Like Abel Ferrara’s other collaborations with screenwriter Nicholas St. John, The Addiction is rife with intense and undigested contradictions. The film loosely mixes addiction and assault metaphors, capturing the self-loathing of addicts while almost inadvertently suggesting that victims of sexual abuse have it coming. When a vampire, Casanova (Annabella Sciorra), corners a psychology scholar, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), into a dark stairwell, she asks her victim to forcefully will her away. Kathleen pleads with Casanova and is bitten in the neck in retaliation, which Ferrara stages as a tenderly erotic suckling of the flesh. Now a vampire herself, Kathleen gains Casanova’s confidence and attacks a variety of New Yorkers, offering them a similar deal: If they ask her to go, convincingly, they will be spared. Only one person, tellingly a man and even more tellingly a demon, can rise to the occasion of these terms.
It’s all too typical to blame women for their victimization, and this association is all the more disturbing since Sciorra, a victim of Harvey Weinstein, plays the assailant in this film. Yet Ferrara and St. John mine a deeper truth: Victims do blame themselves, and can subsequently nurse contempt for other victims, though there’s also a seemingly accidental sense of thematic confusion in The Addiction. St. John castigates people for succumbing to addiction rather than assault, though the latter is sexualized per the tradition of vampire films, as Ferrara is more interested in the visual textures of violence than in St. John’s ruminations on sin. A psychology scholar and devout Catholic, St. John likens addiction to timeless evil in a series of riffs that reference determinism, existentialism, positivism, and usual philosophical suspects such as Sartre, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard. In a metaphor that doesn’t quite crystallize, yet is powerful nonetheless, addiction is also connected by St. John to atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Mai Lai massacre, and the Bosnian genocide.
In the film, addiction is shown to spring from self-absorption, which is the common denominator of all evil. Do we do evil things because we’re evil, or are we evil because we do evil things? Such a rhetorical sleight of hand can enable thinkers to justify whatever they do—and perhaps it’s this rationalization that’s the root of evil. St. John gets off on his erudition and skillfulness with words—sometimes to the point of stopping The Addiction in its tracks. One occasionally yearns for less telling and more showing. Yet the film is also a brutal satire of philosophy, as Kathleen uses her education to justify her killing spree and blood addiction as ideological protests, evading personal responsibility. When Kathleen says to a victim, “My indifference is not the concern here, it’s your astonishment that needs studying,” St. John and Ferrara allow the comment to be both chilling and ludicrous.
Two films play out simultaneously within The Addiction: St. John’s dialectal morality play and Ferrara’s visceral study of the corporeal textures of violation, satiation, and withdrawal. In The Addiction, blood for a vampire is like heroin, and Kathleen first extracts it from a homeless man’s arm with a syringe, which she later uses to shoots up in her bathroom. The drinking of blood has generally lost its agency in cinema, as we’ve seen it in too many horror films to count, while shooting up renders the act of cannibalism perverse and alien again. Ferrara lingers on Taylor’s arm, highlighting her musculature in a fashion that’s sensual as well as despairing. Further complicating the smorgasbord of metaphors, the homeless man’s face is shot in severe chiaroscuro, which rhymes with the photographs that Ferrara spotlights of emaciated corpses that have been dumped in the ditches of concentration camps. The implications of this audacious visual rhyme are unmistakable: We wall ourselves off from the flamboyant cruelty of global genocide, which we congratulate ourselves for studying and scrutinizing from a distance, while committing a kind of casual genocide in our own streets.
As all this thematic handwringing can grow tiring, one may leave the film primarily grappling with Ferrara’s expressionistic black-and-white images and Taylor’s incredible performance. Nearly every composition is stunning, whether Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch are roaming the streets of New York City, providing documentary-like glimpses of urban life, or framing Kathleen’s face in the shadows as she sits on the floor beside her bed, gradually growing into a monster. When she writhes on her bed after suffering her attack, Ferrara spotlights her legs, allowing us to feel their weight, which somehow underscores the profound violation of Kathleen’s assault.
Like the women of several Ferrara films, Kathleen is an avenger as well as an intellectual, a fraud, a killer, a manipulator, a seductress, and a lost soul seeking salvation. Taylor unifies these strands of personality with subtle finesse, forging a real character out of the spare parts of archetypes borrowed from genre films and philosophical curlicues. The Addiction churns with conjecture and style, but its most unforgettable scene is pared-down and straightforward: of Kathleen returning to her apartment after the attack, closing her door, and pausing to survey her home. In this moment, Taylor offers a portrait of a woman irrevocably changed, who looks at her old life with astonishment and disgust. And Ferrara drinks her in with appropriate awe: Deep down, this canny old bad boy is a humanist.
This lush, sharp, glistening image can be stacked up with those of the best restorations from the Criterion Collection. The blacks are rich and the whites are a little (purposefully) soft, giving The Addiction the aura of a daguerreotype that might have been shot by Fritz Lang. The film is a symphony of textures, especially of faces and of the rough urban landscapes of ’90s-era New York City. A shot of Annabella Sciorra’s vampire, as she moves toward a victim while a sidewalk grate casts crossed shadows against her face, is as powerful as any image in ’90s horror cinema, and this transfer captures its prismatic glory. Skin is rendered with the vividness of X-rays, which is important to an allegory of drug abuse and sexually transmitted disease. The soundtracks are slightly more variable. The English 2.0 LPCM mono track might be an accurate representation of the source material, but the dialogue tends to be eclipsed by the music and larger diegetic sound effects. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is more vibrant, with crisp dialogue that’s nimbly balanced with the deep, almost Lynchian gurgling of the NYC night life.
The audio commentary by Abel Ferrara, recorded exclusively for this Blu-ray, is a shaggy and informal affair that’s driven by the conflicting impulses of the filmmaker and moderator/critic Brad Stevens. Ferrara rambles evocatively and profanely about the film’s imagery, while Stevens tries and fails to direct his subject to more conventionally dissect the work. This tension is revealing in itself, as Ferrara is less comfortable analyzing themes than the freewheeling textures of his films, and Stevens proves to be a good sport in weathering Ferrara’s dismissals. Ferrara memorably denies the use of extras, explaining his run-and-gun methods with "this is fuckin’ New York, dawg."
Ferrara’s new documentary, "Talking with the Vampires," benefits from his relationships with Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, cinematographer Ken Kelsch, and composer Joe Delia, as they’re unusually forthright and vulnerable, particularly Delia, who seems wistful playing the piano as Ferrara asks about Nicholas St. John. The new interview with Ferrara covers the same ground as his commentary, though Steven’s appreciation is notable for observing the under-acknowledged strain of satire that runs through The Addiction. "Abel Ferrara Edits The Addiction," an archive piece from the film’s production, is poignant because Ferrara, who’s had drug issues of his own, is clearly under the influence. The theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, a reversible sleeve with cover art by Peter Strain, and a booklet with essays by Michael Ewins and Paul Duane round out an eccentric and haunting supplements package.
Arrow Video offers a miraculously gorgeous restoration of Abel Ferrara’s grubby and neurotic work of lo-fi horror expressionism.