USA | 1995 | directed by Abel Ferrara
Logline: After a brilliant philosophy student is accosted and bitten on the neck by a strange woman she struggles to understand the ethical complications of her affliction with the bloodlust of the addiction.
This is the vampire tale for the intellectually-anemic; soul food for the hungry undead. An existential study of vampirism juxtaposed against the social degradation and moral corruption of humanity. This is a primal headfuck; horror turned on its head to question just what it is that makes humans so evil … It seems we commit evil because we are evil.
Abel Ferrara has had a checkered career; for every great movie there have been miscarriages and interminable diatribes. The Addiction stands up with a clutch of intense and lingering studies of violence and corruption, both moral and physical; Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance), The King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Funeral. These are Ferrara’s best works. The Addiction, however, is his most abstract and poetic, both in visual style and thematic weight.
Kathy Conklin (Lily Taylor in a startling, frightening performance) is completing her doctorate at New York University. She has been attending lectures and viewing harrowing footage of atrocities in the Vietnam War and the Holocaust. She works diligently on her dissertation and discusses philosophy with her colleague Jean (Edie Falco). When glamourous Casanova (Annabella Sciorra) pulls her down under the sidewalk to give her a vampire’s kiss her whole world is turned upside-down and inside-out.
Kathy is both horrified and fascinated by what she’s become. She’s a vampire contradiction; no fangs, no transformation into a bat, no sleeping in a coffin, yet sunlight hurts her eyes, her strength is enhanced when she’s well-fed, and she can’t commit suicide. She is forced to murder in order to drink the blood she craves. This of course challenges everything she has learned about humanity.
The Addiction is metaphor. We are essentially creatures of desire, capable of transgressing will and restraint and resorting to base acts of rape, murder and possession; we will continue to consume with greed and pillage without remorse regardless of what history has taught us. The screenplay by Nicolas St. John (Ferrara’s long-time collaborator) is a brilliant treatise; verbose, yet minimal, dense, yet spare. The movie is littered with anachronism and rhetoric, irony and reflection (although Kathy soon covers all her mirrors).
Ferrara has deliberately shot the movie in grainy black and white to tone down the sensationalist aspect of vampirism: the blood, yet he heightens the xenophobic element, the racial undertones. Many of Ferrara’s movies deal specifically with religious and social constraint and inner, spiritual emancipation. Just like another hardened New Yorker, Martin Scorsese, Ferrara is compelled and tortured by his own Catholic guilt. It is this potent element which embraces Kathy and provides the narrative with its supernatural denouement.
Christopher Walken plays Peina, whom Kathy tries unsuccessfully to lure for food. It turns out he is one in the same, although he’d beg to differ. He has been fasting for four years, a wise vampire, ready to dispel any confusion Kathy is feeling, keen for her to suffer until she comprehends exactly what she is and what her addiction means. She tries to slit her wrist, and Peina simply informs her, “You can’t kill what’s already dead.” He’s only on-screen for ten or so minutes, but Walken commands with such disquieting authority, it’s up with his very best performances.
The play of light and shadow on the streets and inside the architecture of New York is manipulated and used to both subtle and powerful effect. This is the most ghastly and beautiful vampire movie since Murnau’s German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. A rare beast.
“In the end, we stand before the light and our true nature is revealed. Self-revelation is annhilation of self.” (Kathleen Conklin)