Halloween Every Day (for a month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 3: The Addiction (1995).
Abel Ferrara’s vampire film is a strange viewing experience, compelling and frustrating in equal measure. With its gloomy urban set pieces, stark black-and-white photography, hip-hop soundtrack, and a cast of rhetoric-spouting intellectuals, The Addiction feels like Bram Stoker by way of Noah Baumbach. Lili Taylor (one of my all-time favorites) stars as Kathleen Conklin, a graduate student who, early in the film, is attacked and bitten by a mysterious stranger. From that point onward the movie plays like a fever dream, riding the physical and emotional extremes of Kathleen’s transformation from likable Ph. D. candidate to insufferable narcissist/monster. For the most part, the film succeeds wildly. The story deftly appropriates vampire lore as an allegory for all manner of modern addictive behaviors. Subtle similarities between heroin addiction and vampirism are cleverly drawn: both require the penetration of flesh and an exchange of bodily fluids that leads to an altered or euphoric state in the user (addict) or the attacker (vampire). Of course, there is also an obvious sexual metaphor attached both to heroin addiction and vampirism, one that is also made manifest (and not by coincidence) through physical penetration and fluid exchange—a process that requires the use of phallic instruments (hypodermic needles for addicts) or dental anatomy (teeth or fangs for vampires) in order to attain completion. Okay, maybe some of this stuff isn’t so subtle, after all. But it is still immensely effective.
Kathleen’s academic pursuits are unpacked in a creative, thought-provoking manner that simultaneously illustrates her evolution as a killer and her de-evolution as a humanitarian. For example, early conversations between Kathleen and a classmate/friend named Jean (played by Edie Falco) suggest that the intense study of war atrocities has enhanced and sharpened Kathleen’s innate regard for the whole of humanity; she feels very deeply for those who have been victimized. However, after she is attacked and begins to change, it becomes apparent that the continued study of war atrocities has splintered Kathleen’s natural capacity for empathy or sympathy, perhaps even making her a more proficient predator. This portrayal of Good and Evil as two sides of the same coin is a recurring theme in The Addiction: Kathleen, the student of particularly violent atrocities, is inherently good. But when an atrocity is inflicted upon her, she steadily becomes more capable of evil. By becoming a vampire, Kathleen quite literally loses her humanity. In turn, vampires need to take human lives (or commit atrocities, if you will) in order to survive. And the continued survival of a vampire depends on the perversion of the natural world (or the perversion of all things Good). In other words, the sun nourishes human life but inflicts fiery death upon a vampire, who, unlike most of the natural world, thrives in the dark. (By the way, this ever-raging thematic battle between the forces of light and dark is also represented visually in the film’s the use of black-and-white photography.)
In the spirit of complete honesty and fairness, I will say that this film, though mostly excellent, does come with a ready supply of nits to be picked. By far my biggest problem with this movie is the dialogue. Consider a scene in a coffee house between Kathleen and one of her professors. After a prolonged silence, the professor asks if something is wrong. This is her response: “Silence has two aspects. One according to Sartre, the other to Max Picard. Why don’t you guess why I’m quiet?” The whole movie is like that—snotty, judgmental commentary delivered in disinterested monotone voices by pale, sunglass-clad self-proclaimed intellectuals. And that includes all of the vampires. Be prepared for a frenetic tirade performed by a vamped-out Christopher Walken, in which the myriad virtues to be found for newly transformed vampires within the drug-addled pages of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch are extolled with the subtlety of a coked-up giraffe in church. It’s as if the film is saying: “Here’s an intelligent idea—let’s jam it into the movie any way we possibly can, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it isn’t germane to the story, even if we have to use a tube of Vaseline and a sledgehammer to make it fit!”
Which brings me to another minor but annoying flaw on display in The Addiction: the characters constantly quote other people to make their own points. Whenever I see this in a movie or a TV show I’m reminded of something a creative writing professor of mine once said: “Simply quoting intelligent people does not mean that your characters are intelligent people.” She was right, and the characters in The Addiction spend way too much time playing the quotation game.
But other than these mostly forgivable quibbles, this is a fascinating, exciting, challenging movie that provides a truly unique filmic experience for the viewer. While this might not be what most casual movie fans and traditional vampire enthusiasts are looking for in a horror film, it is exactly what more discerning fans have been waiting for—a horror movie that is defined by substance rather than a need to pander to modern popular sensibilities. (For what it’s worth, casual fans who stick it out all the way to the end will have their patience rewarded with one of the greatest full-blown horror scenes of the ’90s.)