My rating: ****
While on things vaguely religious, I thought I would post up another item from my now defunct film website. I originally wrote this review in 2002. I have made some very minor updates.
A New York doctoral student in philosophy, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), gets bitten by a female vampire in evening clothes and becomes one herself. Drifting aimlessly and neglecting her thesis, Kathleen stumbles across an ancient vampire called Peina (Christopher Walken) who promptly sucks all her blood and gives her a lecture on philosophy and literature which inspires her to finish her thesis. A post-doctoral party becomes a vampire feeding frenzy and Kathleen, having already infected the rest of her philosophy department, ends up in hospital. There she repents of her addiction to evil, dies and is saved. The film’s dialogue consists mainly of heavy duty quotations from, and discussions of, pre-1960s philosophy, mostly of the existentialist and Jansenist variety.
This is not a movie for the faint hearted. But then Abel Ferrara‘s films never are. This bizarre and intense film operates at a number of levels: first of all, as a suitably blood-festooned vampire flick (although the word vampire is never mentioned). Secondly, it operates as a philosophical and religious reflection on human evil and redemption and finally as an amusing take on certain aspects of university life, probably best appreciated by those directly involved in that venerable institution.
To comment first of all on its vampire credentials. It helps if one has more than a passing familiarity with the vampire genre in order to stomach the gore. The action is filmed in black and white which helps distance the viewer from the more graphic elements. Indeed in colour, the effect would probably have been unintentionally comic, evoking the lurid excesses of Hammer horror in its hey day. Even so, a vampire feeding frenzy at Kathleen’s post Ph.D party looks amusingly like some avant-garde actors’ workshop. Having said this, if there were such a thing as vampires, this would probably have to be the most realistic depiction of the sheer mechanics of their practices in all their repulsiveness. No romantic sparkling vampires of the Twilight variety here! But in the end it is probably the documentary images of the piles of bodies in concentration camps at the end of World War II which form the most disturbing visual material of the film. As for sound, the most disgusting scene must surely be the evil vampire Peina sucking Kathleen’s blood.
But the core of this film is its philosophical and religious reflection on evil. Clearly writer Nicholas St. John has been reading some heavy duty philosophy of the most gloomy existentialist kind: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire and theologians such as Calvin and J.C. Sproul are referred to and quoted at some length by the characters. It seems he wrote this film and Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral (1996) after his son’s death. No-one has a mundane or even a remotely cheerful conversation in this film and certainly no-one refers to any philosophy produced more recently than 1960. No Foucauldian, structuralist, or postmodern vampires here! The tone is reminiscent of such Catholic pre- and immediately post-war novelists as Graham Greene, Shusaka Endo, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac – all heavily influenced by a bleak angst ridden Jansenist outlook. One is also reminded of the French film maker Robert Bresson’s approach - another atheist/Catholic film maker who was concerned with showing how evil people could be and the grace of God that could save them in extremity.
The only people in the film able to resist the lure of the vampire are a priest and a young man handing out religious pamphlets in front of the building where the post-doctoral gore fest is about to occur. Kathleen, after having her vampire advances rebuffed by the young man, goes inside and starts screaming hysterically ‘I will not submit!’, an obvious reference to Lucifer’s ‘non serviam’. The whole premise of the film seems to be that if one does not recognise and face the evil within oneself and the rest of mankind and accept the saving grace of the Christian God, then one is controlled by evil, becomes addicted to it and is compelled to pass it on to others.
The nausea of existence à la Sartre is also much in evidence – quite literally as the newly made vampire Kathleen sits in a café and toys digustedly with her food. Nonetheless, for all its references to the philosophy of another era, this is very much a film of the 1990s with its passing references to AIDS and its view of postmodern social detachment and disconnection.
The philosophical dialogues and pronouncements of the various characters are anything but naturalistic and it helps to have some philosophical background to follow what is being said and the links between the action and the talk are not always clear. This produces a similar, but perhaps less extreme effect, to the one produced in Luis Bunuel’s film The Milky Way where characters from different periods in history conduct sword fights, drink in taverns, sing at school fêtes, all the while discussing the finer points of medieval Catholic doctrine or arcane heretical deviations. But the radical disjunction between words and things or actions is an attractive one and serves to emphasise the non-naturalness of all human words and actions.
Along the way Kathleen meets an evil and corrupt vampire who tells her his name is Peina and who is able to control his hunger and pass as human through a kind of asceticism of evil – a Nietzschean will to power. He has managed to make his evil mundane and almost invisible and he is able to control it for his own purposes which makes it far worse than Kathleen’s. Peina achieves a kind of perverse evil enlightenment and asceticism through the management of his addiction. Kathleen is more classical in her salvation but is far less interesting because we don’t see her involved in anything like the 12 steps to get to that point. All we see is the addiction and then the miraculous salvation. Peina on the other hand has a whole ascetic practice which is much more intriguing – but it is an asceticism in the service of darkness rather than light.
I would suggest that any postgraduate student who is having trouble finishing their thesis would probably benefit from Peina as a supervisor. He roars at Kathleen frighteningly: ‘You are nothing! You know nothing!’ gives her a reading list of French and German philosophers and Beckett then sucks all her blood. Prior to running into this vampire she had been neglecting her thesis. Afterwards she gets on and finishes it. Amusingly, by the end of the film Kathleen has turned most of the philosophy department into vampires. Some academics would no doubt feel quite at home with the whole notion of postgraduate students sucking their blood.
This is not a big budget production and the filming is rough and ready but it is the ideas that carry this work. Watching this flawed film, if not always a pleasant experience, is certainly a challenging and thought provoking one and as such well worth the effort.