Thursday, July 12, 2007
THE ADDICTION (1995, USA, Abel Ferrara, wr Nicholas St. John)
It's easy to spot in people like me. The cancer's grown obvious. But you're as terminal as I am, you know that? You're as addicted as I am. It's the nature of the organism. Now look me in the face and tell me to go. Look sin in the face and tell it to go. Say it with authority.
Bram Stoker's novel Dracula evokes true horror, a sense of eternal corruption and moral dread. Alas, most films the book has inspired reduce that revulsion at spiritual evil to merely mortal terror. They're nothing but scary action movies, Good Guys In Peril flicks where the threat happens to be neck bites rather than gunshot wounds or chainsaw lacerations.
Sure, the blood-sucking is creepy, and the erotic undercurrent adds a certain repugnance, but for this viewer at least, the real Horror is to be found in the Vietnamese heart of darkness Francis Ford Coppola uncovers in APOCALYPSE NOW, for instance, or in a Holocaust film like Alain Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG.
Abel Ferrarra invokes both of those particular evils in THE ADDICTION, an explicitly theological Horror film that uses vampirism as a stand-in for the contagious and predatory evil that lives in the human heart. He's playing for keeps, he and his screenwriting partner Nicholas St. John, invoking a host of philosophical heavy hitters who've weighed in on the question of evil. ""Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire - you think they're works of fiction?" The film-makers are utterly serious, linking genocide and wartime atrocities with the more domestic and familiar evils of sexual coercion, inner city decay, disease and contagion, addiction and – yes – intellectual pride. There is nothing arch or cynical about this film: it is in earnest about the wickedness of the human heart. Deadly earnest.
Lili Taylor is very fine as Kathleen Conklin, a Ph.D. candidate who is violently attacked in a New York passageway and, unable to resist her alluring attacker with sufficient conviction, finds herself as suddenly desperate for a fix as any first-time user of crack cocaine. Except for her, the drug of choice is human blood. More precisely, it is the thrill of overpowering another's will with her own. The actress charts the junkie's affectless downward spiral with precision: it is as compelling and horrifying a portrait of addiction as it is of moral decay.
Nicholas St. John is a devout Christian, a dedicated follower of Saint Francis, and the story he tells is resolutely human, his focus uncompromisingly personal. He eschews the usual plot mechanics of vampire melodrama in favor of character study, the machineries of despair. No Van Helsings chase black-caped grad students through fog-bound streets, armed with wooden stakes or expending their last ounce of strength to wrestle philosophy T.A.s into the dawning sunlight. (Not that plenty of plenty of grad students couldn't do with a little exercise and some sunshine, God knows...) His story line is starkly linear, his themetic concern single-minded: indeed, the narrative might feel simplistic if not for the ambiguity of the film's final moments. What exactly has become of Kathleen? The academic and theological references are at times heavy handed, but the film maker's unflinching contemplation of human evil grounds those abstractions in undeniable realities, and if the philosophizing is sometimes rendered artlessly, the film 's visual power more than compensates
Cinematographer Ken Kelsch gives us a seductively lensed black and white world, filled with potent visuals. At one point, bands of brilliant light filtered through noir-ish venetian blinds press down upon Kathleen with palpable weight as the sun rises. At another, the black humor of an initially jokey faculty-reception-turned-nasty culminates in truly disturbing high-contrast shots of feeding that are almost entirely black but drained of all humour, and difficult to get out of the mind's eye afterward. The restricted palette lends congruity to interpolated documentary footage of My Lai and Dachau, and other presumably "real" footage of New York City takes on a particular kind of menace: sunglasses on ordinary pedestrians take on an ominous quality, shielding wearers from the light, suggestive of an omnipresent threat.
And as much as THE ADDICTION is a study of one woman's descent into darkness, the film insists from the start that this taste for evil is common to us all. It opens with images of the My Lai massacre, shown as part of a philosophy lecture. Kathleen objects to the way the trial singled out one man, when an entire nation was guilty. "How did he get over there? Who put the gun in his hand? They say that he was guilty of killing women and babies. How many bombs were dropped that did the exact same thing? How many homes were destroyed? Who's in jail for that? ... I'm only saying, if you're going to prosecute war crimes you better make sure more than one man takes the blame for everything. It's ridiculous." A vampire gets what are practically the film's last words, when she quotes from theologian R.C. Sproule: "We're not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners."
THE ADDICTION is not as strong a work as Ferrarra's other very Catholic exploration of human depravity, BAD LIEUTENANT, though it is better looking. The overt philosophizing can feel a tad sophomoric. Viewers who are put off by that, or who don't buy St. John's central argument about the universality of human evil, are likely to have real problems with the interpolation of Holocaust footage, which could seem gratuitous, or at least unearned. I imagine Jewish viewers could be very troubled by a film that yokes the horror of the Holocaust to the potentially campy mythology of vampirism – especially when the antidote to such evil is rendered in such clearly Christian symbols as crucifix and communion.
But for those of us who see Nazi atrocities, sexual predation and the horrors of addiction issuing from the same dark place in the human heart – every human heart – the film is a stunning reminder of the Bible's uncompromising assertion that the proclivity to evil is common to us all. I left this film deeply shaken, determined to meet the ever-present temptations to spiritual and moral compromise with a resistance far more passionate. "You think that's going to stop me? Collaborator..."
Available at Videomatica
There's a fascinating article about the screenwriter in the summer 1998 issue of IMAGE Journal - "Spiritual Subversion: The Films of Nicholas St. John" by J.A. Hanson - though unfortunately it is not reproduced at the website. But you can order it there, and it's worth it: the entire issue is about film. (Come to think of it, it was poring over that volume of IMAGE that started me beginning the list of films that would have to go in a book such as the one I'm now writing, should I ever decide to write such a book. Cool.)