Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1995)

15. Vampire in Brooklyn

“Vampire in Brooklyn” was a passion project for everyone involved except it’s director. As you watch the opening credits, you see Eddie Murphy and his brother Charlie’s name repeated over and over again. Wes has done plenty of work-for-hire jobs over the years but this stands out strictly for how uninvolved he appears to have been in the project. I can imagine Murphy, still a big star at the time, wanting to make his semi-“Blacula” remake and picking Craven simply because he was a director strongly associated with horror. It’s clear from the beginning on down that this was Eddie’s project, not Wes’.

The story drawls a lot from both “Blacula” and the original “Dracula.” The film begins with a ship pulling into dock, full of its crew’s dead bodies, a vampire prince the only living thing on board. However, this isn’t Victorian London and Eddie Murphy’s Maximillian isn’t Bela Lugosi. The vampire has come to Brooklyn looking for a mate, a dhampyr woman and the last remaining vampire besides himself. He finds that woman in Detective Rita, the cop coincidentally investigating the very murders Max is responsible for. Along the way, the vampire acquires a Renfield-like ghoul, has to get between Rita and her potential love interest, battles a Van Helsing style vampire hunter, and gets involved in all sorts of serio-comic shenanigans.

Craven hasn’t shown the most daft grasp of horror comedy before. “Vampire in Brooklyn” also fits the tonal inconsistency between horror and comedy that has plagued the director’s last few films. It’s a wacky, madcap comedy for most of it’s run-time before an obvious tonal shift in the last half-hour towards serious vampire thrills. However, this is the least of the movie’s problems. The script just isn’t very good. The writing smacks of laziness and a lack of professionalism. To give you an idea, the film begins with a flat, exposition-filled voice-over from Murphy. He explains the movie’s entire take on vampire mythology, tying in ancient Egypt and the Bermuda triangle. This could have been potentially interesting if, you know, the film had actually fucking showed us these things instead of just dumping that information through flat audio. Murphy’s bored narration crops up through-out the film several times, always uninvited, frequently explaining things that didn’t need explaining or could have just as easily been visually shown. This violates the number-one rule of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell.

The second biggest problem with “Vampire in Brooklyn” is its characters. Or rather, two characters. Kadeem Hardison plays Julius Jones, the Renfield to Maximillion’s Dracula. He slowly decomposes into a rotting, undead ghoul as the film progresses. The make-up is decent and, when he replaces a missing hand with a mannequin's or loses an eyeball, the viewer actually gets a rare laugh. But for the majority of the run-time, Julius is absolutely obnoxious. The character is an unfortunate racial cliché, a lazy, inner-city low-life. He makes constant lewd comments, most of them obvious and base. When Max and Rita first meet, Julius interrupts the potential seduction with a long string of profane sex talk, preventing the story from wrapping up an hour sooner. There’s little reason to keep him around and yet Julius gets an ungodly amount of screen-time. Hardison might be a decent actor but here, he is stuck doing the world’s most annoying Chris Tucker impersonation before Chris Tucker was really even a thing. As bad as Hardison is, John Witherspoon is actually worse. He plays Julius’ uncle and amplifies all of that character’s annoying attributes to an even higher level.

Eddie Murphy does little to help his own film. "Vampire in Brooklyn" emerged out of the same awkward period as “Metro” and “Harlem Nights,” when Murphy was seemingly trying to shift away from comedic parts to more action-centric leading man roles. Just as Murphy was ill-suited to strictly action roles, he can’t pull of a convincing horror villain either. Maxmillion drops cheesy one-liners after ripping people’s hearts out or drinking their blood. Murphy is hopelessly unconvincing whenever the film calls on him to be threatening. He can’t bear his fangs or clench his forehead in a serious matter. Eventually, the movie takes the burden off of Murphy and puts him in somewhat cartoonish monster make-up. Murphy is better as a romantic lead. He has no sparks with Angela Bassett and plays the role as weirdly asexual. At least he’s slightly more comfortable when seducing women then when he’s making scary vampire faces.

The stench of the actor’s notorious ego is all over the picture. The vampire can, for no particularly good reason, take the form of any of his victims. This allows Murphy to trout out his, by then old, gimmick of playing multiple characters in the same film while under heavy make-up. He becomes a evangelist gospel preacher, in an overly long, broad sketch that has assuredly been done before and better. Not long after that, Murphy takes the form of an Italian gangster. The make-up isn’t impressive and the bit indulges in tired stereotypes about the mafia and pasta. Eventually, Murphy just drops the pretenses and starts playing his main role for comedy as well.

And that’s the other big problem with “Vampire in Brooklyn.” When it’s going for laughs, it’s not funny. The comedy that is in the film is weirdly mean-spirited. Eddie explodes a dog early on and, a little later, shoots a cat to death. I don’t know about you but animal abuse doesn’t exactly tickle my funny bone. Like “Blacula” before it, you’d expect “Vampire in Brooklyn” to explore racial issues to some degree. Not really. There’s a small bit late in the film where a white victim says something about “relating to your race’s plight,” paraphrased, but the script doesn’t build on that in anyway.

The movie’s attempts at serious horror are only marginally better. Craven gets some decently atmospheric POV stalking shots in. The only truly memorable moment involves blood leaking out of a keyhole. The rest of that sequence, where Murphy’s character is attacking a woman he doesn’t even appear to be in the same room with, is hopelessly awkward. Some choppy special effects also undermine the horror elements. A cobra is clearly divided from the actors by a glass screen in one scene. Basset running into a church, being bathed in white light, is melodramatic. An early scene where Murphy stalks her while inside the boat concludes abruptly. A stunt involving a cab is oddly framed. Despite being set in Brooklyn, the film was shot on obviously fake looking sets. The stunts are so weak that, when you read a stunt person actually died while working the film, the movie becomes depressing for a whole new reason.

Many of the story elements and supporting characters are purely functionary. Bassett’s guilt about her dead, insane mother is repeatedly referenced in heavy-handed ways. The actress seems confused and frustrated by the material. Allen Payne as her (human) love interest is bland as can be and only going through the motion. He too has an unpleasantly cartoonish moment, an oddly sexist outburst inside a car. It’s nice to see Zakes Mokae, from “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in the Van Helsing part. However, Mokae is barely in the movie. He’s introduced towards the end of the first act and completely forgotten about until the very end. Even then, his actions in the finale are barely important.

You’ll have to search deep for Wes Craven trademarks in this one. Wendy Robie, Mitch Pileggi and Jsu Garcia have cameos. Wes’ by-now trademark sweeping dolly shots put in one or two appearances. Like everyone else involved, Craven didn’t seem particularly invested in this one. J. Peter Robinson’s score is mostly bland but throws in some decent Romanian violins.

“Vampire in Brooklyn” actually did okay at the box office but is still remembered as a bomb. The lead actor disowned it. When the film is remembered at all today, it’s as another sad bullet point on the downward trajectory of Eddie Murphy’s once blossoming career. This overlooks that it was a low point for Wes Craven as well. It might his most boring, deafeningly uninteresting, least entertaining film. I mean, at least the TV movies were unintentionally hilarious. [Grade: D]

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