The Addiction - Abel Ferrara Film Movie Review

The Addiction

(USA - 1995)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Lili Taylor, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Anabella Sciorra, Christopher Walken
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: Nicholas St. John
Cinematography: Ken Kelsch
Composer: Joe Delia
Runtime: 82 minutes

"There is a dual nature to the addiction. It satisfies the hunger, which evil engenders, but it also dulls our perceptions so we are helped to forget how ill we really are. We drink to escape the fact we're alcoholics. Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find" - Kathleen Conklin

Kathleen Conklin's addiction isn't alcohol, but in the end it's probably all the same. For all the virtues of Abel Ferrara's direction of this film, and this is a tour de force of direction, perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the breaking down of differentiation that allows the film to succeed. He takes a bunch of things that aren't supposed to go together from vampirism to philosophy to hip-hop music and blends them all together in a way that seems so utterly natural.

Abel's latest tongue-in-cheek premise has an NYU Ph.D. candidate adapt her doctoral to her current condition, which happens to be that of a vampire. She treats vampirism as an enlightenment, that's what her bite does for her victims although it also adds to an irreversible plague, and tries to wake them up to evil being at the heart of existence by tipping them off that she's about to harm them.

The film is a search for meaning in the terms of its characters, as Ferrara's often are. This time the main characters are Kathleen (Lili Taylor), fellow candidate Jean (Edie Falco), and their Professor (Paul Calderon), who all live philosophy and thus talk in those terms. It's a thinking man's vampire film, one much more steeped in hypothesis than in action.

The Addiction takes the perspective that a vampire is the same as any other addict. Sure the fix is different, but it's all about the unending pain/pleasure cycle. What I like is that it makes observations about the condition rather than following the tired old arch. For instance, Ferrara realizes that if you are a sick person that isn't looking for sympathy, especially if you are instead trying to blend in, it shouldn't always be apparent to those around her that there's anything wrong with you. When Kathleen needs blood she isn't visibly showing signs of withdrawal all the time, she has her ups and downs throughout the day.

As usual, Nicholas St. John penned the script. This is the 9th of 10 films St. John has written so far, all for Ferrara. It's the most intelligent of the 10, although still the weakness of Ferrara's film. St. John supposedly studied philosophy at Heidelberg, but the script feels more like one of those research projects where you found enough sources to draw the material that seemed to fit from that you were able to hide the fact that you didn't fully understand it yourself. The characters spit out a ton of theories and ideas, but the film just trudges forward. This prevents any from really failing because you don't have enough time to realize how stupid they are in this application, but prevents any from really succeeding because you don't have time to understand just how well they applies to this situation. That said, most of the theories are existential and nondualist, just like Katherine's actions. Her addiction is acted out as a chosen fix rather than a necessity one; she steals blood from a sleeping bum on the street without killing him before she chooses to give in and begins her conversion spree. Also, Peina (Christopher Walken) makes her his first feast in 4 years as her punishment for acting out against humans. This makes for a considerable amount of irony, especially when preachers becomes victims, since the theories of "free will" and such are considered good and logical yet Katherine's actions are anything but.

I'm sure I'm in the minority for liking this script even though it takes itself too seriously. The best thing about the script is that it understands something very basic, that while most people have their line that they won't cross, "addicts" don't act based on the deed being good or evil. It's about want and need, no matter how shallow or superficial the "requirement" is, superceding right and wrong. It's about the deterioration of identity, morals, and community causing tragic selfish events, and nobody but the victims caring.

The film is also about adapting without questioning, acting for the sake of it because you can or believe you are supposed to. Of course, the film is overloaded with symbols and metaphors, about so many other things as well that people get frustrated and confused trying to find the "real message." There is plenty to take from this film and there's certainly nothing wrong with multiple interpretations. What's important to me is that the ideas are put across in a way that requires actual thought rather than just the willingness to sit there and let Steven Spielbum hammer you until you think and feel exactly the way he does.

Even if you don't like the script, Ferrara films always succeed on some level because he understands the genre and setting he's working in and gets wonderful performances from his actors. Once again, these are the strengths of The Addiction, but even more than in most of his earlier films because Ferrara is growing as a director. This is a very low budget film, yet it couldn't look much better (well, it could but not in a way that would be more fitting) and it has a great cast (I sometimes wonder if HBO casts their dramas by watching Scorsese and Ferrara movies, as out of the few roles in this film you have Michael Imperiolli & Anabella Sciorra from Sopranos, Kathryn Erbe from Oz, and Falco from both).

A dark and unsettling mood is primarily created through the shadowy black and white (sometimes handheld) photography of cinematographer Ken Kelsch, an Abel regular who did a particularly fantastic job on New Rose Hotel. What makes Addiction one of the scariest films of a decade where most directors seemed to think horror meant cheesy CGI, referential and in jokes, and cardboard bimbos that showed no skin so the film could be rated PG-13 is the age old concept that the victim just has bad luck. They just know the wrong person or are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't want to fall into the trap of characterizing a person by their look, but certainly if you were going to avoid someone for that reason, Kathleen wouldn't be your pick. Obviously, when you think of a serial killer you don't picture a hardworking intelligent young woman, and she's also short and unimposing, spending most of her time hitting the books rather than the gym. Of course, since the film forces us to swim in a sea of contradictions, Kathleen regularly asserts that it's the blindness of the victims, their naiveté about the way of the world, that allows her to pray on them. In this regard, vampirism here is more like getting a sexually transmitted disease from someone that knew they had it.

By far the scariest scene comes at the outset when Casanova (Sciorra) converts Kathleen. We first see Casanova when Kathleen is crossing a street. We can tell that Kathleen catches her eye, but Casanova is in the background. We have no idea whether she's good or bad or what it is about Kathleen that interests her, just that she starts walking up behind her. What I like the most about Sciorra's performance here is she's so nonchalant, unhurried and unaffected as she walks up to Kathleen at regular speed. The only reason she catches up is that Kathleen has to stop at the corner to cross the road. Casanova is dressed elegantly and seems innocent enough, and lonely Katherine could certainly use a friend if she could find the spare time. After the briefest of icebreakers, Casanova suddenly grabs Kathleen by the arm, whips her into a wall, drags her down the stairs, and throws her into another wall, cornering her. Kathleen "should have" been safe because she wasn't exactly navigating a dark alley, but isolation can be found right off a populated city street.

The shots in this isolation are extremely dark with the only light seeping through the holes of a grate above. The pace Casanova works at creates a tremendous amount of apprehension, intensity, and creepiness. Rather than rushing to the action, she just stares Kathleen down. "Look at me and tell me to go away," she orders, "Don't ask, tell me!" Taylor is great in this scene too, so sorry for herself and scared that all she can do is look at her potential assailant with sad eyes and whimper "please." It's not until she whacks Kathleen and smiles that the disaffected Casanova comes alive, reveling in the torture and asking, "You think that's gonna stop me?" When there's action it's explosive, but the way the bite is filmed from behind Casanova it seems more like a lesbian act (of course vampirism tends to be an allusion to sex anyway) until she pulls away and we see a shot from the front that reveals Casanova's teeth with bloods on them.

The standout scenes aren't limited to horror, which isn't the major portion of the film anyway. There's a visual poetry to the film that you only get from people that really care about their material. Take the scene where Kathleen is riding in a cab. It's barely necessary to the plot, but the most extraordinary composition of the film. It seems almost 3-D with Kathleen in the center and a clear distanced background of cars, lights, and buildings. What's much more impressive is the foreground. The shot is filmed from outside through the backseat window with reflections of posts, lights, and neon signs passing by Kathleen's face. I appreciate a scene like this even more as it relates to this film because Ferrara shows you can have beautiful scenes without romanticizing vampirism in the least.

Of all the great New York filmmakers, Ferrara might be the best at evoking the feel of the city. Certainly he is when it comes to showing the underbelly, with Fear City being the best example, but like everything else the above scenes show how everything is mixed in this outing. I personally don't like most of the music he uses in his films, but what's important is it's representative of the kind of crap you hear when you visit the city. The lyrics always fit the ideas Ferrara is presenting, if not also the mood and setting of his piece.

Independent queen Taylor gives probably her best performance here. The essence of the Kathleen character can be understood by her line, "I've come to terms with my existence, applying what I've learned to my own being." Between her conversion to vampire and her philosophical journey, she gets to play seemingly every variation Kathleen and her nocturnal self are capable of, and like Ferrara puts across every note with force, desperation, and conviction. I thought she did a great job getting across that vampirism was at the same time a disease and an awakening. In spite of this positive aspect, she's worn and longing for her fix rather than rejoicing about how cool it is to be a vampire and find a new mate every night like you see in the Hollywood vampire films. Another thing she shows well is the liberation of being free of guilt, yet the ingrained need of that feeling. Proving her philosophical point, "I am rotting inside but I am not dying" by pulling out a molar was a nice touch, too.

The great Christopher Walken plays a veteran vampire that's learned to control his addiction, to be almost human and blend in with them. He only has one scene, but as usual he makes it extremely memorable. One hole in the film, although Walken's Peina is apparently an avid reader, is even the vampires come off as philosophers. While Sciorra is excellent when it comes to the way she carries her character and gives it attitude, the way she spews philosophy as if she knows it all like the back of her hand makes her seem more like a professor. Walken is the most believable in this regard because he has that paused delivery style where you believe he's thinking about what he's saying, and he really feels it. He always amazes me because he can find humor and parody in even the stalest dialogue.



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