Abel Ferrara made The Addiction between Body Snatchers and The Funeral (there's also Dangerous Games, the Harvey Keitel / Madonna movie that most of us didn't see in there as well), the former I have not seen and the latter I have. It was interesting to see Ferrara making another movie set in contemporary New York, especially following Ms. 45, which is a "New York at the cusp of the 80s" and King of New York, the equivalent for the 1990s. This is more of the New York wedged between the end of the grunge era and the beginning of the Wu Tang dynasty. At least, that would have been the case if The Addiction came out in 1994 (the trademark on the credits) and not 1995 (released alongside The Funeral); Maybe Ferrara wanted to draw a sharper contrast to Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn.
Now if you're wondering if the title means we're going into metaphorical territory here, don't. Remember when I said in the Ms. 45 review that Ferrara likes to mix the "trashy with arthouse sensibilities"? Little did I know that the "subtext" in The Addiction was literally just going to be the text, but it's pretty clear the moment you see Kathleen use a syringe to draw blood from a sleeping transient and then inject it into her own veins. I guess I should have known it was coming sooner than that, because Cypress Hill's "I Want to Get High" is in the soundtrack almost immediately (the byproduct, I think, of executive producer Russell Simmons, whose name appears in the opening credits before Ferrara's or screenwriter Nicholas St. John's). It also plays later in the film, just in case you forgot - she wants to get high. So high.
It turns out that drug addiction is only partially what Ferrara and St. John are going for with The Addiction: I haven't mentioned yet that Kathleen is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of New York (that's what it says...), which kind of explains the fact that the film opens with a slideshow of atrocities committed in Vietnam and repeatedly comes back to a Holocaust exhibit in New York City, often juxtaposed with Kathleen finding new victims. The issue of how humans can be so, well, inhuman, dovetails into her research, or at least with making the allusions to philosophy more explicit. It's one thing to address a character who moves beyond good and evil, but it might be a little too on the nose for her professor (Paul Calderon) to assign Nietzsche in the class she's taking.
Which is not to say I'm being too critical of The Addiction, but there's not much in the way of subtlety in the film. For some, the breaking point might be when Peina (Christopher Walken) shows up, and turns Kathleen's superiority complex on its ear. She's been prone to taking people, students, guys who leer at her on the street, and physically imposing her will on them (see, the will to power? get it?) while taunting them to "ask me to leave," which she never does. One night, she sneaks up behind Peina, who easily overtakes her and brings her up to his apartment. He's much older than she is and has a better grasp on "the addiction" (yes, that's what they call it in the movie). He's even learned to control it, to mask it, and to "pass" for human. He tells her she's "nothing" and suggests she reads Naked Lunch because "Burroughs really captures what it's like not to have a face." To some, his monologues are going to be the tipping point between "trashy arthouse" and "pretentious," but Peina's role in the overall narrative is a small one.
The truth is that I can't really defend the philosophical or (later) religious overtones* in The Addiction - they are what they are, and barely disguised as anything else. If you aren't as familiar with Kathleen's field of study as I am, it might not be so apparent that this is a Philosophy 101 level** depiction of the vampire as Übermensch. The good news is that you can also enjoy it as an interesting take on the increasingly crowded genre of vampire movies. It's somewhere between Tony Scott's The Hunger and Chan-Wook Park's Thirst in its ambitions, but Ferrara's low-fi techniques give The Addiction a unique feel. Ferrara shot the film in twenty days, in black and white, and makes the best of chiaroscuro lighting (the criss-cross pattern on Casanova's face during the first attack is particularly striking).
Lili Taylor is very good as Kathleen, who goes on a more interesting arc than I was expecting from the middle of the film. In a way, there are parallels to the protagonist of Ms. 45 - both go from positions of relative innocence (as innocent as a Ph.D. Philosophy candidate can be, anyway) to victims to taking control of their new-found stature, and eventually become indiscriminate killers. There's a scene late in the film when we realize that Kathleen has not simply been abandoning her victims that helps shift the film a bit, and leads to one of the bloodier vampire attacks this side of 30 Days of Night. Walken and Calderon are asked to carry most of the leaden dialogue about the nature of being that we maybe didn't need. I'm still on the fence about that, because even for 1994/5 this is a more interesting approach to vampires, and while not exactly novel (and definitely not subtle), it is refreshing considering what passes for bloodsuckers these days.
By and large, The Addiction is Taylor's movie, but there are a few other characters that make an impression: Edie Falco comes in and out of the story as Jean, Kathleen's fellow PhD colleague. Fredro Starr (of Onyx fame, another group on the soundtrack) has a few memorable scenes as Black, who tries to pick up Kathleen early in the film and regrets it later. Kathryn Erbe (later of Oz and Stir of Echoes) is an anthropology student that Kathleen targets in the library, and the conversation they have after biting / being bitten is the first insight into Conklin's new outlook on life. While he's listed in the main credits, don't expect to see Michael Imperioli for very much in the film: he has one scene as a missionary, although his refusal to follow Kathleen inside is a bit of foreshadowing I didn't necessarily see coming.
In fact, the ending in general helps The Addiction overcome some of the more obvious allegories of the film, even if the last shot is about as understated as a Slayer album (sorry, no Slayer on the soundtrack, but you do see a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt early in the film). If you don't mind mixing your vampires with the revelation that "self awareness is the annihilation of self" and enjoy an atmospheric, gritty vampire story, you'll probably enjoy The Addiction. It's also an interesting companion piece to Ms. 45 and King of New York as a continued exploration of different sections of New York over time (fashion, crime, education), so on that level Ferrara succeeds. And let's be honest, it's a hell of a lot better than Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn. Low hanging fruit, I know, but I'm still debating the relative merits of The Addiction. On one hand, I liked the execution visually, and the direction of the story was compelling, but on the other hand, it was like listening to a first year philosophy major lecture me about the nature of good and evil. It's a toss-up for now.
* Late in the film, there are some direct quotes from R.C. Sproul, which echo a lot of early Calvinist writings about the nature of man and its inability to rise above sin on Earth. It's a little odd, if only because the end of the film is heavy on Catholic imagery, and seems to suggest the opposite - salvation is possible, or at least forgiveness.
**Is Nietzsche philosophy 101? I came to him from another direction, in a religious studies class about "Masters of Suspicion," but I would gather most philosophy majors know Beyond Good and Evil, if not the rest.