Vampires go for their Ph.D.s in “The Addiction,” a heady horror show in both senses of the word. Abel Ferrara’s very maverick entry in the never-dead genre is dramatically surprising, stylishly made in black-and-white and very well acted, especially by Lili Taylor in the leading role. It is also quite intellectual in its principal appeal, with some indigestible elements that prevent the film from entirely cohering. Bound to attract critical support from some quarters, this distinctive riff on familiar themes could settle in as a midnighter or a favorite in hip exclusive urban venues, but it’s hard to imagine a sizable public exhibiting a taste for this offering’s rather esoteric flavors.
Following closely in the wake of Michael Almereyda’s “Nadja,””The Addiction” is the second black-and-white low-budgeter about a young female vampire in contemporary New York to be made of late, and an intriguing sub-genre it is.
“Nadja,” which premiered in Toronto last year and was also seen at Sundance, is softer and more sensual, while Ferrara’s work is harsher, more rigorous and replete with philosophical and religious overtones that resonate in ways that some will find pretentious and others will feel make a good fit with vampire lore.
Pic dives off the board right into the deep end as Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), a doctoral candidate in philosophy at NYU, is pursued and attacked in a dark alley by a fierce woman who looks like a hooker (Annabella Sciorra). Result is two bloody holes in her neck, followed by agonizing pain and an inability to eat.
Once she’s passed through to the other side, Kathleen commences her nocturnal rounds. Unlike Brad Pitt in “Interview With the Vampire,” who launched his vampiric career by timidly feasting on animals, Kathleen rather startlingly draws blood from a nodded-out derelict and then injects it into her own veins, thereby initiating the film’s parallel of vampirism with drug addiction.
As Kathleen continues to prowl the East Village for sustenance, it becomes clear that Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John are after even bigger thematic game.
Punctuating the action with glimpses of such atrocities as the Holocaust, the My Lai massacre and other historical mass slaughters, and loading up the dialogue with references to Nietzsche, Heidegger and other philosophers, filmmakers equate vampirism with the imposition of one’s will on the human race.
Raising this line of inquiry to another level is a fellow vampire (Christopher Walken) who is fond of quoting “Beyond Good and Evil” and claims to Kathleen that, through the resolute exercise of will, he is able to control his “addiction”– to fast and go without a blood fix for very long periods of time.
Trying to follow his example sends Kathleen into heavy withdrawal, but she soon throws herself into her studies with renewed vigor. Finally, to celebrate winning her degree, she throws a fancy reception that shockingly turns into a bloody massacre, with her previous victims, now undead, mercilessly attacking all the humans in attendance.
Film climaxes with a priest ironically offering a vampire eternal life and follows that with a somewhat confusing ending of transcendence that seems to suggest the triumph of the will.
For anyone who has seen numerous vampire films and is familiar with the generally accepted rules of vampirism as laid out by Anne Rice and others, “The Addiction” can be disorienting because it seems to follow guidelines of its own.
Never in memory has a screen vampire actually fed on another vampire, for instance. It also seems to be the case here that victims never die, but rather automatically become vampires themselves, although this is never spelled out explicitly.
Thorough absorption in what the filmmakers are up to is also suspended at times due to the intermittent and sometimes crude ways the intellectual elements are plugged into the drama.
Even when the narrative road turns bumpy, what holds the picture together is Taylor, who once again proves herself to be one of the most accomplished, risk-taking young actresses in films today. Stalking around in shades much of the time, Taylor makes palpable her character’s intense suffering at the outset as well as, later on, her superhuman strength and resolve.
A terrific vampire, Walken is on all too briefly, while others in the cast score well in relatively short appearances.
Ken Kelsch’s monochrome lensing is grittily moody and utterly appropriate to the day/night, human/undead, good/evil dichotomies set up by the story. Nocturnal Gotham settings are well-used to menacing effect.