Vampire in Brooklyn is a schizophrenic film: Craven tried to make a comedy; Murphy didn’t seem to want to make a movie at all.
Watching comedy legend Eddie Murphy offer up a straight faced, dramatic performance as a vampire in a Wes Craven film must have been a jarring experience for audiences in 1995; 20 years later, in a world where Pluto Nash and Norbit exist, it’s more fascinating than your average cinematic train wreck. The last film Murphy owed on his contract with Paramount Pictures, Vampire in Brooklyn is a schizophrenic movie trapped between two warring crusades: Craven tried to make a comedy; Murphy didn’t seem to want to make a movie at all.
The project began as a script by Murphy’s brother Charlie (of “kicking Rick James through a mirror” fame) that was then rewritten by a Michael Lucker and Chris Parker. The finished product feels like a failed attempt to meld the contradictory aims of both drafts. Murphy stars as Maximillian, a smooth-ass bloodsucker who ships himself to Brooklyn via boat in search of his bride Rita (Angela Bassett), an unsuspecting half-vampire who also happens to be a homicide detective. It’s a little bit like Coming to America, except it isn’t perfect, James Earl Jones never shows up (not once) and Arsenio Hall is replaced by Kadeem Hardison hamming it up as Max’s ghoul, Julius.
The primary plot has Max trying to woo Rita, but she’s too embroiled in a will they or won’t they friendship thing with Allen Payne, who plays her partner named (no bullshit) Justice. The cop angle allows them a parallel narrative exploring the havoc Max’s blood lust wreaks on the city, along with a number of opportunities for Murphy to needlessly play other characters, presumably to keep himself from dying of boredom. If you’ve ever seen Blacula, this film isn’t that far off. Sometimes it’s legitimately funnier than even the campiest moments of that blaxploitation monstrosity. Sometimes Craven delivers the kind of sterling horror work he made his name on. Unfortunately, the two never once find any measure of harmony.
Over the years, Murphy’s been saddled with much of the blame for this film’s failure, but to be fair, he avails himself quite nicely–his Max is suitably charismatic and otherworldly. He chews on deliberately campy dialogue and relishes the cheesiness, but the film around him doesn’t know what it wants to be or how to be it. His introduction is the closest the movie ever gets to balanced. When Max saves Julius from mobsters he owes money to, he plunges his clawed hands into Mitch Pileggi’s chest and tears out the goofiest prop heart you’ve ever seen. As Murphy looks Pileggi dead in the eye and sells the line “Put a little heart into it,” for a brief moment, you think this whole thing is going to work. Max appears a formidable monster, but clearly he’s also going to be ridiculous as shit. Unfortunately, from there the film teeters between lukewarm scares and diminishing humor.
You can blame Craven. While the Scream films prove he didn’t lack comedic chops, the atmosphere he creates here just isn’t conducive to jokes. John Witherspoon heaps on a liberal application of the improvised mania that made him a standout in Friday, but shooting with too many angles in the coverage takes away from his off-the-cuff presence. Likewise, every scene is a claustrophobic, gothic New York that feels like a soundstage based on the animated series Gargoyles. This aesthetic is fine for the cop scenes, as Bassett and Payne trudge through the kind of boring police procedural Sandra Bullock used to love to make, but when Murphy interrupts that flow with weird turns as an Italian gangster and an Al Sharpton impersonator, it all falls apart. The jokes doesn’t have room to breathe and the horror doesn’t give you time to settle before the jump scare.
Even under all this disappointment, the movie offers moments of satisfying respite. Craven crafts a few strong sequences, particularly the nightmare Rita has early on in the film, and the scene where Max psychically compels a woman at Rita’s precinct to attack a cop. There are subtle touches of vampire mythology, like one small shot in a car where Max doesn’t appear in Julius’ rear mirror. Craven doesn’t build a whole scene out of it, but it’s a noticeable piece of continuity that felt strong compared to the blunt-instrument theatrics elsewhere. Much of the humor that lands is largely by mistake. At one point, Max screams at Julius to shut the fuck up, and even though Murphy plays it totally straight, it’s absolutely hilarious. His inability to distinguish between funny and serious feels like Prince in Purple Rain. Compelling, but curious. Ditto the scene where Murphy, as the Italian gangster, shoots a cat in the face. Killing animals is never funny, but the fact that this scene happens at all is some kind of backwards genius.
There are other elements that work, almost out of spite. Murphy and Bassett have palpable chemistry, even if the movie can’t get on the same page. The second act ends with a big scene for the two, dripping with pathos and executed respectably, but it’s an anomaly. The love triangle between Max, Rita and Justice largely plays, even if it feels like a quiet-storm remake of Fright Night, and glimpses of the black comedy Charlie Murphy probably envisioned make it to the final product. A white woman who happens upon Max in a cemetery gives a giant speech claiming to understand oppression before getting straight up murdered, and for a minute it feels like a Keenan Ivory Wayans movie. Ultimately, the shoddy structure, inconsistent arrangement and absolutely shitty make-up effects of the final act prove too ruinous to salvage. Once your final set piece has Eddie Murphy trussed up like a goddamn Klingon, there’s just no turning back.
Coming to America proved Murphy could play it straight while chewing scenery in ancillary roles, but there he displayed sharp comic timing as a believable, relatable protagonist. Here, he performs admirably, but it’s a functional, passionless turn completely drained of the intoxicating panache Murphy made his name on. It doesn’t help that he and his director were never quite on the same page, but to both men’s credit, this isn’t the lowest either man would sink in their respective careers.