Black & White Bloodsuckers
Abel Ferarra’s latest film The Addiction is the third black & white vampire movie to be released (that I’ve seen) in 1995. All three are low budget East coast productions, all three are about female vampires, and all three have ironically been publicized as “a different kind of vampire tale”. I have no idea what caused this sudden wave of monochromatic nosferatresses – when a whole crop of, say, Christopher Columbus biopics comes out of Hollywood, it’s usually because all the big studios read the same script at once, rejected it, then swiped the idea. But that’s not the case with these smaller productions. It may just be because vampires are the hot monster topic of the past 10 years. Much more popular than killer mutant apes – which is why Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With the Vampire were big hits at the box office while Congo got dissed. Vampires are everywhere you look these days, a whole subculture. I remember a young woman telling me about her comic-book a few years ago, which was all about rock star vampires. When I made a reference to Anne Rice, she said she’d never heard of her. Maybe she was lying, but it could well be that the subject is so pervasive that similar ideas are bound to crop up.
All I know is that there’ll be a classic triple feature at every Gothic Video Festival for the next few years.
The first bat out of the bag was The Girl With Hungry Eyes (not to be confused with William Rotsler’s 1960s sleazefest). This stylishly-lensed story hailed from well known Gothic capitol, Miami, and was about how a girl owned a ritzy hotel in the ’30s, committed suicide in one of the rooms, then returned as a vampire/photo model in the ’90s. There seems to be some connection between her blood drinking and the restoration of the hotel, as if the spirit of the hotel was merged with her own, but the movie never explains how. It also doesn’t explain why she didn’t return earlier, before the hotel got in such a rundown condition, and why she hooks up with a lowlife Cuban pin-up photographer.
The second release, Nadja, was much more successful, perhaps because the filmmakers understand that audiences like to be entertained at the theater. Nadja is an outright (and unauthorized) remake of Universal’s 1936 classic Dracula’s Daughter. The plot concerns the exploits of the spawn of old Drac and an unlucky peasant girl, who moves to New York City to get away from her overbearing father. After Papa gets staked by a Van Helsing (in an amusingly eccentric performance by Peter Fonda), Nadja tries to break her curse of bloodlust. When she fails, she instead tries to seduce a companion for herself, at which point Fonda and his nephew (the victim’s hubby) go to the rescue. The constantly changing atmosphere – sometimes things are played straight, sometimes darkly comic – keeps the pace lively. This oddball entry is definitely worth checking out. (One sore point: at the screening I attended, the film was occasionally gauzy and out of focus. At first I thought it may have been intentional – , but later suspected an inattentive projectionist. I’ve yet to determine which is the case, but it sure was annoying.)
The third and best of this terror trilogy has Ferrara once again making the most of his favorite crumbling NYC locations. Lili Taylor stars as a post-graduate student trying to finish her thesis, thereby doing her part to meet this county’s growing need for Doctors of Philosophy. One night, a strange woman drags her into an alley and bites her on the neck. Afterwards, she feels ill and can’t abide much sunlight. Increasingly, food loses any meaning for her, while people start to look like food. Craving blood, she prowls the streets looking for victims to steal it from – first by using a syringe on derelicts, later by ever more savage attacks with her teeth. An older vampire (Christopher Walken, who now has a growing following for his frequent appearances in cult and horror films), gives her some refuge and teaches her how to survive and control her addiction – at least until she gets her degree.
Many of Ferrara’s films play with the idea of victims who become predators, often paying a high price for the exchange. In Driller Killer, a loser becomes a serial killer. In Ms. 45, a mute rape victim gets her hands on her attacker’s gun and starts hunting men. In Body Snatchers, your closest, safest friend could become a deadly alien enemy. The Addiction presents his most focused examination of the subject to date. Though Taylor is afflicted with vampirism, blood is not necessarily what she craves – it could have been cocaine, heroine, nicotine, caffeine, fishing, shopping, or collecting baseball cards. Ferrara is really using an extreme format to deal with the subject of addiction as a whole – how the things that make us feel good and in control can take control of us, and make us feel worse than we’ve ever imagined.
Taylor begins the film by expressing passionate outrage at wartime atrocities. When her addiction forces her to become a predator herself, she rationalizes it by blaming the victim’s vulnerability. When a victim puts up some resistance, she attacks anyway, and switches to a new rationalization. Walken’s character becomes her mentor in Blood Anonymous, teaching her to take control of her “problem”. It works, but it turns out that it’s not just the blood she craves.
The university setting works a touch of dark comedy into the proceedings. Screenwriter Nicholas St. John has given Taylor and her companions pages and pages of brain-itching dialogue full of long-haired literary reference and kaleidoscoping philosophical ranting while they wander through grim hallways and threatening streets out of Sartre’s worst nightmares. Most of it sails right over the heads of the audience – at least I hope it does – and it often threatens to turn the whole wretched affair into Alice’s mad tea party.
Despite the more impressive pedigrees of all involved, the photography here is weaker than in our other two features. Although it achieves the intended levels of grim menace and oppressive claustrophobia, the black and white images are often so gloomy that it becomes difficult to see anything at all. This may be the rare case of a b/w film that would have benefited from a little color, especially during the horrific, blood-drenched climax. Scenes of vampires wiping black blood from their chins distracted me with thoughts of yummy chocolate syrup (which was no doubt what was really used).
While all of Ferrara’s films contain worthwhile elements, his last few features were sorely lacking in one way or another. Body Snatchers leaned toward the predictably commercial, while The Bad Lieutenant was overlong and dreadfully self-indulgent. The Addiction stands up as a movie that rarely loses its grip – a triumph for the talented Taylor and a solid win for Ferrara. Perhaps, as the film suggests, redemption is available for all of us.