This is an extremely tough question for me to consider. Vampires came out at a time when I was only dimly aware of who John Carpenter was. It was the film that cemented him as a presence in my young mind. Sure, I knew that he had his name above the titles of Halloween and The Fog, but I didn’t really know what those meant. I was very young, I wasn’t even sure what a director was. But this movie seared John Carpenter into my head because his name felt like an extension of the title. These were his vampires. They belonged to him.
I was destined to love it. It came out at a time when I was fully immersing myself in the genre. Even then, I didn’t discriminate subgenre, I just saw whatever I could and hoped for the best. Usually, I loved what I saw. Since early, early childhood, vampires have been my favorite movie monster. I couldn’t get enough of them. Bram Stoker’s Dracula may have had a heavy romance element, but it gave me all the amazing, creepy, monstrous effects I could ever hope to see in a single film and my love of vampires began right there.
Namely, this is an aggressively male-centirc movie. It’s over-the-top in its machismo. It’s big and loud and you can just smell the testosterone dripping off of it. Looking around the horror community, the film gets a lot of flack for that, or at least its treatment of women in relation to the main male characters. By and large, women in Vampires fall into a class where they’re either objectified—the prostitutes in the beginning—or they’re cannon fodder—the vampires in the rest of the feature—and the only in-between is our only female lead, who is treated as both.
She’s kept around only because she’s useful to the cause, is hit by the men, even the one who starts a love affair with her. There’s something very skeezy about the way they treat her throughout the movie. But she has a purpose and independent character of her own, she doesn’t ever simply comply with their treatment of her and does have her own distinct voice.
So is John Carpenter’s Vampires a sexist movie? Yes and no. It’s complicated. The dialogue, roughness and treatment of women that you see in the movie cannot be denied, but even then it would be a stretch for me to actually go all the way and call it sexist beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Because the characters in the film are misogynistic, for sure. All of them are, from the major examples of the main crew to Valek and his subservient legion of undead followers to the patriarchy of the Catholic Church itself. But to be honest, I think that’s the point. The characters in Vampires are sexist, but that doesn’t mean the movie is.
First of all, John Carpenter is amazing at creating female characters who stand toe-to-toe with the tough guys who usually star at the center of his films. From Adrienne Barbeau in Escape from New York to Kim Catrall in Big Trouble in Little China. Here, he’s doing something different. These men are so over the top that the presence of a woman is legitimately threatening to them and she knows it. It’s not a weakness in her character, it’s a weakness in theirs. As tough as Jack Crow is, the real hero of the piece is this poor woman who has had to endure so much with no one even willing to listen to her, constantly reminding her that she should be dead.
The guys are so nervous and insecure that they could burst at any moment. When Katrina first comes to Jack before being bitten, even though he’s distracted, he’s like a little kid. He’s vulnerable for that one moment and spends the whole remainder of the picture resenting her for it.
I think Vampires, if anything, is pointing out the absurdity of the tough guy mentality. It’s not a commentary, it’s an action movie that’s pointedly over-the-top for a reason. It’s tough to watch at times because it’s making an effort to show how uncomfortable guys like this who fill this certain type of role can actually be. I think it actually makes the effort to stop glorifying the traditional, old-school, sexist male action hero by keeping the camera going where you would normally cut away.
James Woods will get in a few good moments, maybe have a solid one-liner, and then the scene will keep going until he says something really gross or off-putting. That’s the key, I think. It’s showing us that guys like this can be fun for awhile, but then you see how broken and twisted they really are. Yes, Jack Crow is not a good guy but the movie doesn’t present him as one, either. He’s the protagonist, but he’s not the hero.
That doesn’t mean he’s not interesting or that the rest of the male characters aren’t interesting, because they are. It just means that they, especially Crow, are presented with all of their huge, glaring flaws intact. To be honest, I actually commend the film for that. Vampires is a fun, exciting, often darkly comedic movie. The uncomfortable bits in many ways feel like an extension of the satire. Yes, they go a little far, but I think they actually have a purpose, for the most part.
This movie still holds a special place in my heart. It’s got genuinely creepy, subtle effects and the score is great. It’s the Western that Carpenter always wanted to make, and the fact that it breaks down those typical Western archetypes only serves to make it all the more interesting.