Murphy's 'Vampire' offers plenty to sink teeth into Movie review: Subtlety is in meager supply as Eddie Murphy dominates the screen in the "Vampire in Brooklyn."

October 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

This certainly is vampire week. On a single day both the big-budget Eddie Murphy vehicle "Vampire in Brooklyn" crashes into a dozen houses and the low-budget high-art movie "Nadja" slithers into the Charles, both trailing a slick of plasma.

How disparate are the productions? I'd bet the first 30 seconds of "Vampire in Brooklyn" cost more than the entire "Nadja." If only it were the better picture!

The Murphy film is clearly a desperate attempt to re-inflate the Beverly Hills cop's collapsing career, which has come to resemble a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon after a close encounter with a police helicopter. Along the let's-save-Eddie lines, it understands certain fundamental principles: primarily, that Murphy still has it.

It? Yeah, it. It! You know, the effortless command of the screen, the easy, unforced way of drawing attention to a well-defined persona, the ability to dominate even the most flamboyant of special effects, the ability to light up the darkness. Murphy is the movie's best thing.

The film offers him as Caribbean variant of the original Dracul family (another wing located in the Carpathians after initial exile from Egypt). He's come to Brooklyn to find the one person in the world capable of continuing the Dracul line, but he's got to "initiate" her into the life first, and guess how.

Naturally, she's the most beautiful woman in the picture, Angela Bassett, currently lighting up the otherwise dead bulb known as "Strange Days." And, naturally, she's a Brooklyn detective charged with investigating the arrival of the mysterious ship that bore the vampire and about 20 corpses to our shores.

That arrival, incidentally, at the beginning of the film, is a great work of special effects -- the derelict freighter crunching through yachts and docks as it grinds ever inland, like Moby Dick in a grudge match with Spike Lee. In fact, so huge is this sequence that it takes the film a good 10 minutes to settle down from it.

What follows is certainly loud, raunchy and raucous. Murphy is excellent as the mesmerizer with the yellow eyes, but the movie is aimed squarely at vox populi and not movie pointyheads who scribble in the dark: It lacks even the faintest shadow of subtlety. It's not the crucifix it fears nor the daylight, but any hint of understatement. Inference is pure garlic.

There's a lot of crude humor as Murphy impersonates an Al Sharpton-like preacher and a Harvey Keitel-like sleazy Mafioso through the miracle of industrial-strength makeup and computer-morphing effects. There's a guy whose arm keeps falling off to everybody's delight and on and on. Murphy seems to be having a good time.

But the one thing "Vampire in Brooklyn" lacks is exactly what "Nadja" has in abundance, and that's a sense of the erotic meanings of the vampire legend. It's too gigantic to encompass anything as subtle as the smoky underpinnings of the boys with the fangs and the weird intimacy of their embrace.

"Nadja," by contrast, is all about sex. It's a new-age, post-modern gloss that follows the Carpathian branch of the family Drac, built around its immigration not to Brooklyn, but close: looked like lower Manhattan to me. In this case, Dad's in an urn, and his twins are trying to decide what to do next. Nadja's the bad one, while Edgar is comatose.

The movie has style to die for. Filmed in black and white, it goes so far as to use a special pixilated lens to portray things from the vampire point of view; they seem to implant a film of little diamonds over everything that break much of the imagery toward sheer surrealism, while now and then yielding details of stunning power -- a glimpse of Nadja lifting her bloody mouth off the neck of an early victim, for example.

The cast is a toot. Peter Fonda appears as the vampire hunter Van Helsing, who rides about on an otherwise unexplained bike. "Easy Rider," anyone? He recruits his nephew Martin Donovan to look for Dracula's body, which Nadja (the tres slinky Elina Lowensohn) is also looking for. Edgar's nurse (Suzy Amis) and Donovan's wife become involved in strange ways. Could I be clearer? Nope. Not even the press notes are clear (though they are very funny, a rare triumph of wit over banality; they may even be better than the movie).

Needless to say, "Nadja" is for graduate students of cinema: It's hip, cool, amoral, witty and ultra-stylized. The director is Michael Almereyda, and he knows what he's doing.

"Vampire in Brooklyn."

Starring Peter Fonda and Suzy Amis

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Released by October Films

Rated R (nudity, gore)

** 1/2

'Nadja'

Staring Peter Fonda and Suzy Amis

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Released by October Films

Rated R (nudity, gore)

** 1/2

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