What Keeps Mankind Alive: 1995 Theological Vampire Flick “The Addiction”

“All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.”

–possibly Auden? Attributed to Auden, anyway.

For a while now I’ve been trying to hunt down Abel Ferrara’s ultra-artsy, not-on-DVD vampire movie, The Addiction. It’s on YouTube again now–see it before it vanishes!–at a link you can find here, along with Kindertrauma’s reflections on the film. I watched it last night and suspect I need to watch it at least once more before I have any firm opinions.

The movie opens with its leads, Lili Taylor and Edie Falco, in a college class watching slides from My Lai. The recurring photos of real-life atrocities aren’t being used cynically to raise the stakes (…see what I did there?) of a vampire movie; they’re unsubtle indications that the movie is about the origin and nature of evil. The vampires are a way of getting at the question of why atrocities happen. The characters throw out a lot of philosophical and theological one-liners: My favorite was, “Medicine is just an extended metaphor for omnipotence.” So you’ve gotta have patience for that kind of thing, or you will just hate this movie. But I was surprised at how well the philosophies hung together despite sounding like shallow, cynical undergraduate vaporings. This is a smarter and harder movie than it may seem.

Its basic question, I think, is whether everyone is inherently evil and our evil actions are simply the welling-up of an ineradicable cruelty within us, like blood seeping from a cut vein; or whether we’re able to choose between good and evil on our own, so that evil is a property of actions rather than people. There are ways to turn that question so it is more intelligible within Christian orthodoxy or less, and the movie turns it both ways, so that sometimes I felt like I didn’t even accept the terms of the question and other times I felt like Ferrara had crafted an extraordinarily powerful depiction of the nature of sin and the need for supernatural redemption.

The acting is excellent, just enough too much. Taylor’s junkie crawl is some of the scariest horror-movie movement outside of Ringu, and the vampire attacks are shockingly physical. (There’s a nice mirroring, as well, between the climactic blood frenzy and a moment in the denouement when passersby try to help one of the vampires.) The black-and-white works both because it creates a depressing, stifling atmosphere rather than the big, exuberant red blood splashes in most vampire films; and because it lets the historical photos blur into the fictional narrative. The music is frequently hilarious, a needed counterpoint to the heavy material onscreen.

The Addiction is short–not even an hour and a half–and thoroughly compelling. It’s a movie that really believes in what it’s doing: a movie with no ironic disclaimers, no distance.

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