The Addiction. 1995. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John.
Starring Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra, Christopher Walken, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Fredro Starr, Kathryn Erbe, & Michael Imperioli.
Fast Films/Guild/October Films
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
In general there’s nobody like Abel Ferrara, and no other vampire movie like his 1995 philosophical horror The Addiction. Vampires, like other horror monsters, have been worn out by the film industry, only getting worse as capitalism takes precedence over art.
In this story of the bloodsucking undead, vampires are symbolic of the dichotomy between good and evil. Screenwriter Nicholas St. John also explores their condition as an allegory of the awful desperation experienced by drug addicts. The plot involves a PhD student working on a doctorate in philosophy – on the topic of ethical relativism – when she’s pulled into a dark alleyway and bitten by a vampire, changing her perspectives.
As a former addict himself – mainly cocaine and painkillers – Father Gore knows the feeling of being a victim to one’s habits. Like a vampire, a junkie needs to feed, or they can possibly die. Yes, the addiction exists, along with all those horrific symptoms and the effects of not feeding said addiction. And so much can cause an addiction, from a predisposition to substance abuse to childhood trauma. Ultimately, in the end, it’s for us – the addicted – to choose whether we feed or fight the addiction.
“You’re not a person. You’re nothing.”
In the ‘wrong part of town’ as it’s so often referred to – white code word for BLACK or NON-WHITE part of town – Kathleen (Lili Taylor) finds herself pulled in by a dark world after Casanova (Annabella Sciorra) feeds on her neck. Vampirism takes the place of drug addiction, soon plaguing Kathleen’s existence. She goes home that night and starts experiencing the shakes while lying in bed. Soon she can’t eat or drink. She wears sunglasses during the day, sensitive to the light. She experiences all the symptoms of a heroin junkie— worst of all, the hunger.
Perhaps the best, most obvious symbolism is the vampire’s bite, leaving track marks like a syringe’s needle. Another important image is Kathleen’s initial feeding. She doesn’t bite anyone, instead pulling a syringe full of blood from a junkie in an alleyway, not unlike the alley where she was first bitten, and going back home to inject herself.
Like the vampire virus, the lure of drugs preys on weakness. Not unlike those who push drugs. Vampirism isn’t solely a metaphor of addiction, it extends to those who prey on the weak. Vampires can be anybody: the junkies who’d do anything, even immoral things for a fix, or the vampiric dealers on the corner selling junkies product that will render their existence Hell on Earth.
In addition to the allegory of living through addiction’s brutality, the screenplay tackles philosophical points of view on ethical relativism and moral nihilism. The vampire offers a compelling way to embody themes of good v. evil, touching on bits of philosophical writing from Friedrich Nietzsche.
“I’m rotting inside, but I’m not dying.”
St. John’s screenplay draws on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as well as several Nietzsche texts like Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The Gay Science. Ethical relativism is a large part of certain branches in philosophy. The idea being there’s no absolute morality, no universal right/wrong spanning all cultures.
St. John’s vampires verge on moral nihilism in their belief there’s simply no moral right or wrong. Kathleen goes from a liberal arts student, seeing things as stark black and white – in which the significance of Ferrara’s choice to shoot in black-and-white becomes clear – to a vampire without conscience, doing anything to feed her hunger. She goes from seeing morality as an absolute universal to finding the grey areas of life, existing in a liminal space between good and evil, or someplace beyond.
Everything boils down to Nietzsche’s “will to power.” Every person possesses and craves power, but it’s how we wield our power that matters. Anybody can be cruel or good. The question then becomes, like for Kathleen: which part of yourself do you nourish? We can either feed the good or bad inside. Nietzsche writes about what he calls the “master–slave morality,” in that the master values power, pride, and other like attributes, while the slave values empathy and kindness. This relates to a struggle of cultures and which ones emerge as dominant. The Addiction poses the master-slave binary as a depiction of vampires and humans. Humans rebuke the blood lust of the vampires and the vampires assert their power over humans. The vampires’ master morality works both for and against Nietzsche. Though they possess power, their use of power only weakens them as they require more blood corresponding to a weakened morality— they assert power and simultaneously negate it. If those with power were really powerful they’d be capable of controlling their destructive urges. Thus, power can be a weakness.
There are several references to the Holocaust/Hitler via sound and imagery: pictures of the Holocaust’s aftermath and soundbites of a speech by Adolf himself. This is paralleled with the party scene where Kathleen and other vampires feed on the human guests, leaving a pile of bodies in their wake. These two depictions of evil are connected as one. The vamps recite the same line to their victims: “Tell me to go.” This a way of shifting the blame for one’s actions, something junkies and people who do terrible things say. This is an unwillingness to accept oneself/one’s actions. Same as when the Nazis and white nationalists claim people in the concentration camps were only “following orders.”
When Kathleen begins feeling the effects of vampirism, she experiences the usual symptom of no reflection. This is more than vampire lore. St. John uses a piece of myth as commentary on an inability to face oneself. The vampire who indulges their bloody hunger can’t come to terms with their plunge into evil, which is why Kathleen’s unable to see the mirror reflect her image— she can’t bear a reflection of her true self.
At the end, Kathleen overdoses on blood like a junkie on heroin. She winds up in the hospital where she goes through a transformative revelation. Casanova quotes R.C. Sproul to Kathleen in her hospital room, the actual quote reading as follows: “For a Christian to be a Christian, [they] must first be a sinner.” This symbolises an individual’s acceptance of their nature.
We have to accept the good and bad, our sins and virtues at once. Kathleen figuratively comes into the light as she does so literally, asking a nurse to open the blinds in her room— symbolically, she’s choosing to let sunlight burn her physical vampire form. In this moment, the eternal life of a Christian afterlife is juxtaposed with the eternal life of a vampire. By choosing to accept herself and the duality within her of right+wrong, Kathleen achieves relief from vampirism’s addiction, and in a way achieves salvation.
The drug addiction aspect of The Addiction encompasses ideas of what is good and what is evil to the individual. This isn’t a discussion about the overall evils or goods of society. Rather, Ferrara and St. John try looking at the deeper truths of what it is to be right or wrong internally. How do we live with ourselves if we choose to embrace the darker side of our nature? Better yet, CAN we? If we wait too late to reconcile the good and bad of our own existences, we risk destroying ourselves and others, withering eventually when it all comes to light. Because there are no universal rights and wrongs, despite our wishes there were an easy way to separate the two unequivocally. Accepting the bitter and the sweet as a reality of human nature is necessary for the health of our bodies and souls.