May 11, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

by Nick Schager

Vampire in Brooklyn [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's fish-out-of-water vampire comedy Dark Shadows.]

Pair a flagging comedian with a floundering horror director and what you get is Vampire in Brooklyn, a marriage made in horror-comedy hell courtesy of Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven. The mid-90s-isms of this wretched collaboration are plentiful—cue Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man" to underline Murphy's alpha-male sexiness?— and yet they're the least of this film's problems, so misbegotten and poorly executed is its every element. Working from a story co-conceived by Murphy and a script co-written by Murphy's yet-to-be-Chappelle's-Show-famous brother Charlie, Craven's pre-Scream debacle gets clunky wit' it from the get-go. Before we've even seen him, Maximillian (Murphy) narrates the set-up: with all his brethren dead, Max has left his Bermuda Triangle island home to find and marry the last of his line, who happens to be living (unaware of her vampiric nature) in Brooklyn. Given Craven's Haiti voodoo-themed The Serpent and the Rainbow, Max's nationality suggests that the filmmaker has a particular conception of the Caribbean as a hotbed of exotic evil. Those nonsensical notions, though, are overshadowed by the more basic absence of craft on display, as evidenced by an intro scene in which, after Max's ship crashes into a dock, John Witherspoon's hands-flailing caretaker investigates the vessel and finds a murdered crew in one amusement park ride-style close-up after another.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Max makes his initial appearance on a wave of smoke-machine fog in a dark alley, where he rescues Julius (Kadeem Hardison) from Italian mobsters—ripping out Mitch Pileggi's heart and then quipping "Put a little heart into it!"—so he can make him his ghoul minion, replete with putrefying skin and falling-off body parts. "I am Maximillian. A connoisseur of death, you might say," coos Murphy's specter, but with his long flowing locks, well-manicured goatee, and dark black overcoat, he seems less a descendent of Nosferatu (board-stiff rising from the ground or not) than a vain '90s R&B singer dressed up for Halloween. When Julius tells a hungry Max that he can get some KFC and Max instead flicks flesh out of his teeth and retorts "I already had Italian," the mixture of racial stereotyping and one-liner cheesiness is almost too much to bear. Any such offensiveness, however, is still more interesting than Max's ensuing search, which is conveniently aided by the fact that his target, Rita (Angela Bassett), is a cop who just happens to be investigating the very ship murders Max perpetrated. Rita's mom went crazy in an asylum for seeing the same visions that now terrify Rita but—as when she dreams of discovering herself crucified in a doorway, leading to her waking up screaming and flailing about—are hopelessly laughable.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Bassett may be a more elegant and forceful screen presence than the rest of her mugging co-stars, but she does her best to match their overacting throughout Vampire in Brooklyn, her performance comprised mainly of hysterical freaking out and badass tough-girl strutting. Alas, no subtlety would have salvaged this material, as Max's pursuit of Rita involves one groan-worthy set piece after another, many scored to the sounds of Hardison's awful comedic-relief cackling and, in two cases, centered on Murphy's fondness for prosthetics-enabled impersonations. To get to Rita, Max shape-shifts into, respectively, a bellowing preacher and an Italian gunmen, both of them even broader caricatures than the one Zakes Mokae (a holdover from The Serpent and the Rainbow) plays as Dr. Zeko, the Caribbean-expat vampire expert whose insights eventually help Rita's dull-as-dirt partner-cum-love-interest Detective Justice (Allen Payne) thwart Max's plan. Murphy's role-playing shenanigans are a dreary example of look-at-me narcissism, and they further strand the proceedings between scary and funny—a netherworld that becomes more unpleasant as the story barrels toward its conclusion, and wisecracking banter sits more and more uncomfortably next to monstrous-faced bellowing and neck-biting.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Ultimately more disastrous than tonal inconsistency is simply Vampire in Brooklyn's cluelessness about how it wants us to feel about Max, who for the first two-thirds of the film is presented as a likeably dapper anti-hero for whom we're supposed to root, and then—once he's on the verge of securing Rita's affections—is suddenly positioned as a villain whose downfall we should crave. This muddled POV means that one never cares about these characters' fates at any point along their respective journeys. Then again, Craven's direction is so hambone silly that taking any of this seriously is nigh impossible. Despite his illustrious reputation, Craven proves downright incompetent when it comes to atmosphere, employing thunder and lightening, violent wind, and bright misty light with ridiculous frequency. His touch is heavy and exaggerated, which means it perfectly matches Max's double entendres to Rita like "I would love to have you for dinner," and his responding to Rita rejecting his proposition of eternal life with the scene-closing zinger, "Women." In his holy man guise, Max may preach "Evil is good!" but it's a sentiment refuted at every turn by Vampire in Brooklyn's insufferable cartoon spookiness.

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Posted by ahillis at May 11, 2012 5:11 PM