Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE ADDICTION (1995)

Nearly three quarters of a century after Nosferatu, directors still found ways to tell vampire stories in stark black and white -- visually, if not morally. Abel Ferrara was just past the peak of the notoriety earned by The Bad Lieutenant when he directed this philosophical vampire film in 1995. Sixteen years later, my friend Wendigo is just seeing it for the first time. He says he simply lacked opportunities; he was unable to find it available for rental at local stores, and back in the day it was too expensive to risk a purchase. He'd heard good words about it and was aware of the obvious analogy between vampirism and drug use, but it wasn't until he finally saw it that he appreciated how forcefully the analogy was stated. On the other hand, it took him by surprise to learn that the movie wasn't in color. It was actually a pleasant surprise, since horror always benefits from shadows. Monochrome also tones down the artificiality of movie blood, in his opinion; black blood more purely represents blood, he argues, than the usual red stuff, and blood is black at night. Black blood is horrific without being disgusting or, to go to the opposite extreme, pretty. It becomes something of a suggestive shadow itself.

Black and white also seems right for a film preoccupied with concepts of evil and guilt. Nicholas St. John's script deals with NYU doctoral candidate Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), whose philosophy dissertation addresses issues of individual and collective guilt. We first see her watching a slideshow on the My Lai Massacre and complaining that not enough people were held accountable for American atrocities against the Vietnamese. A similar slideshow on the Nazi death camps reinforces her sense of collective if not universal guilt for mankind's crimes against itself. Her moral indignation grows predatory after she's accosted by a strange woman (Annabella Sciorra) who bites her in the neck without showing any obvious fangs. Pinning her against a wall, the woman challenges her to tell her to leave, but Kathleen can't do it. Instead, leaving Kathleen to bleed, the stranger hints teasingly at what will happen later.

After undergoing the worst ER care ever, a still-bloodstained and ill-bandaged Kathleen grows ill and loses her appetite. Doctors call it anemia but once she starts vomiting blood Kathleen herself surmises that it's something worse. Acting on a strange impulse, she takes a syringe to a homeless man passed out on the sidewalk, draws a small quantity of blood, takes it home and shoots herself up with it. From then on, she's a new woman, increasingly contemptuous toward academia and increasingly ruthless about luring people from colleagues to gangbangers off the mean streets into victimhood. She adopts the other woman's spiel, daring victims to tell her to go in an intriguing reversal of the usual need to be invited in, as if their not being able to order her away makes their fates their fault.

Eventually she tries her spiel on the wrong man, one who spits it right back at her before dragging her to his place. This is Peina (Christopher Walken), who tells Kathleen that she's "nothing" because she's now controlled entirely by her appetites. Peina, meanwhile, has been "fasting" for years, though that doesn't stop him from snacking on Kathleen's blood. For all we know, that's how Peina gets by, preying on vampires so he can then pass himself as human. But we'll let him explain himself.

Apparently learning nothing from Peina, Kathleen continues to kill people, eventually building up superhuman strength and a little coven to unleash on professors and fellow students at a party celebrating her doctorate. Oddly, her original attacker also shows up; it seems like the film is missing a scene in which Kathleen meets her again, leaving us to wonder how she made contact with the stranger (called "Casanova" in the credits), or if the woman somehow found her way to the death orgy on her own. In any event, Kathleen "overdoses" on blood and goes stumbling out into the street to writhe about until bystanders call for help. Hospitalized and demoralized (perhaps by a crucifix on the wall of her room), she decides to end it Let The Right One In style (perhaps inspiring the novel's author) by having a nurse open her blinds at sunrise. But just before the beams reach her, Casanova appears to close the blinds and mock her with theology. Kathleen gets a second try, however, when a priest comes to visit. Will a consecrated host in her mouth do the trick? It depends on how you interpret the film's final scene, when Kathleen visits her own grave....

Wendigo feels that The Addiction lived up to its title. The analogy of vampire and junky is often alluded to in popular fiction, movies and TV, but Ferrara's film really plumbs the depths, portraying its vampire as an addictive (or addicted) personality in various stages of delirium, degeneracy and wretchedness. Wendigo has no problem with making vampirism a metaphor with addiction, since the folkloric vampire really exists for no reason but to feed on what it needs. The vampire, presumably, thinks only of more blood the way the junky thinks only of the next fix. That's not the way many popular vampires are portrayed today -- though there are exceptions like Kim Harrison's novels. While Wendigo welcomes variations on the vampire theme that don't emphasize the addiction angle, he worries that ignoring it often means missing opportunities for making characters richer and deeper. Something is arguably lost when vampires are reduced to cool immortals with odd drinking habits, though some things might be gained as well.

At the same time, Wendigo agrees with my view that the junky metaphor is only part of The Addiction's agenda. The script really insists on taking philosophical positions that have little apparent relevance to drug addiction, but Kathleen's obsession with evil and punishment is arguably another kind of addiction. In the most sweeping terms, addiction is just a sub-category of evil, and Kathleen succumbs to it just as she seems to have convinced herself that mankind as a whole is evil. Inevitably that means she's evil as well, maybe even before she was bitten, and that belief empowers her to do evil unto others, presumably on the premise that we all have it coming. But the film appears to argue that to presume evil's absolute sway is to give in to evil. As Walken's well-adjusted vampire puts it, if you think you're a vampire you'll act like a vampire, when you're really nothing.

At the same time, Wendigo noticed that the more evil Kathleen becomes, the more vulnerable she becomes in time-honored style to religious symbols. Mindlessly accepting a tract from a typical streetcorner evangelist, she's driven berserk by it in her apartment, thrashing about on the floor, tearing at her clothes and refusing to "submit." Later, in the hospital, the crucifix on the wall arguably induces her to try to destroy herself. What happens after is kept ambiguous. She accepts a communion wafer from the priest, and the next thing we see is her grave. The next thing we see after that is Kathleen placing a flower on the grave, and the last thing we hear is her voiceover remarking that self-realization is self-annihilation. Wendigo observes that this outdoor cemetery scene is the most brightly-lit scene in the picture, which suggests something unearthly. You could assume that she faked her death somehow and is ready to move on in wiser fashion. But we could also be seeing a ghost. Either way, her submission to the priest suggests that, as far as Ferrara and St. John were concerned, the only way out of the spiral of evil is through Grace, through the acceptance of a revealed salvation and the divine forgiveness of the sins that controlled Kathleen's imagination. This reading would make The Addiction a more seriously religious film than the multitude of movies in which the cross is a Get Out of Bite Free card. For the filmmakers, surrendering to grace is a better solution than Peina's somewhat hypocritical, egotistical approach, which only results in him exploiting a weaker vampire while boasting of his moral superiority. What that means in terms of actual drug addiction we leave to the specialists.

Wendigo considers The Addiction one of the most intelligent vampire films he's seen in some time, and a triumph of style as well. It might not be the best film to recommend to horror buffs, though it has its bloody and brutal moments, but Wendigo would recommend it to anyone who likes serious, philosophical films of any genre.


Joseph B. said...

As a huge fan of Ferrera, I do like this movie and wish it would get an official DVD release. And if you haven't seen Michael Almeredya's "Nadja", check it out for more arty black and white vampire stuff. The 90's indies had a few great grungy vamp flicks!

Samuel Wilson said...

Joseph: As it happens, I brought Nadja up while we were watching this one, and Wendigo said he hadn't managed to see that, either. I've now added it to my Netflix queue, so expect to see a review soon.