A Vatican-sponsored team of vampire-hunters, led by Jack Crow (James Woods), raid an abandoned house in New Mexico. They take out a nest of vampires with guns, pikes, and wooden stakes. A crossbow attached to a winch pulls them out into incineration in sunlight. Jack is disappointed not to have found their ancient master. Celebrating with drinks and prostitutes in a motel, the team is attacked by Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), who kills most of them and bites a prostitute named Katrina (Sheryl Lee). Only Crow and his lieutenant Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) escape with Katrina. Crow tells Montoya to lay low with her, as she is now telepathically linked with Valek.
Crow buries his dead and burns down the motel, then reports to his superior Cardinal Alba (Maximillian Schell), who tells him that Valek was a disgraced priest who rebelled against the Church and was executed and because of a botched exorcism became the first vampire. Basically, the Church is responsible for vampirism. Crow is ordered to form a new team with archivist Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee). There is a map which reveals that the vampires searching the southwest for something important.
Montoya explains to Katrina what she is experiencing. She attempts suicide and bites him, but he hides the fact. Crow decides to pursue Valek without a team. Katrina is linked to Valek as he questions and kills a priest. Guiteau reveals that Valek is seeking an ancient relic—the Black Cross of Bersiers—and Guiteau is made part of the team. Karina’s link tells them that Valek has awakened seven more Masters. They find in a Spanish mission that Valek has slaughtered the monks and seized the cross. Valek intends to perform exorcism on himself, which will make him immune to sunlight. The team thinks there are thirty vampires holed up in an abandoned town With Guiteau as bait, they harpoon them and drag them into sunlight, but they are overwhelmed at sundown.
Crow is captured, Guiteau takes cover, Montoya and Katrina flee, but she transforms, bites Montoya, and joins Valek. Cardinal Alba shows up, revealing that he is Valek’s ally, wishing for immortality. The transformation ritual requires a priest and the crucifixion of a crusader, which is Jack. Guiteau kills Alba and threatens to kill himself to leave Valek without a priest. Montoya and Guiteau rescue Crow at sunrise and Crow impales Valek with the cross. Guiteau and Crow offer Montoya and Katrina a two-day head start.
The film was directed and scored by John Carpenter, based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakly. Carpenter considered ending his directing career after Escape from L.A. because it was no longer fun. But this story seemed like a Howard Hawks-style Western with vampires. The vampires were not Gothic and brooding; they were savage. He chose James Woods because he wanted his vampire-slayer to be as savage as the creatures themselves. Woods made a deal: He would do a scene once exactly as Carpenter wanted it and then improvise. It usually turned out better with the improvisations. Carpenter quit the production and was replaced by makeup artist Greg Nicotero for a few days until he came back. About 20 seconds of gore was cut for the censors. Carpenter’s music, as usual, was pounding and effective.
The film was a massive success in Japan, but nowhere else, and the reviews were not good. Steakley, who wrote the book, complained that Carpenter took his dialogue but not his plot. Strangely, Gene Siskel gave it a rave review. Bruce Campbell was Carpenter’s first choice for Montoya and Kurt Russell for Crow, but they could not participate. The plot was rather similar to that of Blade, and much of the vampire-related terms were identical to those used in Buffy the Vampire-Slayer. This is a gore-fest, like From Dusk till Dawn, but it’s a John Carpenter gore-fest instead of a Rodriguez/Tarantino gore-fest and deserves a bit more respect. But there’s no humor whatsoever.