By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Lili Taylor and Christopher Walken
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Written by Nicholas St. John
“Look sin in the face, and tell it to go.”
Though some see Abel Ferrara’s philosophical vampire project THE ADDICTION (1995) as a fitting capper to the golden age of the New York maverick’s career, its rarely recognized as one of his finest works. The film is a technical beauty, but the verbosity of frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John’s script has proven alienating for audiences more attuned to the arty, visceral shocks of THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) or MS. 45 (1981). Thanks to Arrow Video, however, this misunderstood masterpiece has a second chance at life with a scintillating new transfer and special features that bring its elusive meaning into sharper focus.
A philosophy grad student named Kathleen (Lili Taylor) is cornered in an alleyway by an elegant woman in a flowing gown (Anabella Sciorra) who bites her neck before disappearing into the night. Kathleen survives the assault, but soon recognizes that she has a craving for human blood. She begins prowling the mean streets of New York City to satiate her newfound hunger. Along the way, she encounters a didactic vampire king (Christopher Walken) and passes her affliction along to countless others.
THE ADDICTION opens with a procession of images depicting the My Lai Massacre as Kathleen looks on, the shadows cast by the class projector cleanly trisecting her face. It is the first of the film’s many visual parades of real-world, manmade horror, and the images are far more perverse than anything an artist could dream up. Yet, through the lens of philosophical thought, the taming influence of academia, and the numbing of time’s passage, Kathleen (and the viewer by proxy) are held at arm’s length from the stomach churning sense of revulsion such images should evoke. This is the crux of Ferrara and St. John’s vision of vampirism, which quite obviously posits the supernatural affliction as a drug metaphor, but also finds rationality to be of dubious comfort (and its own type of addictive substance, manifesting in Kathleen’s outsized ego) in the face of unfathomable evil.
THE ADDICTION’s one-line synopsis is startlingly similar to that of MS. 45, though of course, unlike Zoë Lund’s character, in that film, Kathleen has the ability to speak. And speak she does. St. John’s script is littered with exhausting and oftentimes impenetrable existential ruminations courtesy of Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire and company. This, however, is the genius of St. John and Ferrara, in that Kathleen’s pseudo-intellectual word-vomit is not, itself, the film’s message, and serves to distance her from true understanding, rather than uncover it. The more she talks, the less clearly she can see. As author Brad Stevens explains: “I think ultimately the film is very critical of philosophical ideas, and the idea that human experience could be summed up in any kind of brief form, in any kind of sound bite.” For St. John, using rational thought and discourse to make sense of something as irrational as true evil is both futile and facile, which is what makes THE ADDICTION a spiritual journey. This is where the vampirism as addiction metaphor (in ways both bodily and mind-based) comes full circle: it is only by giving herself over to unknowability and trusting in something beyond our physical, bestial world that Kathleen frees herself from the soul-sickness that plagues her and finds absolution. In the film’s most piquant break from vampiric tradition, the monster isn’t vanquished, but reborn; like the alcoholic or heroin junkie, the old self dies to make way for the new.
Arrow’s Director and DP approved 4K scan of THE ADDICTION’s original camera negative might be some of their finest work yet, presenting the film’s black and white cinematography with jaw-droppingly gorgeous grit and glow. Details and texture are almost touchably clear, while the contrast is perfect and brings Ferrara’s expressionistic use of light and shadow to life. The director’s channeling of F.W. Murnau and Val Lewton and mixing of their styles with his own grimy New York mise en scène was truly meant to be seen this way. Though there’s some hardly discernable image flutter late in the film, this restoration is, in a word: impeccable. Arrow gives the viewer two audio tracks, including 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 LPCM. Both are solid, but much of the highfalutin dialogue is a little quiet on the default setting.
The special features on this disc give the film a boost in terms of analysis and appreciation. An audio commentary with Ferrara, moderated by critic and biographer Brad Stevens is a must-listen for fans of the auteur, while TALKING WITH VAMPIRES, a series of interviews conducted by Ferrara himself with Taylor, Walken, composer Joe Delia and cinematographer Ken Kelsch is a real treat. A new interview with Ferrara conducted by Arrow gives the audience insight into the iconoclastic director’s creative headspace, while an archival piece, ABEL FERRARA EDITS THE ADDICTION is exactly what it says it is. A brief video appreciation by the aforementioned Brad Stevens is an excellent introduction to a more in-depth critical analysis of the film, and the included essay This Is My Blood: Ferrara’s Addictions scratches just that very itch for those who want to delve deeper. As always, Arrow’s packaging features reversible cover art with the original poster on one side, and a far more attractive and appropriately artistic rendering on the other.
Abel Ferrara is often seen as a maker of arthouse films for the grindhouse crowd (or vice-versa) and THE ADDICTION stands as one of his finest artistic achievements. Though “sumptuous” and “highbrow” aren’t necessarily words that have ever been associated with the director, THE ADDICTION finds him aiming at a grand, humanistic statement bathed in the chiaroscuro lighting of a silent film master. In some ways, THE ADDICTION feels like a pretentious piece of college theater—obvious and morally simplistic—but Arrow Video’s newly restored edition is a must-buy for any Horror fan who likes a bit of meaty metaphor with their bloodletting. In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most important steps to recovery is to give yourself over to a power greater than yourself. In its way, watching THE ADDICTION is a little like an intervention: if you submit to Ferrara and open your mind, it gets its hooks in you.