With a great deal of help from Kevin Williamson’s incredibly knowing script, Wes Craven delivered the quintessential horror/comedy of the decade with Scream. However, back track a year or two and the news that the man who gave us such devastating experiences as The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House On The Left would be giving us a comedy would have drawn audible groans from anyone hearing the news.
The reason for this was the 1995 Eddie Murphy vehicle, Vampire In Brooklyn, a horror/comedy that bombed so hard I’m surprised it didn’t leave actual craters in the projection booth of wherever it played – and yet, while the idea of Craven tackling what was essentially Coming To America with fangs, it wasn’t quite the left-field choice it originally seemed to be. After all, the director had already mined dark laughs from Ghetto-set horror with The People Under The Stairs and legend goes that Murphy was a huge fan of The Serpent And The Rainbow, so this tale of a urbane bloodsucker stalking the streets of Brooklyn actually kinda made sense. But the real question remains: does Murphy’s horror debut still suck in all the wrong ways?
The arrival of a deserted ship as it plows into a Brooklyn dock heralds the arrival of Maximilian, a vampire from the Caribbean islands who has come to search for the half human, half human vampire daughter of one of his kind (or Dhampir – if you want to be picky) in order to prolong his species.
His target ends up being Rita, a emotionally vunerable NYPD detective who is still coming to terms with the death of her mentally I’ll mother and through a variety of weirdly seductive gas lighting that sees him employ his shape shifting talents in order to woo his lover-to-be.
Negotiating the streets of Brooklyn with Julius Jones, his zombified, motormouthed native of the hood – who’s rapidly deteriorating physical state is something is a cause for concern – Max goes full force when it comes to putting the duplicitous whammy on Rita, but finds significant push back in the form of Rita’s sense of good and her cop partner, Justice, who has unrequited feelings for his fellow detective and so his attempts to dive a wedge between Rita and everything she loves takes some pretty extreme measures including taking the form of the corrupt Preacher Pauly and bottom feeding Italian hoodlum, Guido in order to ensure she ends up in his supernatural clutches.
Can Rita resist his charms even though she is part bloodsucker, or can Justice, with the help of vampire expert Dr. Zeko, thwart Max’s scheme while Julius rapidly decomposes all over the place?
When I first heard that Vampire In Brooklyn had obtained a cult audience, I just assumed it was just some film flam made up by an over zealous wikipedia writer because of my memory serves me well, I recall pretty much hating the film when I first saw it back in the day. Falling foul of the common horror/comedy issue of not being either truly scary or particularly funny either way, it also must have been pretty strange for an audience weaned on Axel Foley to accept Eddie Murphy as Jamaican accented vampire with flowing hair and a flair for the dramatic.
However, while a lot of my original gripes still remain true such as the main story basically being a tangled mush and the fact that many of the leads appear to be acting in very different movies, Vampire In Brooklyn is far better than its notoriously lousy reputation suggests. Hey, no one was more surprised than I was, believe me.
Coming to this rewatch prepared to fidget distractedly as the movie meandered it’s way toward the end credits, I was surprised how well large chunks of it managed to hold together despite the movie obviously being a mishmash of themes ideas and tones and head and shoulders above it all is Murphy’s debonair Maximilian. Taking less from his 1000-words-a-minute stand-up persona that served him so well in Beverly Hills Cop and 47 Hours and bravely discarding it in favour of something more subtle, the actor builds his villain more around classic portrayals of vampires, drawing most notably from Bela Lugosi with the way he gives an admirably restrained performance that plays far better now then it did immediately after movies like Boomerang and Beverly Hills Cop III.
He even has a skeevy, Renfield-type character in the form of Kadeem Hardison’s Julius, who delivers a more Murphy-familiar performance as he bumbles around the place, losing an ear here and a hand there with some broad slapstick. It’s true that some of his mugging with John Witherspoon’s rambling uncle may feel like a sub-par skit from Friday, but the ghoul effects as Julius crumbles throughout the movie hold up pretty well.
Starring opposite Murphy as the object of his affections is the flawless Angela Bassett who delivers a typically powerhouse performance, yet at no point does it feel like she realises she’s in a comedy as the actress seems to be taking everything remarkably seriously. She’s not given much help from Allen Payne’s staggeringly weak hero who comes saddled with the cringe-worthy name of Justice, but somehow, it works, barely; but the fact that everyone is coming at the material from wildly different angles leaves the final film as wildly uneven as cheaply installed crazy paving – and when added to the extending clowing of Hardison and Witherspoon, things are thrown off even more.
However, the unlikely team of Craven and Murphy manage to mine some gold when the latter falls back on his talent of portraying other comic characters while buried under layers of prothetics much he did in Coming To America. The Preacher Pauly segment sees Max take the form of a corpulent holy man and lead a his congregation in an enjoyable chant of “Evil is good”, while his turn as twitchy, cat shooting, mobster Guido is by far the better of the two that takes Murphy’s legendary Italian skit from his stand up show, Raw, and channels it into arguably best moment in the movie. Admittedly, the quality KNB’s makeups aren’t the same quality as Rick Baker’s work on Coming To America and The Nutty Professor (Preacher Pauly in particular is shinier than polished plastic), but Murphy’s energetic wit carries it through.
Still, as surprisingly fun as I found it, it’s heavily flawed nature still means it’s hardly anywhere near both the star or the director’s best – and I’ve always had the nagging belief that what with Murphy playing multiple comedy characters being mixed in with classic horror and goofy gore, the movie would have been a better fit for John Landis.
Regardless, Vampire In Brooklyn has aged bewilderingly well, going from an infamous bomb, to genuinely interesting connective tissue that led directly into such diverse projects as The Nutty Professor and Scream.