Thursday, December 3, 2015
VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995), THE FRIGHTENERS (1996)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, directed byWes Craven, may be deemed a fantastic turn on Eddie Murphy's 1988 success COMING TO AMERICA, in which the wealthy denizen of a foreign land ventured into an Afro-American neighborhood of New York City. However, this time the emigre isn't technically of the same race as the Black Americans. The script of VAMPIRE is very specific in stating that Maximillian (Murphy) is one of the last of the vampire race, and that he can only breed more of his kind by finding someone who is at least half-vampire. New York fortunately has one such: a police detective named Rita, whose mother had mated with a male vampire in the Caribbean. Rita and her male partner Justice are both Black Americans, who have not yet acted on their romantic interest in one another. Thus Maximillian may be seen as an inversion of the fantasy of COMING TO AMERICA, for this time, the dark-skinned outsider is a threat to black womanhood, rather than a fabulous Prince Charming. But that reading may be giving this pedestrian film too much credit.
The script-- written partly by Murphy's brother Charles-- creates its own vampire mythology, which is reasonably consistent on its own terms, though still not very interesting. In particular, Maximillian is able to merge with and take over the bodies of mortals. Yet he can only do so with mortals who are thoroughly corrupt. This results in the film's best scene, when the vampire takes over the form of a hypocritical street-preacher and delivers a comical rant to his congregation, all for the purpose of confusing Rita and aiding his attempts to gain her consent to mate with him. At the same time, this limitation means that Maximillian can't just take over the body of Rita's partner Justice, leaving the detective the chance to divine the threat to his lovely partner and fight back. The conclusion does involve a battle in which Justice tries, and fails, to fight the quicksilver Maximillian, but the conflict's not decided until Rita weighs in.
In his seductive vampire persona Murphy plays it almost completely straight, aside from a few sarcastic remarks to his ghoul-servant Julius, who provides fairly predictable humor. But though Murphy follows all the standard tropes of the seductive demon-lover, Maximillian is simply a bore. Rising above the material are Angela Bassett as Rita and Zakes Mojae-- who previously performed in director Craven's SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW-- as a road-company Van Helsing.
Peter Jackson's THE FRIGHTENERS isn't any deeper in terms of its plot and characterizations, but visually it's a lot more inventive than VAMPIRE. Frank Brannigan (Michael J. Fox) is first seen as a man cursed with a chimerical gift-- the ability to see the forms of earthbound ghosts. However, he uses this gift for petty ends: summoning goofy ghosts like Cyrus and Stuart (seen above) to haunt houses so that he, posing as a ghostbuster, can scam the house-holders and collect a fee for dispelling the unquiet spirits.
But Frank has tragedy in his background, having lost his wife in a car accident, which trauma gave him his powers-- and this tragedy plays into his finding a new love in his life, Lucy (Trini Alvarado). Over the course of the movie, Frank learns that his wife was one of several victims of Johnny Bartlett, the ghost of a serial killer, and that Lucy is now on Johnny's list.
The characterizations are simple but appealing; Jeffrey Combs in particular shines as a demented FBI agent, used as much for comic relief as any of the ghosts. The film's real strength is its concentration upon finding innovative ways to exploit CGI effects for both comic and horrific effect, particularly with respect to the Judge (John Astin), the ghost of an Old West gunslinger whose ectoplasmic body is beginning to fall apart, and to Sergeant Hiles, a deceased drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, basically reprising the same part he played in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET).
Both films are not as interesting in themselves as they are for their attempts to use familiar horror-tropes for comic effect. That said, there's an important difference in emphasis. Though there are many comic moments in VAMPIRE, the core of its story-- Rita's temptation by a seductive demon lover-- has a dramatic resonance. In contrast, although Frank and Lucy are imperiled several times, and Frank himself almost dies at the climax, the core of the story has a comic resonance, celebrating not just Frank's physical revival but his renewed ability to find a new love and future happiness.