"There have always been legends of blood-drinking humans," director John Carpenter says in Los Angeles. "This probably goes back to when we were all sitting around the campfire in a tribe, and the medicine man said, 'The evil's out there in the dark someplace -- he's going to come and get you.' But some suspect maybe the evil is right here in our own hearts. We might be like those wild creatures out there. We might eat flesh. We might drink blood."
If any filmmaker is qualified to comment on the horror that exists around -- and within -- us, it's John Carpenter. As American horror filmmakers go, Carpenter would be a name solely for Halloween (1978), which serves as the blueprint for contemporary shockers. But in his 18-film, 25-year career, he has expanded the horror genre with films like The Fog (1980), Christine (1983), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). In addition, the 50-year-old Carpenter has delved into a number of subgenres, including postapocalyptic action-adventure (Escape from New York) and alien as yearning outsider (Starman), making them his own.
Now with John Carpenter's Vampires -- about a group of Vatican-financed vampire killers led by bad-ass good guy James Woods -- he can examine those age-old fears of the undead, as well as something more alive and immediate.
"There's a sexual element added to vampires probably with Dracula," Carpenter says of Bram Stoker's seminal 1897 novel. "Dracula was the European aristocracy feeding off the 'blood' of the working class, but also, he's sexually active with blood -- taking it out of the body, putting it back in the body -- so that all had a lot of potency. When you're dealing with sex and violence, you're dealing with two very basic human drives."
Producer Sandy King agrees and isn't concerned that audiences have grown weary of films about vampires, because they represent the ultimate transgressors: "They do things you're not supposed to do, and I think everyone has a fascination with the trade-off for eternal life."
Both Carpenter and King, who are married, have a particular affinity for the vampire movies produced by England's Hammer Films. John Carpenter describes his first reaction as a 10-year-old to Horror of Dracula (1958), with the "tall, powerful, magnetic" Christopher Lee as Dracula, a sharp contrast to the Hollywood standard, Bela Lugosi, who's "about as frightening as a sweet uncle."
"First of all, it was in color," Carpenter explains. "Second of all, they showed blood, maybe for the first time in a vampire movie. I mean, lots of it, red blood.
"But the most important aspect to me, as a little kid, were these beautiful women in low-cut dresses. When he would come through the bedroom door, they would open up their nightgowns to be bitten. It's kind of the modern woman saying, 'Come on, Dracula, let's go.' I went, 'I've got to do some of that -- I've got to make this.' So that was my attraction to vampires."
But while he hardly shies away from full-color gore or up-front sexuality, there is more at work in Carpenter's version, which is based on John Steakley's novel, Vampire$.
"The group of horror directors who I think are real interesting &emdash; David Cronenberg, George Romero, John &emdash; their films embody something else," says Sandy King.
"David Cronenberg's about alienation from your body," she explains. "George Romero is very much sociological: the rising up of minorities and underclass. And John does things about anti-heroes &emdash; how man sees himself in society &emdash; they're all very moral movies."
Vampires, it turns out, is as much a western as it is a horror film. Carpenter makes excellent use of New Mexico's spectacular terrain and echoes western motifs in both costume and set design. But beyond these surface effects, he taps into the primal, psychic landscape of the western film.
"The western feel is a classic good and evil setting," he explains. "They're one of the few American inventions -- there's jazz and there's the western -- and they're the only classic American invention, in terms of story, that we have. A canvas on which to paint big stories, big people."
Carpenter is working on a film about one of his greatest influences, director Howard Hawks, who made great westerns like Red River (1948) as well as the groundbreaking horror film, The Thing (1951). But when Carpenter made his own version of The Thing (1982), he hit the proverbial brick wall in Hollywood.
"I was seen critically after that as a pornographer of violence," he explains. "That was one of the things that got hung on me. And, you know, you've got to work your way out of it."
Sandy King, who is not alone in thinking the once-maligned The Thing is John Carpenter's best film, acknowledges that it may have been ahead of its time.
"I think that exploitation films," she says, "are where you start the trends that become mainstream later."