One of the most pervasive and tedious tropes in cinema is the notion that New York City serves as a “character” in nearly any film shot there, that the mere act of documenting action on its streets imbues a movie with some essence of the sprawling city’s multivalent identity. Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has consistently captured New York City in various states of social decay or reform, though his films resolutely treat the city as an unknowable paradox far beyond simplification. The Addiction, one of his greatest and densest portraits of the city, is a vision of New York at the dawn of the Giuliani era, the last days of the city’s danger before it was ruthlessly cleansed of undesirables. It is a vampire movie unlike any other, steeped in grime and de-eroticized as the hunger for blood overrides all other desires.

The film’s protagonist, graduate student Kathleen (Lili Taylor), falls prey to a unique form of menace while walking the streets alone one night. Accosted by a mysterious woman named Casanova (Annabella Sciorra), Kathleen is bitten in the throat and soon begins to desire blood herself. The extent to which the woman fits vampiric tropes is unclear; she can still walk around in the day, though she feels fatigued, and whether or not she can see her own reflection is unclear as she covers all of the mirrors in her apartment rather than stand before them. But the hunger is real, and Kathleen begins to stalk around the city, luring strangers and friends alike into secluded areas to drain them. Kathleen has nothing in common with the prim and proper vampires of Gothic fiction. Unwilling or unable to look at her reflection, Kathleen becomes increasing unkempt, and her sallow, disheveled look and withdrawn behavior casts her in drug addict terms.

Ferrara himself was no stranger to heroin, and The Addiction clearly manifests out of his own drug struggles. As such, the film has a more clear-eyed perspective on the draining nature of addiction compared to sultrier genre entries. Taylor plays Kathleen as a strung-out figure, speaking in leaden cadences and slurring her thoughts. Kathleen can seduce targets, but only because they seem to want to be seduced. A recurring motif of the film involves vampiric figures cornering their prey and saying that if they simply say “go away” that all of this will end. Yet no person, including a pre-infection Kathleen, can do so, instead allured in some way they cannot articulate to see how far the situation will go. This dovetails with scenes of Kathleen offering drugs to readily willing partners, and it also bears tacit connection to the AIDS epidemic still ravaging the city. The sexual overtones of vampire fiction are still here (and arguably deepened by bisexual insinuations), but there is a sexless, mechanical nature to the film’s seductive properties, a sense of bleak, nihilistic self-destruction over debased virginal innocence.

Kathleen attempts to come to terms with her new nature by falling back on philosophy, though in her many voiceovers she references people like Heidegger with sneering disdain, realizing the inadequacy of the academic in the face of true hopelessness. This point is driven home by frequent images and classroom discussion of various historical atrocities from My Lai to the Holocaust, with reminders that all the moral philosophy in the world fails to explain, much less prevent, these horrors. Religion also crops up in Ferrara’s bleak vision of Catholic reckoning, with missionaries, priests and icons looming in the margins as Kathleen gradually comes to feel guilt for her feedings. Religious counterbalance in vampire fiction tends to take on operatic forms, but here absolution tends to come in nasty, almost Flannery O’Connor-esque terms of brutal grace. When Kathleen meets Peina (Christopher Walken), a vampire who abstains from feeding on the living and satiates his hunger by biting other undead, he explains his method, which leaves the victim feeling unbearably hungry, by saying “demons suffer in hell,” displacing his guilt for killing the living for a dispassionate shared judgment among his peers.

All of this is set against an inky backdrop that epitomizes Ferrara’s ability to wring exceptional formal rigor out of shoestring budgets and a style that remains fundamentally gritty and street-level. Kathleen’s nighttime wanderings are drenched in darkness, with her own shadow jutting out ahead of her on walls as she stalks the city. People mill outside of storefronts but otherwise the city looks hollow at night, old stores and brownstones looming in an approximation of Gothic architecture. Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch wring cluttered, baroque compositions out of studio lofts and cheap one-bedroom apartments, with only the bourgeois trappings of NYU gleaming with cleanliness.

The Addiction follows junkie logic, from Kathleen’s pithy but unfocused attempts to justify herself using her philosophical studies to Peina so thoroughly cribbing from William S. Burroughs’ dignified junkie delusion that he even recommends Kathleen read Naked Lunch to learn how to control her urges. The dispassionate need for feeding is spiked only by the extreme outbursts of withdrawal, and a climactic mass killing is an orgiastic representation of overdose that brings about Kathleen’s first moment of clarity. The co-mingling of philosophy, theology and rock bottom epiphany feeds into the film’s dense metaphor for human misery and contemporary social malaise, making for one of the most wide-ranging genre films of the ‘90s, a portrait of life at the end of the millennium that has the desperate, since-viciously-disproven hope that things had nowhere to go but up.

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