Arrow Video: Abel Ferrara's Vampire Fever-Dream The Addiction - Reviewed

Vampires have been cinema’s most-loved (and often most-overplayed) horror creatures since the medium was born. There has basically never been an era in film in which vampire movies weren’t fairly ubiquitous, which on the one hand means that lovers of their particular vein of gothic-horror storytelling never run out of films to watch, but on the other hand means that there are an awful lot of bad vampire movies out there, and it can be easy for great ones to get lost in the crowd. Every decade has its mega-hit vampire movies that, for a time, define the sub-genre in the eyes of the mainstream: the Christopher Lee Dracula films, The Lost BoysInterview with the Vampire, and (for better or for worse - and I would say worse) Twilight, just to name a few especially ubiquitous examples. But all along there have also been some more off-the-beaten-path art-house takes on the concept, which have taken the well-worn tropes of the genre and twisted them into something very different indeed. George Romero did it with Martin, Jim Jarmusch did it with Only Lovers Left Alive, and in 1995 art-house provocateur Abel Ferrara did it with one of his lesser-seen works, The Addiction. A modest black-and-white indie made on the heels of one of Ferrara’s only attempts at a truly mainstream studio film, 1993’s Body SnatchersThe Addiction tends to get lost among higher-profile mid-90s vampire movies like Interview and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and among the director’s typically more confrontational work. Now Arrow Video has turned the spotlight back on this fascinating and unique film with a new special edition, and it is a welcome rediscovery.

The Film:

Kathleen, a philosophy doctoral student at NYU (played by Lily Taylor, lending the film some serious ‘90s indie cred), gets jumped on the way home from class by a mysterious woman who drags her into an alley and bites her neck. She soon finds herself craving human blood and feeling an aversion to sunlight… but those are not the most narratively significant changes that she goes through, since this is anything but your typical vampire movie. On one level the film operates as a metaphor for a woman falling into destructive behavior, depression, and ultimately heroin addiction in response to the trauma of an assault. The way in which her bloodlust manifests itself is very much modeled after addiction (as the title of the film implies), with Kathleen suffering withdrawal symptoms when she needs blood and achieving a narcotic high when she gets it, and her journey into darkness works on a personal level as well as a literal one. On another level, the film is about existentialism and belief, gazing into the void in an attempt to understand humans’ capacity for violence, and wrestling with ideas of faith and meaning. It is crucial to the narrative that Kathleen is a philosophy student, and we see her journey into vampirism through the eyes of her philosophy as well as her addiction, as she analyzes her actions and her transformation with cold, academic detachment. The result is a vampire film like few others; a difficult and not very accessible one, but one that is fascinating, rewarding, and multi-layered, for those who are willing to do a little philosophy homework as they watch.

The crux of Kathleen’s philosophical pursuits is the question of whether there is room for moral philosophy within existentialism, and she is deeply troubled by the dilemma of how to address problems of evil and violence (and the guilt instilled by her Catholic upbringing) within her increasingly Nietzschean worldview. As such, the film focuses less on the mythological changes that her vampirism brings on her, and more on the philosophical and personal crisis and transformation that she undergoes inwardly as a result, as she confronts and comes to terms with the implications of her need for violence to sustain herself; Nietzsche’s will to power as vampire myth. As a philosophy major in my own college career, I found this aspect of The Addiction to be fascinating, and both challenging and rewarding, as it dives into the philosophical themes with genuine curiosity and depth. It offers no easy answers, but a dense and rigorous collection of ideas, with theologically-rooted moral philosophy, harsher Nietzschean existentialism, and a more Sartrean moral existentialism clashing against each other in varying combinations within a gothic-horror through-experiment. It certainly doesn't tell the viewer how to feel or which philosophy to subscribe to, leaving room for interpretation that would make the film ripe for scholarly essays.

These themes run parallel to The Addiction's other primary theme - that of addiction itself - overlapping and sometimes enhancing each other, but allowing for interpretation and powerful metaphors on both sides of the equation. The metaphor for the story of a young woman falling into heroin addition in the aftermath of an assault is a powerful one, and Lily Taylor gives a harrowing, quietly intense performance that captures with great emotional authenticity both her trauma and her slipping into the grips of the drug that is vampirism. The special features on this blu-ray reveal that Abel Ferrara based the film on his own experiences with addiction, and that Lily Taylor drew heavily on her then-recent battle with alcoholism in her performance, and the honesty of how these experiences were brought to the film by both artists really shows in the final product. Taylor and Ferrara were friends at the time, and the extras give the impression that the film - and especially her character - were developed quite collaboratively. The result is a movie that feels very personal to both artists, with Taylor in particular powering the film and providing its human core with her masterful performance. 

I must admit that I have never been an Abel Ferrara fan. It's not that I think he's a bad filmmaker (I respect that he does what he does very well), but just that his particular vein of grimey, in-your-face urban seediness (Bad Lieutenant, Driller Killer, Ms .45, King of New York) just isn't my cup of tea; an acquired taste that I've never had any desire to acquire. This is the first film of his that I've really liked; probably in part because of the collaborative filmmaker-actor dynamic with Lily Taylor that is at the film's heart, and in part because it is a very different, against-type sort of film for him. Rather than his usual brash, confrontational, and over-the-top-violent approach, The Addiction is introspective, academic, and driven by a much quieter sort of menace (although make no mistake, there is a lot of menace to be found here). This different attitude is matched by a visual style unlike any other film that he has made: stark, high-contrast black-and-white which feels at times like film noir and at times like German expressionism, and gives the whole thing a fever-dream quality. It's a very well-shot film which shows a different side of Ferrara's talents as a filmmaker.

Still, the film is not without its issues. The main problem with it is that, at a brief 82 minutes, it feels shorter than it probably should be. There are times when the pacing feels rather off: for the most part the film takes its time, in keeping with its brooding fever-dream quality, but there are moments when things happen so abruptly that the viewer feels a bit of whiplash. Granted, that may somewhat be the point, but portions of the film could have used a few extra minutes so the ideas could breathe, and some elements would have benefitted from a bit more introduction or development. Due to the occasional bits of choppy pacing and accelerated narrative flow, it's the sort of film that takes a second viewing to puzzle out, but one gets the impression that it didn't have to be. This is particularly true of Christopher Walken's character, who is conceptually interesting and compelling in that bizarre, slightly unhinged Christopher Walken kind of way, but who comes and goes from the film so suddenly, with so little introduction or context, that he feels more like a weird aside than an essential part of the narrative. The film as a whole remains very strong and compelling, and after sitting with the film and reflecting on its themes it all comes together in a satisfying way; it just may have benefitted from being 90 minutes instead of 80.

In the era between Interview with the Vampire and BladeThe Addiction does something boldly different with the vampire story, making it human and exploring its philosophy and psychology in a way that few films do. There are loads of vampire movies out there, but this type of film - the character-study vampire drama - is a much rarer beast. In terms of that narrative concept, The Addiction's closest cinematic relatives (its parent and child films, if you will) are probably Martin and Only Lovers Left Alive, although stylistically and tonally the stark, black-and-white parable on addiction is very different from either. Between its art-house style, its introspective nature, and its less-than-accessible dense themes, this is definitely not a film for everyone, but those who enjoy challenging films of this nature will probably love it.

The Transfer:

Ferrara and director of photography Ken Kelsch supervised Arrow's 4k restoration for this release, and the results look beautiful. The moody and dream-like black-and-white cinematography looks stunning, with pristine clarity and sharp contrast. The black levels in the picture are seriously BLACK, yet the clarity of the remaster allows us to see every detail that we are supposed to. I was somewhat shocked by how little grain there is in the image, leaving me unsure whether some digital noise reduction was used, or if the film just didn't have much grain to begin with (despite clearly being a low-budget film it was shot on 35mm using Panavision lenses, according to Ferrara's commentary, so that's entirely possible). Either way, it looks great, and if there was any DNR used it was applied carefully and judiciously so as to not harm the clarity of the picture. Between Arrow's usual diligence and the involvement of Ferrara and Kelsch, there is no doubt that this transfer was done right, and this is the best that the film could possibly look. The sound design, in a new 5.1 mix, is faithful to the film and sounds very good, although given what a quiet film this is, it's not nearly as impressive to listen to as it is to look at. It makes much use of silence, the dialogue scenes are typically fairly soft and introspective, and the score is strong, but very moody and low-key. All in all, this is an outstanding presentation, and far and away the best treatment and most respect that the once-rare film has gotten on home media.

The Extras:

As per usual, Arrow has done an outstanding job with the extras for this release, assembling some great material to put this lesser-seen film in appropriate context. Ferrara is involved in every single extra on the disc aside from a film critic's appreciation of the movie, and it is clear what a personal work this is to the filmmaker. The extras begin with a new audio commentary by Ferrara, which is interesting, informative, and about as strange, eccentric, and obscenity-filled as one might expect. Ferrara also sits down for a new, nearly 20-minute interview about the film. The main extra, though, is a half-hour documentary that Ferrara himself made for this release, in which he chats with Lily Taylor, Christopher Walken, cinematographer Ken Kelsch, and score composer Joe Delia. It's a really interesting documentary, not just because everyone involved shares some great behind-the-scenes info, but because of how they share it. These are clearly old friends and collaborators reuniting, and their mannerisms are relaxed, casual, and extremely candid because of those relationships; it feels less like a structured behind-the-scenes and more like being a fly on the wall for a reunion of the production team. Especially revealing is a lengthy chunk in the middle when Ferrara, Taylor, and Kelsch speak to each other very honestly about how their own experiences with addiction and recovery influenced the film and shaped what it means to them. These very personal insights lend a whole new level of appreciation and understanding to this already clearly personal film. The extras are rounded out by an archival featurette about Ferrara editing the film, from the time of its post-production.

All in all, this is an outstanding package for a very strong, compelling film which both deserves and benefits from this kind of special edition treatment. This won't be a film for everyone, but if it sounds like a film for you, Arrow's release is highly recommended.

Score for the film:

Score for the blu-ray:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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