By Devin D. O'Leary
NOVEMBER 2, 1998: Earlier this year, vampires invaded northern New Mexico.
Fortunately for the locals, these bloodsuckers were of the distinctly Hollywood genus. Commandeering the town of Galisteo and parts of Santa Fe, legendary horror director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, Christine) used the "Southwestern Gothic" look to breathe cinematic (after)life into John Steakley's hit novel Vampire$.
The book concerns a group of Vatican-sponsored vampire hunters sent to the American Southwest to wipe out a "nest" of nasty vampires. Armed to the teeth with high-tech crossbows, guns, pikes and other vampire-wiping accouterments, the hunters nonetheless find themselves ambushed and slaughtered by a wily master vampire named Valek. The two surviving vampire hunters, Jack Crow and Tony Montoya, suddenly find the tables turned. Hunter becomes hunted.
To portray Steakley's team of Vatican-backed vampire hunters, Carpenter and his wife/producer Sandy King turned to a couple Hollywood heavyweights.
For the role of hard-bitten vampire staker, Jack Crow, they immediately settled on Academy Award-nominated character actor James Woods. Woods jumped at the chance. "I have to tell you it was so much fun. You can't imagine," admits Woods. "I'm always playing serious characters in really high-faloutin' big Oscar movies. That's great, and I'm very proud of it--but, you know, secretly every rock star wants to be an actor, every actor wants to be a rock star. It's, like, all the serious guys look at their awards shelf and go, 'This is great, but God! would I love to be in Predator.'"
For the role of Tony Montoya, the Vampires team chased down Daniel Baldwin (fresh off ABC's acclaimed cop series "Homicide"). Baldwin wasn't as quick to accept his role. "Actually, it's a pretty funny story," explains the actor. "The script got sent to me, and on the outside jacket it just said, 'Vampires.' And, you know, depending on what time of year it is and how busy Hollywood is, you get multiple scripts a day for months at a time. When this script came, I never even opened it. ... Just because I have yet to see a vampire film that I really like the story in. From an acting standpoint, how was I going to be challenged--with the exception of prosthetic make-up and so on--to do a vampire film? So I didn't even read it. A week to two weeks later, my agent, Allison Band, called me and said, 'What's going on with the John Carpenter thing? They really want to see you.' I said, 'John Carpenter? Which one was John Carpenter?' She said, 'Vampires.' I went back in and I went through my office and pulled it out and read it."
Baldwin found himself intrigued by the film's "Western" flavor and by the high-tech means his character would be using to dispatch vampires (a Jeep and a winch are Montoya's primary weapons). "There was a lot of interesting stuff that you wouldn't really expect to be able to do as an actor in a vampire film. But more than anything, when I heard it was Carpenter, I was like (barks like a dog)--you know, please let me be in it."
Baldwin admits that even if the script hadn't been any good he would have jumped at the chance to work with the horror icon: "I think it's pretty well acknowledged, certainly in the United States, that John Carpenter is the premier director of horror. And probably worldwide today. When you think of any genre that you can say, including porn--whatever you want to talk about no matter how limited the audience or how outlandish the genre--to be the director of that genre is a pretty impressive statement to be able to make about somebody's body of work."
To play Crow and Montoya's evil adversary Valek, a vicious 600-year-old European bloodsucker, the filmmakers chose 6-foot, 5-inch Broadway actor Thomas Ian Griffith, who was intrigued by Vampires' unique blending of genres: "It reads like a Spaghetti Western. You know, good and evil and the big showdown at the end. But it was a cool take on it, because it got you out of what you expected for vampires--you know, with the elegant dinners and the castles and all that stuff. This is real down and dirty. A real gritty movie."
To get the film's "gritty" look, the makers of Vampires sought out the perfect backdrop. Shooting in the Southwest allowed Carpenter to combine his two loves: horror movies and Westerns. According to Carpenter, Westerns are "one of the few American inventions. There's jazz, and there's the Western. They're the only classic American invention in terms of story that we have--a canvas on which to paint big stories, big people. ... The Western field is just a great, classic good and evil setting."
With its Spanish Colonial stylings, gothic arches and primitive block houses, New Mexico provided a unique "old world" backdrop--what James Woods calls, "The Wild Bunch meets Dracula."
"The original John Steakley novel was set in Texas," explains Sandy King. "Two reasons made me as a producer want to go (to New Mexico). Number one is a political reason. I have friends that have taken companies into Texas to shoot. One of them is a black producer. They had a lot of problems with racism. I have a crew that comes in with gays, blacks, Asians. I'm not gonna subject them to a lot of bullshit. ... Texas was not big on my list. Texas is very gray. If it suits your film, it's a neat look. I felt we needed a little richness and a little color. I had never been to New Mexico, but I had seen a lot of pictures. We looked at southern New Mexico because it has those cool dunes and that otherworldly (look). But that really wasn't right. Northern New Mexico had a lot of accessible areas that we could shoot in. And (the people) were nice."
Daniel Baldwin even brought his dogs and his motorcycle with him to the state. Though he spent his down time cruising the Turquoise Trail on his Harley, Baldwin admits that the action-packed shoot was a lot of work: "Santa Fe is at a significant elevation. To run around with those big pikes and the guns and the crossbows. Those were steel-chromium crossbows. They were very heavy. I know it doesn't seem like much, but when it's 15 hours a day and you're running around at 9,000 feet, you can't breathe. So I started training after about the first three days. I got so tired that I started getting up at 4:30 in the morning and playing full-court one-on-one basketball with a trainer seven days a week just to get acclimated and be able to do things."
"Santa Fe was a great place to shoot," says Griffith. "New Mexico is beautiful. There's a spirituality there that really fit our picture. And you know, the sky and the mountains and the desert, just the whole look, was a great location to be in."
As long as you're in your coffin by sundown, that is.
The Western setting allowed Carpenter to tackle a traditional scare subject like vampires in a whole new light. "There have always been legends of blood-drinking humans," explains Carpenter like a grim professor. "This probably goes back to when we were all sitting around the campfire as a tribe. The medicine man said, 'The evil is out there in the dark someplace. He's going to come and get you.' But some suspect the evil is maybe right here in our own hearts. And we might be like those wild creatures out there: we might eat flesh; we might drink blood. So legends arise out of this. Look at the werewolf--man turns into beast." But, adds Carpenter, "There's a sexual element added to vampires, probably with Dracula, with the romance gothic novels."
King agrees: "There are certain themes that are going to be classic throughout time. No one's really ever going to get tired of vampires. Because they're sex. Who gets tired of sex?"
Griffith, with fangs planted firmly in place and a velvet duster-length coat to enhance his already imposing frame, had no problem getting into his seductive character. "People are turned on by vampires. Everyone is drawn into the vampire. Obviously the sexuality, the seductiveness is a huge component of that."
"When you're dealing with sex and violence," concludes Carpenter, "you're dealing with two very basic human drives."
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