The choice of Wes Craven as director for the Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn was an inspired one. Working with more extensive technical resources than usual – and mercifully taking a break from the pretentious pieties of his last effort, Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) – Craven injects just the right amount of florid seriousness to make this odd comedy-drama hybrid work.
Whether the ingredients of this potpourri click with local audiences remains to be seen. One half of this film is an Afro-American comedy, the sort that usually goes straight to video in Australia. Ragged, wailing characters fight, fuss and hurl colourful obscenities at each other in the ghetto. A little further up the social ladder, a cop (Angela Bassett as Rita) struggles with her personal demons.
Rita's chief demon turns out to be a suave vampire, Maximilian. In a complex and fascinating family romance that recalls Craven's voodoo saga The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Rita discovers her kinship with a dying race of vampires. Maximilian must awaken her bloodlust, and her erotic desire, in order to fulfil their twin destinies.
As Maximilian, Murphy gets to do his usual quick-change pantomime act, as he did in Coming to America (1988). But there is more going on here than the usual wild Murphy humour: the role (partly scripted by the actor) allows him to explore a sinister, dramatic side of his persona, to great effect. His range is considerably extended by this film.
The contemporary horror-comedy – a fairly recent craze sparked by The Evil Dead (1982) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985) – is a mode not especially suited to Craven's sensibility. Where films of this sort favour a tasteless, flippant, pop-punk approach, Craven has always been more at home with Gothic themes, social critique and sober, black comedy.
Obviously encouraged by the massive success of Anne Rice's novels, Craven balances Vampire in Brooklyn judiciously between vulgar, shambling hilarity and straight-faced gothic horror. He juices up the dramatic tension and gory thrills, creating a particularly intense romanticism.
Vampire in Brooklyn is Craven's best movie since the fanciful and underrated Shocker (1989). And, within the rather overcrowded genre of the modern horror film, it carries a scintillating frisson of mood that fans like myself have rarely experienced since John Landis' American Werewolf in London (1981).
© Adrian Martin February 1996