Facing the evil vampire Movie review: Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction" is on the surface about vampires, but it's really an examination of evil.

November 10, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Addiction," which opens today at the Charles, is not for everyone. In fact, it might not even be for anyone. Naturally, I thought it was terrific.

Directed by that worst of all bad boys, Abel Ferrara, it's a work of philosophical speculation disguised as a vampire movie. It boasts an abundance of both ideas and blood. It joins that small, distinguished group of tough movies that argue concepts over character: "The Hit," Stephen Frears' intellectual gangster picture, was one such, and Ferrara's own "The Bad Lieutenant" was another.

Ferrara, who loves to push the envelope as he did in "Lieutenant," at once the most loved and reviled of recent American movies, gets very near to an edge here.

The addiction whose allure he chronicles appears to be vampirism, which he expresses metaphorically as a narcotic dependence, a physical need so overwhelming that, like heroin's serenade or crack's tinnitus of the soul, cannot be denied. But, like a box within boxes, the movie's really about a more subtle addiction: our -- that is, humankind's -- addiction to evil.

If, as Kathleen informs us that Kierkegaard insists, we live at the edge of an abyss, our only choice may be whether to be pushed in or to leap. Ferrara, here as elsewhere, is interested in the leapers. He choses Kathleen.

Played with dour, sexless intensity by Lili Taylor, Kathleen is a grad student at NYU consumed with the issue of good and evil. She lives a life of pure intellection, murmuring hoarsely of Heidegger, Kant and Nietzsche, firing Deep Thoughts off into the ether like tracer bullets and watching them bounce across the landscape.

She haunts photo exhibits of atrocities, and the movie, in its severe black-and-white, forces us to gaze with her at the squalid, corpse-crammed gullies of the My Lais and the Auschwitzes of our century.

Why? she wonders. How? she wonders. The one thing she doesn't wonder is: in me? The answer, she believes, is, Naaaahhhh.

But one night, possibly high on the imagery of massacre, she wanders the pulsating streets of lower Manhattan and a ravishing creature (Annabella Sciorra, no more Ms. Nice Girl) comes out of the dark, makes small talk, drags her into the alley and takes a chunk out of the old throat.

Ferrara has a touch of the pornographer's depravity to him; he loves the image of the after-dinner vampire, which he first deploys through Sciorra's depredation of Taylor and which then becomes a visual theme of the film.

In an elegant evening gown, her eyes deep and sensuous with mascara, her skin alabaster and ennobled by the light, Sciorra withdraws from the throat with her mouth smeary, messy, debauched with blood. There's powerful erotic undercurrent to the image, a juxtaposition that suggests the wet messiness of the post-sexual environment.

Soon enough, Taylor's Kathleen is enduring the fires of hell, an overwhelming hunger that threatens to destroy her. Wandering the streets alone and disheveled, she can no longer deny her nature and begins to feed on the homeless.

What she discovers that is more terrifying than how much she loves the taste of blood is how much she loves the sense of power. We watch her literally turn on to the process of feeding, using a supernatural strength to feast on the unwary. She's out of control.

But one night, she goes after a tall, elegant gentleman who is not only more powerful than she and more vampire than she but is Christopher Walken, as Peina, who might be termed the department head of the Vampire Studies Program.

Walken, as he almost always does, blows the movie apart. Contemptuous, cynical, charismatic, powerful, he represents the movie's baldest statement of its themes. He's vampirism -- evil -- unregenerate, but disciplined and hardened, infinitely attractive. He gives her a code of life: control over the will, feed only when necessary and stay away from Tom Cruise.

Kathleen seems transformed, and soon she's back among the tweedy reeds of the Philosophy Department, focused and impressive and soon enough Ph.D'd. But the control is only an illusion. She's got a grudge against philosophy, which, in the long run, with all its constructs and rationalizations and insights, has proved somewhat inefficient as salvation.

She turns a department tea in celebration of her degree into something that makes normal faculty politics -- notoriously ugly -- look like a Saturday Evening Post cover from old Citizen Rockwell. This is one you've got to see to believe. It's a hoot.

The movie is far sexier than "Interview With the Vampire" and far deadlier than the campy "Nadja," just closed at the Charles. It's extremely disturbing, a graduate- level movie for advanced students in either of three subjects: cinema, philosophy and debauchery.

'The Addiction'

Starring Lili Taylor and Christopher Walken

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Released by October Films

Rated R (violence and gore)

Sun score: ***

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