Looking Back: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

There’s no resisting the curiosity of when a comedic actor collaborates with a serious director. Unlikely but potent, even essential team-ups like Robin Williams and Peter Weir, Adam Sandler and Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Carrey and Milos Foreman, and Steve Martin and David Mamet come to mind. The potentially tasty combo of Eddie Murphy and horror maverick Wes Craven nearly undid the stature and reputation of both their careers, though the film itself is still an illogical, uneven but very entertaining curiosity item.

Murphy followed the disappointment of “Beverly Hills Cop III” and a number of movies that were watchable but not as strong as his 80’s vehicles, where he reigned as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Murphy can act, something that even casual viewers of his work would notice. His desire to stretch outside of his comfort zone, truly challenge himself and his fans (and, as he admitted, get him out of his Paramount Pictures contract with one more movie) motivated him to try his hand at the horror genre.

Craven, meanwhile, was a movie away from his giant comeback as the director of “Scream” and, as his brilliant “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” indicated, he was also disinterested in repeating himself. Reports from the set and accounts by Craven and Murphy paint their collaboration as an enjoyable one, even as Murphy pushed the horror angle and Craven wanted to make it more of a comedy. The Franken-movie that resulted always seems like it could almost work as a hybrid, but never does.

Murphy plays an ancient vampire who arrive in New York by boat, searching for his bride. He turns a local hoodlum (Kadeem Hardison) into his “ghoul” servant, kills some local mobsters and stalks a cop (Angela Bassett) who he chooses to be his bride. Take away the police procedural and the set-up sounds like Murphy’s “Coming to America,” with even his character’s accent suggesting that movie’s Akeem crossed with a Jamaican. Yet, while the one-liners come frequently, the look of the film is perfectly sinister.

The Murphy/Craven collaboration proves ambitious but should have settled on being a horror movie with light comedy, not a light comedy with obtrusive (though occasionally startling) touches of horror. There are one-liners that crackle and jolts of horror that work, undermined by ill-timed scares and some groan-worthy scenes.

The film wants to be “Blacula,” “Candyman,” “Michael Jackson’s Thriller” and “An American Werewolf in London.” The problem is, Craven can’t balance shock and humor the way John Landis can.

Yet, this entertaining mess is much better and more consistently interesting than Eddie and Wes’ worst movies (which are “Norbit” and “My Soul to Take”).

“Vampire in Brooklyn.” which was co-authored by Charlie Murphy, is full of little moments that work, which give the false promise that the film will get better and the wobbly tone will stabilize.

The story is interesting, though Murphy’s narration oversells it. The powers Murphy’s vampire posses are all over the map: suspension of disbelief is one thing, but consistency is another. Composer J. Peter Robinson’s heavy handed scores lays it on too thick.

Everything is a mixed bag, including the performances. Murphy’s long haired, wide-eyed, sharp fanged monster is the real deal. He’s scary, charming and committed to this odd change of image. Unfortunately, rather than allowing his central performance to carry the movie, we get two additional characters. Since this worked in “Coming to America,” it doesn’t initially seem like an iffy choice. There are two scenes, back-to-back, with Murphy playing two characters who the vampire posses. He plays a Sharpton-like street preacher and a real goon of a mobster. These scenes demonstrate Murphy’s skill at embodying a variety of roles and how he flails when the material is weak. “Preacher Paulie” and “Milo the Mobster” are not intolerable comic figures (though they’re arguably the most stereotypical here), but they distract from the intriguing, straight-faced leading turn Murphy is offering.

Bassett is so good and so beautiful, she’s a great match for Murphy, who has never had a truly strong actress to work with, ever, before or since. Even as the role gets outlandish in the third act, Bassett displays charisma, talent and presence to match Murphy’s. She’s better than the material, of course, but their scenes together offer a glimpse of what the former Axel Foley could have had with a female co-star who could hold her own.

Hardison (who starred in the similar, better and nastier “Def by Temptation”) and professional scene stealer John Witherspoon play it very broad, courting outright stereotypical turns, but they’re constantly funny in a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

A few great moments stand out, like Murphy’s kissing Bassett’s hand instead of biting it (the close-up shot is chilling). There’s a fade from Murphy’s eye into a full moon (Craven’s knows how to make an iconic horror image) and the sustained sequence of Murphy’s seduction of Bassett is solid.

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“Vampire in Brooklyn” moves well for a nearly two-hour film, but falls apart during the last 20 minutes, which are fatally overproduced (same for the final scene, setting up a sequel we’ll never get).

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I saw the film the night it opened, just a few days shy of Halloween. The theater was packed and audiences were laughing and screaming audibly for the first hour. Things grew quieter during the final reel, where nothing seems to work. It has a reputation as a low point for its star and director and, no question, it’s too problematic to work. Still, I give Murphy and Craven credit for their unexpected joint efforts. There’s enough here to suggest a good movie that got pinned down and overtaken by a mediocre one.

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