Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Addiction (1995)

Abel Ferrara is a ballsy filmmaker. I don’t think there’s much to debate about there. When he made his feature film debut (non porno that is) with the infamous 1979 's The Driller Killer, it was obvious right from the start that this guy wasn’t going to hold anything back with his films, and subsequent films such as Ms. 45 and the notorious Bad Lieutenant proved just that. Without question the man is the epitome of an “independent filmmaker”. Fuck getting permits to shoot, just get a crew and go. That’s how he does it. No matter what your opinion is regarding his films (and people have had some strong ones over the years) you have to admire the gall he has. His films have a real gritty quality to them, a harsh realism that leaves a lasting impression long after the film has finished. More often than not there is much more lingering beneath the surface along with all the rawness that is inherit in his works making his films far from one dimensional. In 1995 he and his partner in crime, screenwriter and longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John returned to the horror genre, in an albeit drastically different way, and the result was The Addiction, one of the oddest, most unconventional, yet totally original vampire films in recent memory.

While walking home one night, New York philosophy major Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor) is accosted by a strange woman (Annabella Sciorra) who drags her down into a alley, bites her on the neck then coldly exclaims “You want to know what’s going to happen? Wait and see.” Kathleen has just been turned into a vampire, while she struggles at first to come to terms with her condition, she quickly adapts to her new lifestyle, seemingly embracing it, finding herself fully addicted to human blood and the newfound evil she discovers in herself, yet there is a strong feeling of guilt that remians lingering in her about the whole thing, and a chance encounter with a master vampire named Piena (Christopher Walken) leaves her reassessing her entire outlook on her nature while struggling to not be overtaken by her vampyric urges.

The Addiction is a weird movie, and the way it goes about accomplishing what it sets out to do will probably  make it unappealing to a good number of people. A pity, as I doubt said people have ever seen a vampire movie like this one. These isn’t your average vampire flick that’s for sure but it’s precisely it’s unique vision and fresh take on vampires that makes it work as well as it does. There are some familiar classic vampire traditions included here and there but for the most this film is  in a league of it’s own. The film is heavy with metaphor, the most obvious one being vampire = junkie, although in reality I’d hardly call that subtext as it’s more than blatant. Hell, remember what the title of the movie is! I know this isn’t the first film to allude to that but it’s never been done in such a direct way as it is here. Before Kathleen begins to bite, she extracts blood from people via syringe and shoots it up. The effect it is very much like heroin, she leans back with a look of relief/ecstasy on her face. Of course when she goes without, hunger sets in, a withdrawal mimicking the worst type of dopesick imaginable, writhing in agony, vomiting (Ferrara has Kathleen vomit blood which is a nice tough), the works. When feeding is discussed amongst vampires, it’s handled like a conversation involving two addicts. Drinking blood is referred to as a “fix”. One of the most interesting things about The Addiction and it’s vampires is the interaction they have with their victims. When Kathleen is first bit, the attacking vampire tells her to “Tell me to go away, say it with conviction”, and Kathleen does the same with her victims, as if  she’s giving them a chance. After she bites a fellow student that she’s lured to her apartment the student sobs and asks how could she have done that to her, Kathleen states in an emotionless manner “It was your decision”.

By making Kathleen a philosophy major, this gives the film license to muse upon various philosophical issues, quoting many of histories great thinkers using vampirism as a catalyst, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the film stands out, by having all of these theories used in the context of a vampire film. I’m not going to dissect every single idea the film puts out, but there are a few important ones that are front in center, and it’s kind of hard to discuss the film without bringing up a few on them. The film has a lot to say about the evils of humanity, more specifically that evil is inherent in all humans. Towards the end of the film Kathleen’s maker quotes ”We're not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil. Yeah. Now what choices do such people have? It's not like we have any options.” Throughout the film we hear voiceovers with Kathleen discussing this idea plus a variety of other topics that all correlate to the themes contained in the film. Whether or not St. John and Ferrara actually believe in the theories present in the film, or just thought they would make for interesting discussion, I’m not sure. This idea of evil being inherit in humanity leads to guilt, another topic that is discussed at length in the film. The guilt aspect also goes hand in hand with the drug addiction allegory. The “comedown” Kathleen feels after acting on her impulses is not unlike the self loathing an addict would feel after getting a fix, knowing it’s implications. Guilt also leads into  the classic Ferrara them of redemption and forgiveness, which in turn leads into the films very ambiguous ending which is open to interpretation to say the least.

Kathleen’s transformation into a full fledged violent bloodsucker does happen fairly quickly, yet at the same time it’s not rushed at all, which is great as we get to witness her character gradually come full circle. Lili Taylor is flat out amazing as Kathleen throwing herself into the role with abandon. One of her finest hours for sure. What impressed me the most about her was the physicality she brought to the role. When Kathleen’s predatory instincts take over the results are very visceral, and her withdrawal scenes are painful to watch, the way Taylor goes all out like she’s having a seizure, violently thrashing on the street and vomiting blood, and even almost physically attacking herself while trying to control the urge to get a fix. One of the best sequences in the film finds Kathleen ranting to her best friend Jean (played by Edie Falco) on the topic of guilt. It’s fascinating to watch as Taylor draws you in with her intense delivery and mannerisms, she could have been going off about the Easter bunny and it still would have been just as enticing. She’s that good, and more than credible. Moments after her guilt speech she delivers the great line “I’ll crush you like cardboard”. So awesome. Plus she looks sexy as hell in those sunglasses she wears throughout the film. Although his screen time is brief, Christopher Walken is unforgettable and the short time Kathleen spends with his character Piena is incredibly important in the grand scheme of things. Piena claims to have been “fasting” for 40 years, and has been able to control his urges for a “fix”. He tells Kathleen it’s possible with will power to control the urges and says it’s all about blending in, not letting yourself stick out. He can eat normal food and has a job. Yet he also knows just what he is, and because of that see’s himself as something that’s beyond the concept of good and evil. Walken is brilliant as always, making Piena a confident, somewhat arrogant, yet ultimately authoritative figure. You don’t want him to stop talking.

Ferrara opted to shoot The Addiction in stark black and white and it worked wonders. One of his biggest strengths behind the camera has always been able to capture this feeling of grit yet at the same time make it incredibly stylish and artful and that balance is on display perfectly here. The atmosphere you want in a vampire movie is present, but it’s of an rough, urban nature. Naturally this is a bleak and dark film, and Ferrara uses the black and white look to his utmost advantage. The scene in which Kathleen is bitten makes perfect use of the limited light, with both Taylor and Sciorra’s faces mostly obscured by silhouettes and the sound design used in the scene gives it an almost surreal, otherworldly quality. The film opens with images from the May Lai massacre during the Vietnam war and Kathleen’s voice over monologues are accompanied by stills from the Holocaust, which I’m sure will get many peoples panties in a bunch calling it cheap shock value. These images do serve a purpose, an extreme purpose I admit but remember what kind of film this is and the context in which they were used. Of course leave it to Ferrara to stage an ultra violent finale wherein Kathleen throws a party in celebration of her getting her PHD, inviting all her new vampire cohorts to feast on the poor unsuspecting partygoers, a prime example of his ability to create highly stylized violence. The aftermath, or the “overdose” as it’s been called is another scene shot in a nightmarish/surrealist fashion, with Kathleen walking gingerly down the streets of New York City drenched in blood. Ferrara crafts the scene in a way to put the viewer in the same kind of daze Kathleen is experiencing. Piling on to the already harsh urban environment the soundtrack is comprised of some pretty bouncing hip hop tunes, including a great use of Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High”.

Christopher Walken is a Ferrara regular, having starred in one of the directors most well known films King of New York and also starring in Ferrara’s incredibly depressing gangster film The Funeral which was shot back to back with The Addiction and also features Annabella Sciorra. He would go on to star in the cyberpunk tinged New Rose Hotel the following year alongside Willem Dafoe (who has become Ferrara’s muse in recent years) and Asia Argento. A fun fact about The Addiction, along with Sciorra and Edie Falco, keep an eye out for Michael Imperioli who makes a brief appearance as one of those guys who hands out “God Loves You” pamphlets on the street. That’s three Soprano’s stars in the same movie 4 years before the series premiered. Always thought that was pretty cool. The Addiction isn't for everyone (although the same could probably be said about the majority of Ferrara’s output) and it does have it’s fair share of detractors who slag it off as pretentious. There’s a lot too a film like this. It’s fairly short at 82 minutes but a lot of ground gets covered an taking it all at face value will probably give off the wrong impressions. If your looking for the tried and true “classic” vampire, you won’t find it here. If your looking for sappy, romantic vampires stay as far away as possible. However, if you are looking for a completely original take on vampires and willing to go in with an open mind, The Addiction is perfect, and it’s also a shining example of how ridiculously talented an actress Lili Taylor is. Another thing, it amazes me that this movie is 17 years old and it STILL doesn’t have an “official” DVD release in America. I’m calling shenanigans. This film is prime for a Criterion release, but I’m not holding my breath. Now tell me to go away.

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