Blood is the Drug, the Drug is Blood

Three vampire films with addiction as a central theme.

The Addiction (1995)

The underrated Lili Taylor is New York philosophy student Kathleen Conklin, whose view on man’s inhumanity to man gets a quantum shift when she is dragged into an alley and bitten by a vampire. Resistant at first, she soon succumbs and finds herself infecting others, before inviting all her university professors and colleagues to a party at which they become the main bill of fare. Shot in black and white, like the best vampire films Abel Ferrarar’s opus is about human beings. The element of choice is central here – to prevent the vampire’s attack on her all Taylor has to do is tell it no, but fear and confusion prevent her doing so. The moral seems to be that we allow evil to exist and flourish through our simple refusal to forcefully reject it, and so we become collaborators, as Taylor does, feeding our addiction, whether it be the need for cruelty or simply the rush we get from the feeling of moral superiority witnessing its actions gives us. It is possible to live ‘ethically’ as a vampire, to affect a compromise between the need for blood and the desire not to hurt, as exemplified by Peina (another superb performance from Christopher Walken, one of my favourite actors), but such a condition is rare. Only eighty minutes long, this film packs a powerful punch, with some fine performances and the black and white giving it all a dreamlike clarity, culminating in the frenzied and orgiastic feast at which the predator in all of us is given free rein.

Martin (1977)

George A. Romero’s solitary entry in the vampire subgenre, and every bit as original as his zombie films. John Amplas is the eponymous Martin, who comes from the old country to live with his elderly cousin Cuda and daughter Christina. Cuda believes the boy to be a vampire, and treats him accordingly, with crosses hung throughout the house and warnings that he will be staked if he crosses the line, all of which Christina reacts to with amazement, having no time for superstition or talk of the family curse. But Martin himself admits to being an eighty five year old vampire, and in the film’s opening scenes we witness him drugging a woman, stripping her naked and then drinking her blood, albeit after cutting her wrists to suggest suicide, rather than biting her neck. He repeats this pattern throughout the film. The combination of female victims, nudity and blood drinking all suggest a highly evolved sexual fetish, one related to vampirism. Inside Martin’s head a film is playing out, a black and white vampire flick of which he is the hero, seducing beautiful women and chased by a torch bearing mob; using the handle Count he phones a radio talk show to tell them about his exploits. Is Martin actually a vampire? It’s hard to say, though certainly he himself believes so, even if it’s only the result of being told he’s cursed so often that it’s become the truth for him. The real thrust of the film relates to how vampirism rubs up against the modern world. While Cuda believes, for Christina vampires are just superstition and the radio show host simply exploits the Count to entertain his listeners – the old beliefs are undermined by the modern world. But at the same time Martin’s ideas on how a vampire should behave are shaped by modern media; he takes the likes of Bela Lugosi as role models, in a feedback loop where fact and fiction constantly inform each other.

The Hunger (1983)

Directed by Tony Scott, who later went on to make a TV series of the same name and also starring David Bowie, this film is based on the novel by Whitley Strieber and in the figure of Miriam Blaylock presents one of the most alluring vampires ever, though I don’t feel she comes over as powerfully onscreen as on the page. It could just as easily have been considered as vampire erotica, with the crux of the story a love triangle of sorts. Catherine Deneuve is Miriam, an immortal vampire who takes lovers at her will, each one staying with her for centuries, before they start to age and have to be consigned to the wooden boxes she keeps in the attic (these dessicated vampires, trapped for eternity, are one of the most powerful and disturbing images of both book and film). Latest paramour John (Bowie) is close to the time when he will cease to be ‘active’, and this impending doom hangs over their idyllic life together in New York, the knowledge that soon it will all be taken away. Both consult blood expert Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) – John with a view to a cure, and Miriam also, but looking to the long term, and planning to take Sarah as her next lover. It’s fascinating to watch this all being played out, move and counter move, the film beautifully shot, each scene carefully composed and with the music to complement the imagery. There’s a subtle eroticism in play also, seen in the opening shots of Miriam and John taking a couple from a club, and later in Miriam’s charged seduction of Sarah. In the ultimate fate of Miriam’s lovers we see foreshadowed the end of all life, their condition an affecting metaphor for senility and the loss of vigour, bringing to mind Swift’s struldbrugs, and at the end they drag Miriam down too, her world ending in flame at the climax of this tragic fable. The vampires are just like us, happy for a while and then dissatisfied with their lot before oblivion, with the time for which they must endure the only real difference. John has been gifted a long and happy life, but in the end it simply isn’t enough and you sense that if he had the choice to make again then the bargain would be rejected.

I love all three of these films. Each in its own way, they tell us about vampires but all the time they refer back to the human condition. And I’m going to take all three for my Top Ten of Vampire Films.

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2 Responses to Blood is the Drug, the Drug is Blood

  1. Agree they are great movies, Pete, and certainly deserve to be on anyone’s list of Top Ten vampire films.

    Abel Ferrara is one of those directors (such as Whit Stillman and Todd Solondz), who unfortunately has not received as much notice as he deserves.

    He started out doing TV shows in the eighties, but then in the nineties made a series of really worthwhile movies.

    My favorite is The King of New York, 1990, starring Christopher Walken as a crime lord newly released from prison who tries to get back in the business. Terrific performance by Walken (who I agree is a fine actor), as well as great work by the at-that-time relatively unknown actors David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, and Wesley Snipes.

    In 1992 he released Bad Lieutenant, about a corrupt New York City cop (Harvey Keitel, the title character.) There’s a definite Scorsese gritty streets influence. Although the film is a bit uneven, at least in the (perhaps censored) version I saw, some of the scenes stay with me still, particularly the one where Keitel visits a druggy prostitute (I think she was a prostitute, but she may have “just” been a drug dealer), and she’s so on the nod that while she’s rooting around for a cigarette she’s stunned to discover she already has one in her hand. (Later, an abrupt cut to her and Keitel, shirtless, dancing frantically in her room.)

    He followed up the next year with Body Snatchers, another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (these remakes seem to proliferate as rapidly as the pods they present), set in a military complex. The scene I remember in particular is the little boy of the protagonists going to school, all the children holding up the drawings they made in art class, all their drawings exactly identical in their red-crayoned craziness, except for his drawing. Great performance in the film by Forest Whitaker, and Meg Tilly.

    And of course, in 1995, The Addiction.

    • petertennant says:

      Hi Rob
      Yeah, agree with you about Ferrarar. I’ve seen and enjoyed all of those, except for “Bad Lieutenant”, which I really should make an effort to check out. It was on TV over here a while back, probably in a censored cut, but for some reason I missed it.

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