Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made New York-centric films with a grindhouse flavor and an aspiration to artistry. In Ms. 45 (1981), he took on the rape-revenge film; with Bad Lieutenant (1992), he made his own Scorsese-esque crime drama. Similarly, The Addiction (1995) is a one-of-a-kind vampire movie, marrying urban realism, graphic horror, and several films’ worth of existentialist banter. Although the latter attribute occasionally renders the film inaccessible, it also grants the characters’ neck-biting intrigues an unexpected gravity while making Ferrara’s serious cinematic intentions very clear. This is The Hunger for the smart set.
I Shot Andy Warhol star Lili Taylor plays Kathy, who’s en route to getting her Ph.D. in philosophy when a late-night run-in with a mysterious seductress (Annabella Sciorra) leaves a bloody gash on her neck and spurs a metamorphosis from mousy student to loud-mouthed blood junkie. In a series of hypodermic-wielding encounters, Kathy’s newfound aggression (coupled with severe photosensitivity) is spreads like a virus to her friends, professors, and even the strangers who harass her on the street. Late in the film, she meets an elder vampire named Peina, played with typical panache by Christopher Walken, who teaches her to control her addiction while quoting William S. Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire. The ending that follows is puzzling but weirdly suggestive, as orgiastic indulgence and Catholic guilt come into play.
The Addiction is shot in high-contrast black and white, bringing expressionistic shadows in conflict with a tendency toward naturalism, especially as Ferrara’s camera prowls the classrooms and hallways of NYU. Taylor gives a stand-out performance as a woman rotting from the inside out, and it’s matched by her poetically hard-boiled voiceover. When she enters a university library, for example, she growls, “The smell here’s worse than a charnel house.” (Working in a college library, I know how she feels.) These lurid monologues color our perceptions of Ferrara’s New York like the saxophones in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, drawing us deep into Kathy’s dissipation. And Walken, as usual, is the voice of demented authority, cavorting around Kathy’s exhausted body with his slicked-back hair and daffy energy. He’s only in one scene, but he casts a long shadow across the preceding film.
At times, The Addiction teeters dangerously close to being unforgivably pretentious; it’s packed wall-to-wall with philosophical jargon, grandiose statements about hell and morality, and vampiric metaphors for sex, drugs, and genocide. But the film’s saved by its (and Taylor’s) sheer conviction that something intelligent and thought-out is being said. Even when the film’s open-ended chronology and its abstract conception of vampirism threaten to make the plot totally incomprehensible, you can hold onto Ferrara’s sincere interest in spiritual redemption and moral culpability. In the end, this thematic integrity, when brought out through Taylor’s uncompromising performance, blasts away any doubts: This is a totally different species of vampire movie.