You have to hand it to James Woods: He doesn't go out of his way to make himself likeable on screen. Hand him the role of an embittered psychopath with the social skills of a pit bull and the morals of a mercenary and he gives it his twitchy all in John Carpenter's Vampires.

Jack Crow (Woods) is a professional vampire slayer under contract to the Vatican, where they take this kind of thing seriously. He and his crack team of stake-slingers answer to one Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell), and spend their days prowling the American Southwest for nests of the undead blood-drinkers, whom they beat, impale and drag out into the sun, which burns them into twisted charcoal on contact. Team Crow is riding high, until they cross paths with a master vampire named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith): Valek, the first recorded vampire, wipes out the entire team and a no-tell motel full of hookers to boot. Only Crow, his best friend Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and a pathetic hooker named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) survive, and she's in pretty bad shape: She's been bitten by Valek and is in the early stages of her transformation into a full-fledged vampire. Montoya favors killing her, but the vengeful Crow decides to use her as bait to get to Valek, even after Cardinal Alba has told him to lie low for a while and saddled him with a minder in the form of mild-mannered Father Guiteau (Tim Guinee).

The gimmick here is vampires in a modern-day Western setting, and it's not a bad one, even if it's already been exploited in movies like Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat and the eternally underrated Near Dark. And credit where credit is due: Buffy's a cutie, but in reality vampire slayers would probably hew closer to the Jack Crow model, sadistic creeps with a whole lot of hostility to work off. The problem is that once the nifty premise is set up, the plot lies down and dies: Crow and Montoya chase Valek, Valek wreaks havoc, Crow and Montoya get there just in time for the aftermath and push on to the next bloody set-piece. In between, they abuse Katrina, who spends most of the movie tied to something, often naked. It's silly to complain about horror movies being violent, but John Carpenter's Vampires has a particularly ugly edge: Crow's slaying m.o. leans heavily to pounding stakes into vamp-girls while screaming, 'Die bitch!' and his conversation is relentlessly skewed towards asking his pals if killing gets them off. The conflation of arousal and brutality isn't a novel one (certainly not in vampire pictures), so why is it forced front and center with such monotonous regularity?

--Maitland McDonagh