm Street” is a horror movie from 1984 which sets itself apart from the more generic slasher films of the time with a really clever twist- the “monster” kills people in their dreams. This allows for all sorts of psychological horror, “unreliable reality” and surrealist elements to appear in the film, making it considerably more imaginative and scary than the average slasher movie.

The film begins with some shots of a man fashioning a bladed glove in a workshop, whilst a terrified teenager – Tina – runs through the corridors of an abandoned building. There’s a jump scare… but it’s only a sheep.

More “baaaa!” than “booo!”, really.

Soon, however, the man with the bladed glove is chasing her. But, as he corners Tina, she suddenly wakes up screaming. It was just a dream!

And, thus concludes this film. As a cautionary tale about eating stilton after 9pm, it excels perfectly – 5/5. What, No? Only joking…

But, when she sees claw marks on her clothes, she isn’t so sure. The next day, Tina meets up with some of her friends from high school and they begin to talk about her nightmare. Although her friends laugh it off as just a dream, Tina is still somewhat freaked out by it.

Horror? In suburban America? You must be joking!

That evening, they end up hanging out together at one of their houses. Tina’s uncouth boyfriend shows up too, and they spend the night together. But, once Tina falls asleep, she has another nightmare. This time, however, she doesn’t wake up in time!

Hmmm… I wonder why?

With Tina’s boyfriend suspected of murder (and having had similar dreams herself), Tina’s friend Nancy decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, even more than three decades after it was made, it still has the power to scare. But, in a good way. Unlike some horror films that can leave you feeling uneasy for hours or days after you’ve watched them, this film focuses more on nail-biting suspense and unpredictable drama. The surreal and unrealistic elements of the film keep the drama unpredictable, whilst also ensuring that any fear doesn’t linger for too long after the credits roll.

The pacing in this film is, in a word, superb. Not only is this film from the days when films actually had editors (hence the film’s lean 92 minute length 🙂), there is also often just enough of a lull between the more suspenseful scenes to keep things unpredictable. Not only that, there are a few cleverly-placed “fake” scares, and a few “fake” scares that unexpectedly turn out not to be so fake. Unpredictablilty is a key part of the horror genre, and this film gets it absolutely right.

This is a good example of the kind of unpredictable thing this film does so well.

Not only that, one thing that surprised me when I rewatched “A Nightmare On Elm Street” is the fact that, aside from the ending and a few brief moments, this film contains relatively little of the dark humour that the series is so famous for. In this film, the killer (Freddy Krueger), is often more of an “ordinary” monster than a wise-cracking fiend. This lends the film more of a “serious” tone than I expected, which also helps to add to the suspense too.

On the plus side, it does include a rather cool “Evil Dead” reference.

And there’s a little bit of dark humour involving Freddy too. But, not as much as I expected.

The film’s tension is further heightened by the fact that, for a lot of the film, no-one believes Nancy and her friends. Although this is something of a common trope in the horror genre, it still works fairly well here. Likewise, because relatively few people see Freddy Krueger during the earlier parts of the film, at least a few other characters begin to question Nancy’s sanity too. Again, this is a common trope in the horror genre, but it still works here.

The only well-established trope that doesn’t make the film more effective is the old “puritanical morality” trope. Basically, in 80s slasher movies, the only characters that survived were the “wholesome” celibate, teetotal, non-smoking, drug-free etc… ones. Although this film tries to subvert this slightly by showing a “good” character (eg: Nancy’s boyfriend) being killed, it’s still a major part of the film and it makes some parts of the story seem slightly old-fashioned and slightly less unpredictable than they should be.

No prizes for guessing who survives this film…

However, this trope is examined in a very clever way in another part of the film. When we learn more about Freddy’s backstory, a certain level of moral ambiguity is introduced into the film. Basically, Freddy was a serial killer who walked free from court due to a technicality. This then prompted the “morally upstanding” members of the town to track him down and exact cruel vigilante justice, by burning him in a furnace.

So, the film is basically about one especially evil murderer versus a town of mildly less evil murderers. Now, THIS is how to write a horror movie!

So, yes, this film is the perfect mixture of familiar tropes and innovation. Whilst you might think “it’s just an old horror movie“, it manages to set itself apart from other horror films of the era in all sorts of clever ways.

In terms of set design, lighting and special effects, this film is reasonably good. Not only are there a few expertly choreographed blood-drenched scares, but even with the special effects technology of the time, the “nightmare” sequences mostly still manage to be very immersive and dramatic. Likewise, the film’s horror elements also allow for some really cool lighting and set design too:

Seriously, if there’s one thing that old movies are great at, it’s lighting!

And set design too!

Most of the special effects still work well, although this one looks a little silly by modern standards.

All in all, this is a classic horror movie that has aged surprisingly well. In addition to being timelessly suspenseful, it is also – as I mentioned earlier – an example of horror done well. Whilst you’re watching the film, you’ll be on the edge of your seat for large parts of it. But, thanks to some clever writing and storytelling, the fear doesn’t outstay it’s welcome once the credits have rolled.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “John Carpenter’s Vampires” (Film)

Back when I was a young teenager, I tried to watch as many horror movies as I could. Since I didn’t really look old enough to buy them on VHS/DVD and since I could hardly ever convince anyone to buy them on my behalf, I often just ended up recording them off of the TV with my VCR. Amongst many of the rebellious late-night horror movies that Channel 4 had to offer back then, there was a film called “John Carpenter’s Vampires”.

Needless to say, when I was in a bit of a nostalgic mood recently, I vaguely remembered this film. After a quick look online, I noticed that second-hand DVDs of it were going ridiculously cheaply on Amazon. And, since my VCR doesn’t work any more (and the tape with “Vampires” on it seems to be lost to the mists of time), I decided to get it on DVD.

So, let’s take another look at “John Carpenter’s Vampires”:

Seriously, this cover art is really cool 🙂

“John Carpenter’s Vampires” is an action/horror movie from 1998 (Wow! It’s 20 years old already!) starring James Woods, Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee. As the title suggests, it is also directed by renowned horror director John Carpenter.

The film focuses on a group of rough, tough American vampire hunters, led by Jack Crow (Woods), who have been hired by the Catholic church to track down and kill the master vampire, Valek.

And, yes, they are that gloriously ’90s combination of “badass” and “silly”.

Initially, things seem to be going fairly well. After the hunters successfully battle a nest of vampires in New Mexico, they immediately rush to the nearest church to pray for… Ha! Only joking! In true ’90s action hero fashion, they travel to a nearby motel to have a wild party. However, as the party gets into full swing, an uninvited guest shows up….

You honestly weren’t going to have a decadent party without a vampire, were you?

After the ensuing bloodbath, only Jack Crow, his buddy Montoya (Baldwin) and a party guest called Katrina (Lee) manage to get out of the motel alive. Well, mostly.

Katrina has been bitten by Valek and is slowly turning into a vampire. Although Montoya wants to shoot her before she turns, Crow realises that she has a psychic link with Valek. A psychic link that will allow them to track down Valek and get their revenge…….

*sigh* If only the American government had invested in decent public transport for rural communities…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is probably more of a gritty action movie than a horror movie. However, this really isn’t a bad thing – since it seems to have a vaguely Robert Rodriguez-esque style, tone, setting and atmosphere. Although it was directed by John Carpenter, this film is at least vaguely reminiscent of some of Rodriguez’s greatest hits from the 90s (like “Desperado” and “From Dusk till Dawn).

In addition to this, this film is a vampire film from the 90s! This decade produced so many amazing things in the vampire genre, including films like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula“, “Blade“, “From Dusk till Dawn“, “Interview With The Vampire” and “Dracula: Dead And Loving It“, to novels like “Lost Souls” and TV series like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Angel“.

Back in the 90s, vampires weren’t sparkly romantics – they were usually either fearsome monsters or really handsome goth guys. In this film, the vampires mostly fall into the “fearsome monsters” category.

The only “Twilight” here is the time of the day when the vampires rise from their graves to feast upon the blood of the living.

Like with many vampire movies, this film has it’s own unique interpretation of the vampire genre too. Not only is the film’s main villain, Valek, given some backstory – but Crow and his team usually kill vampires by harpooning them with a crossbow bolt before dragging them out into the sunlight (where they burst into flames in the traditional fashion). Interestingly, the vampires in this film are also totally unaffected by things like garlic, crosses etc.. too .

Yes, these vampires are literally standing right next to a giant cross!

The film’s pacing is reasonably good too, alternating between blood-spattered action scenes and more suspenseful scenes. Likewise, the film’s lean 100 minute running time helps to ensure that the story moves along at a decent pace too.

The film’s writing is very much from the Quentin Tarantino-style school of writing too. But, although it lacks much of the wit that Tarantino’s films have, the dialogue here is suitably gritty and irreverent for a film of this type.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good. Crow and Montoya are the kind of morally-ambiguous, rough characters who are only distinguishable from common criminals by the fact that they also fight vampires.

Katrina is something of an under-developed character though – and she spends a fair amount of the film having visions, trying to stop herself turning into a vampire and occasionally being treated roughly by Crow and Montoya.

Seriously, upon rewatching “Vampires” these days, I realised that I’d forgotten how misogynistic this old film can occasionally be. Although the vast majority of the film doesn’t really have this problem, there are at least a small number of scenes that will raise eyebrows. Still, given that Crow and Montoya are meant to be “unlikeable anti-heroes”, this might explain these elements of the film. Even so, a few moments of this film will be more “disturbingly dated” than anything else when seen these days.

Valek, on the other hand, is a really great villain. Not only does he have a suitably interesting backstory, but he’s able to be both menacingly sophisticated and fearsomely vicious.

Nooo! WHY won’t anyone join my Cradle Of Filth tribute band?!

The only real criticism I have of his character is that he really doesn’t turn up often enough. Still, given that he’s meant to be a mysteriously elusive villain, then his relatively few appearances probably add to the mystique.

Likewise, the Catholic priest who ends up joining Crow, Montoya and Katrina about a little under halfway through the film is a reasonably good character too. However, he does the usual silly Hollywood thing of suddenly turning from a slightly bookish archivist into a badass action hero within a relatively short amount of time.

Seriously, he goes from a nervous, nerdy guy who Crow dislikes so much that he actually violently bullies him at one point….

…. to being an expert member of the vampire-hunting team within the space of about a day or so!

The fight scenes in this film are fairly well-choreographed and the special effects are also suitably splatterific too. Since this film is from just before the time when CGI effects began to become common, all of the special effects here are good old practical effects – which helps to lend the horror-based scenes a bit more realism. Not only that, the film even manages to squeeze in a (somewhat unrealistic in context) badass explosion too:

And, yes, James Woods walks away from it in the classic action movie fashion too.

In terms of the lighting and set design, it’s reasonably good too. Although most of the film takes place in abandoned parts of rural New Mexico, these run-down buildings and deserts are sometimes enhanced by some really cool lighting, which occasionally seems to involve some kind of red filter being placed on the top of the camera lens.

Seriously, the lighting is really cool in some parts of this film.

Plus, there are some really cool contrasts between light and darkness.

Not to mention that this location reminded me a little bit of the old “Silent Hill” games too.

All in all, this is a really good action/horror movie. Not only is it another great example of why the 1990s were the golden decade of the vampire genre, but it’s also thrilling, suspenseful and dramatic too. Yes, the dialogue could have been slightly wittier in some parts, and the film is occasionally somewhat misogynistic, but – despite these faults – it’s a great example of how awesome the vampire genre used to be.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would maybe just about get a four.