Nadja, Lagoon Cinema Vampire in Brooklyn, area theaters
EVER SINCE CATHERINE Deneuve took a roll with Susan Sarandon in The Hunger, vampire movies have scared up various chic gimmicks as a way of pumping new blood into an undying genre. At the same time, film critics have gone to great lengths to read the resurgence of vampire cinema as a response to real-world horrors. "Vampirism is as apt a metaphor for the power relations within an increasingly desperate capitalism and the not unrelated culture of victimization as it is for 'Tainted Love' in the age of AIDS," gushed Amy Taubin in Sight and Sound.
Fair enough, but in the context of an increasingly desperate film industry, the fact that five vampire movies are being released this year seems less the result of a controlling zeitgeist than evidence of how effortlessly this marketable formula can be revived. After all, if Tom Cruise could locate a hint of talent by playing Anne Rice's Lestat, a mere pair of plastic fangs might turn the laziest of performers into a Method monster.
Indeed, even Eddie Murphy benefits from wearing sharp teeth, colored contacts, and a black cape for the comedy-thriller Vampire in Brooklyn; in fact, he finally seems inspired to play a character rather than a smug variant of himself. But, of course, not every film can afford to resuscitate an anemic icon. Since the biggest name draw in the vampire movie Nadja is Peter Fonda (who dons dark shades and a gray wig for his bit part as the ghoul-hunter Van Helsing), its own party trick involves a periodic use of black-and-white Pixelvision--the Fisher-Price camcorder system that failed as a kids' toy before being reborn as an affordable tool for arty auteurs.
Besides having discovered an ingenious way to save on film stock, Nadja's director Michael Almereyda reveals that Pixelvision looks really trippy when blown up to 35mm and electronically tweaked; he's especially enthralled with how the pixilated image of a lit cigarette seems to burn octagonal holes in the screen. But as this otherwise shallow portrait of New York bloodsuckers begins to suggest an MTV clip padded out to feature length, Almereyda's mix of formats never connects to his narrative content. Neither does it portray the Vampire-Cam subjectivity of his title character (Elina Lowensöhn), an East Village hipster who recently left Transylvania because "it's very hard to find food after 10 p.m." (Tell me about it.) The epitome of detached cool, Nadja doesn't seem much interested in being a vampire; likewise, Nadja doesn't care to explain why. Almereyda's idea of character development is to have his heroine slither past Tower Records on a snowy night, brooding to the beat of a Portishead track.
Eventually Nadja sinks her teeth into the married Lucy (Galaxy Craze), who turns into a catatonic "apprentice in the realm of shadows." Along the way to a ridiculously familiar story of Lucy's husband (Martin Donovan) and uncle-in-law (Fonda) attempting to restore her to the world of the living, Almereyda tries to lighten his pretentious mood with some deadpan humor: Nadja sends her ailing twin brother (Jared Harris) a "psychic fax"; David Lynch turns up in a cameo as a drowsy morgue attendant; and Nadja's act of going down on Lucy is observed by a seemingly excited Christmas-tree Dracula. Here, Nadja appears to endorse the pleasures of sexual "experimentation," yet as the film's real climax involves the restoration of two hetero couples, lesbianism becomes just another of its spooky, titillating signifiers.
Far less ambitious, Vampire in Brooklyn succeeds mainly in the modest task of giving Eddie Murphy his first watchable movie in a decade. Since the comedian disguises himself for two scenery-chewing cameos as a Mafia Guido and an Al Sharpton-esque preacher (who expounds on the religious virtues of both evil and "ass"), he seems content to play the lead role of Maximillian--an ancient vampire in search of his soulmate (Angela Bassett)--more or less straight. Wisely, director Wes Craven limits Murphy's trademark mugging to a Transylvanian accent, some raised eyebrows, and a few deliberately awful Freddy Kruger-type quips ("Put a little heart into it," he growls after ripping open a mob guy's chest). Otherwise, the supporting cast gets most of the jokes. Dropping frenzied one-liners while his body parts fall off, Kadeem Hardison is particularly outrageous as the vampire's sidekick ghoul. "You ain't got to pull that Blacula shit on me," Hardison says in an attempt to quell Murphy's appetite. "I'll run you down to KFC and hook you up with a 2-piece!"
Vampire in Brooklyn's flair for rhythmic dialogue is surprisingly well preserved by Craven, who's working more in the vein of his parodic The People Under the Stairs than his Elm Street series. With its brisk pace and distinctly black humor, the movie works as a diverting mix of comedy and FX. Nevertheless, stingy vampire buffs would do well to wait two weeks for Abel Ferrara's genuinely creepy, amazingly raw The Addiction.