ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Addiction (1995) dir: Abel Ferrara Blu Ray (Arrow)
A philosophical vampire
Lili Taylor plays Kathleen Conklin, a philosophy student living in New York City. One night, while she is walking home, she is dragged into an alleyway by a beautiful older woman (played by Annabella Sciorra). She turns out to be a vampire who proceeds to bite Kathleen’s neck.
Sure enough, in true vampire bite tradition, Kathleen begins to lose interest in food, wear sunglasses to class and develop a thirst for blood herself. Initially, she uses a needle to drain it from a sleeping vagrant and inject it into herself. She then starts seducing others around her including her teacher (Paul Calderon), various fellow students and a member of a black street gang who makes the mistake of flirting with her. As her bloodsucking habit goes on, she gains a greater - albeit immeasurably more nihilistic - understanding into the philosophy of human existence.
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New York-based Italian-American director has courted both controversy and mixed reviews over the years via his distinctive mixture of blood-splattered genre cinema and arty leanings. The Addiction is one of the most extreme expressions of his preoccupations. While the vampire movie tropes are all dutifully ticked off, there are clear allusions to multiple interconnecting levels of meaning running throughout.
As the title suggests, there are allusions to drug addiction which are clearly referenced through Kathleen’s initial practice of injecting herself with the blood of her victims. This is even more explicitly laid out when one character whom she invites around for a “drink” is injected with heroin before being drained - resulting in two marks on his arm, one labelled “in” and the other “out”. As on the nose as this symbolism is, however, there’s a deeper and wider undercurrent here which is depicted via real-life photo stills of mass war graves, over which Kathleen narrates:
“The old adage from Santayana, that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history. Everything we are is eternally with us.”
The implication is that the streak of evil within humanity is part of its nature. This is further underlined by another quotation, this time from R.C. Sproul, which is cited by another vampiric character:
“We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.”
While there may be a grain of truth in this, The Addiction isn’t as substantial or profound as it believes itself to be. It more or less gives us endless variations on this same bleak message without ever really developing much of a storyline. Lili Taylor gives an outstanding performance as a grungy central protagonist who veers from mousy, vulnerable victimhood to intimidatingly steely blood-drinker. However, once she’s undergone her transition to vampirism her character arc comes to a dead stop for most of the film, becoming far too singularly self-absorbed to generate any sympathy. Unsympathetic central characters are a typical Ferrara trait stretching way back to his early Driller Killer (1979), which featured the director himself playing an obnoxious punk artist serial murderer named Reno. However, he at least had certain aspects - such as his clear bond of love with his girlfriend despite their frequent arguments - which made him feel like a rounded human being. Kathleen Conklin just comes across like an empty vessel.
Regardless of my somewhat ambivalent feelings towards its content, it’s undeniable that The Addition is a memorable piece of work on a purely visual level. Regular Ferrara cinematographer Ken Kelsch’s black-and-white images are simultaneously beautiful and haunting, often feeling akin to watching a living photographic exhibition. The sight of vampire Casanova (Annabella Sciorra), her face partially obscured by the silhouette of a mesh fence, is an effective visual chill. The image of Lili Taylor’s lips smeared in black blood has a primally sexual aspect to it which is hard to shake. Her murky apartment has an appearance closer to a catacomb than a warm, inviting home. New York City is turned into a cavernously gothic urban maze where the sky is rarely seen, a few archetypal vampire movie images of the sun rising or setting notwithstanding. The introduction of some black street gang members, courtesy of handheld POV camerawork and music by hip-hop outfit Cypress Hill, helps to ground the often dreamlike feel with a dose of gritty reality.
There are also two sequences here which really stand out from the rest of the film. Firstly, Christopher Walken turns in a terrifying performance during his few minutes of screen time as a vampire elder who puts Kathleen in her insignificant place in the order of things. Secondly, there’s a harrowing attack on a group of partygoers which breaks through the air of studied intellectualism like a wild animal tearing down a wire fence.
Love it or hate it, The Addiction does stamp its own monochromatic imprint on the vampire movie landscape. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) would revisit similar imagery to a (from my point of view) far greater effect. Nonetheless, Ferrara’s film has enough of interest to make it worth experiencing in its own right.
Runtime: 82 mins
Dir: Abel Ferrara
Script: Nicholas St. John
Starring: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Fredro Starr, Katheryn Erbe
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This 4K restoration gives the monochrome imagery a rare richness and depth which really brings the world to life. Some of the softer dialogue is a little too quiet but, that aside, this is an outstanding effort.
It’s a brand new commentary, courtesy of the gravelly-voiced Abel Ferrara, which was recorded for this release. Brad Stevens acts as moderator. Ferrara doesn’t say all that much, tending instead to utter superfluous, profanity-laden reactions to the onscreen events. However, he does occasionally mention something interesting, e.g. that most of the background “extras” were actually real people on the streets going about their business, that Walken was originally earmarked for Annabella Sciorra’s role as the vampire who bites Lili’s character, and that a close-up of blood being drained from a man’s arm via syringe was the real deal.
Talking with the Vampires
Abel Ferrara catches up with actors Lili Taylor and Christopher Walken, composer Joe Delia and cinematographer Ken Kelsch in this amiable, somewhat relaxed series of interviews. Lili reveals that she immersed herself into her part by walking around New York at 2 AM and listening to Pixies songs. Walken, meanwhile, admits that he just learns his lines and doesn’t think about character psychology because he came into screen performances via his career as a dancer rather than from acting classes.
They also talk about their own experiences with addictions. Lili confesses that she used to be an alcoholic but now gets her rush from being a trapeze artist. Walken, meanwhile, recalls being how shocked he was at learning about actor and personal friend Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drug-related death.
Interview with Abel Ferrara
This is a brand new interview recorded for this release. He discusses zero budget filmmaking, the background to his relationship with regular screenwriter Nicholas St. John and his own battle with drug addiction. He also clarifies the meaning of The Addiction’s ambiguous final scene.
Appreciation by Brad Stevens
It’s another new Arrow-exclusive featurette, this time with film critic Brad Stevens. His views towards The Addiction are interesting but somewhat controversial; he opines that fans take its philosophical discussions more seriously than Ferrara intended, and that the director appears to be in conflict with screenwriter Nicholas St. John’s overtly Christian views.
Abel Edits The Addiction
A brief but amusing opportunity to hang out with Ferrara in the editing suite. He reveals that the black and white blood seen in the film was, in fact, Hershey’s Syrup (a chocolate-flavoured syrup sold in America). He also sings along to Buddy Holly for a bit.
An image gallery, trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras.
The Addiction is a definite “marmite movie”. If you’re a fan, however, you will find this to be an excellent restoration and will enjoy the extras.