Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween-a-thon 2013: Blade (1998)


Based on a disco-decade comic-book written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) is an underrated and action-packed gem of its era.

This late-nineties film highlights several effective horror movie-style jolts and blazing martial arts sequences, but remains notable and noble today for its dedicated attempts to re-contextualize the vampire and vampire lore for millennial audiences. More than that -- and from the perspective of a decade later -- Norrington film seems a treatise on issues of race in modern America.

In Blade, the vampires are not the romantic, Byron-esque, "tragic" breed of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Forever Knight (1992-1996). Nor are they the pack hunters, savages and desert bugs of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). 


Rather, the vampires of Blade appear as a purposeful reflection of the decade's conspiracy-phobia, and under-the-surface fear of an unseen, rich cabal pulling the strings in America.



Blade commences in 1967, at the dawn of the counter-culture era in American history. A baby is born to an African-American woman (Sanaa Lathan) who has been bitten by a vampire.

Some thirty years later, the counter-culture movement is dead, Big Business reigns during the "dot-com boom" and that child -- that orphan -- is a man called Blade (Wesley Snipes). 


This vampire-human hybrid is also known as "The Daywalker" in some circles because of his human ability to survive in sunlight. With the help of his mentor and friend, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade now wages a war against the un-dead scourge infesting Los Angeles.

After interrupting a vampire rave called "Bloodbath," Blade rescues a hematologist named Karen (N'Bushe Wright) from a vampire gangster, and then begins to investigate the latest scheme of vampire warlord, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). 

Frost is attempting to bring about a brand of un-dead Armageddon by raising an ancient vampire God,: La Magra. This attempted resurrection not only raises Blade's ire, but disturbs the leader of the status-quo-seeking Vampire Nation, Dragonetti (Udo Kier). Finally, Frost attempts to use Blade's very blood to bring about La Magra's ascension....


The character of Blade -- for all intents and purposes a superhero -- first came to life in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula, issue # 10 in 1972. Originally, he was a tough-talking, shade-wearing representation of the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. In the comic, Blade's enemy was an elder, white-haired vamp, Deacon Frost, not the young rebel and upstart of the film who shares his name. Also, in the comic books Blade was raised by Jamal Afari, a vampire hunter.

Over the years, Blade appeared in comics including Nightstalkers (where he teamed up with the slayer Hannibal King) and even Dr. Strange

But it took more than two decades for the character to come to the big screen. And when he finally arrived, Blade certainly did so with a (bloody...) splash. Genre historians often credit Bryan Singer's The X-Men (2000) for revitalizing the superhero in the cinema, but Blade was actually one of the first such genre films to follow the disastrous Batman and Robin (1997) and accrue overwhelming box-office success.



You Gotta Understand, They're Everywhere: The Secret History of the Vampire Nation


The vampires of Blade are frightening creatures: they're lawyers. No joke: in Norrington's film the vampire overlords are presented as perfectly-groomed but predatory businessmen in Armani suits.  And as the movie's dialogue suggests, these wealthy individuals "own the police." Equally worrisome, this Old World cabal relies on high-tech tools, secret back-room alliances with human political conspirators, plus a smug sense of racial superiority to lord it over less desirable half-castes. 

Importantly, Blade himself notes that these corporate monsters “have got their claws” into all walks of human life…from finance to real-estate. The vampires own “half of downtown” Los Angeles in point of fact. 

And, when the Vampire Nation meets mid-way through the film's narrative, the discussion of most-importance concerns not literal blood sucking, but the status of “off-shore accounts.”

Thus the vampiric ruling class of Blade serves as a metaphor for the “One World” movement often mentioned (and feared) in conspiracy circles. Such theorists believe that the Rockefeller family, large banks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission secretly run the United States and the world itself.

In other words, the ruling class of the globe is a Rich, White Boy’s Club of Bankers and politicians, one that metaphorically “feeds” on the rest of us.

Blade just makes that blood-sucking literal.

This idea carried a lot of relevance in the decade of the 1990s, because on September 11, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in a televised speech his dream for a "A New World Order." 

Some suspicious-minded folks believed that this grandiose-sounding turn of phrase was actually a coded message to let the take-over by the Conspiracy begin. 

Adding fuel to the fire, Bush had once been a member of the Trilateral Commission. Similarly, the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the mid-1990s was supported by both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and was believed by many to be the gateway to an expanded America that would soon incorporate Mexico and Canada. You still hear a lot of this conspiracy stuff today, especially if you watch Glenn Beck.

In fascinating terms, Deacon Frost, Blade's central villain, is an outsider to this Secret Boy's Club as much as Blade is. 

But importantly, Frost views himself as a victim of race and of a hierarchy that refuses to accept him because of it. You see, Frost was merely “turned” into a vampire, not a “pure blood” of noble (vampiric) birth. The other vampires, including board CEO-type Dragonetti use this impure origin as a way to demean and control Frost. He may serve the cause, but he will never be one of the Chosen. 

Outside of race, and going back to the Conspiracy theory for a moment, one might see this relationship as a metaphor for the way The Trilateral Commission and Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Jimmy Carter in 1976. He wasn't one of their own, but he was useful and could be educated, or trained.

The wholesale derision of Frost by the Vampire Nation is like the Old Rich deriding the Nouveau Rich; or an exclusive white man’s club refusing to accept a black man of great accomplishment. Blade proves clever, however, in orchestrating Frost’s revenge. It is clearly a racial revenge, a kind of supernatural brand of affirmative action (another hot-button issue of the 1990s...).

Specifically, Frost attempts to bring to life an ancient Vampire blood god called La Magra who will render all such genetic differences like "impure" or "pure blood" moot.

 Once La Magra rules "all will serve" the cause as equals. Deacon's selected utopia, oddly enough, involves the total erasure of class and race lines.

Thus, much of Blade involves the concept of racial identity. Blade himself is genetically half-vampire/half-man and an African-American to boot. But he rejects his vampire heritage by utilizing drugs to suppress is hunger for blood. 

At film’s conclusion, however, Blade realizes that he can never be at home among the human race, either. Dr. Jensen offers him a cure for his vampirism, but this medical solution (a symbol, perhaps for another form of cultural assimilation?) will rob him of his strength, speed, and other vampire-enhanced qualities. 

Blade realizes that this is an impossible accommodation since the war with the vampires still rages. By necessity he must remain what he is: an outsider in two worlds; the one and only “Daywalker.”

Interestingly, neither race -- vampire or human -- accepts Blade. 

The human world sees him as a law-breaker by and large, a man who needs to be stopped. The Vampire Nation also views Blade as an enemy who must be destroyed. 

It is Frost, however, who is most disappointed in Blade because he clearly senses that they have much in common. They are both derided by the vampire establishment; they are both rebels. But Frost also finds it mystifying that Blade should protect human beings, the equivalent of cattle in his eyes. 

Spare me the Uncle Tom routine,” he barks at Blade in their first face-to-face meeting, thus contextualizing their shared experiences explicitly in racial terms. Frost pretends to serve a master, "the Vampire Nation," while actually plotting an overthrow, so he finds it baffling that Blade should allow the beliefs of the human world (compassion, etc.) to be his "master."


Bloodbath: The Veneer of a "Sugar Coated Topping"

Blade's racial sub-text and 1990s obsession over conspiracies prove fascinating components of the film, but to many viewers it is the movie’s aggressive and colorful style that ultimately makes it so memorable.

For instance, at several points in the film, the movie incorporates fast-motion photography of Blade’s metropolis transitioning from safe daylight to dangerous darkness. The shift is rapid so that the shadows themselves seem to crawl and creep up and across glass skyscrapers. These shadows take on a life of their own (not entirely unlike Dracula’s creeping silhouette in Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992], or the earliest vision of screen vampires, the silent Nosferatu).

But the transitional technique (of fast-motion photograph) also reflects an essential characteristic of the vampire world (and the vampire conspiracy). This world is unmoving, patient and seemingly eternal, a direct contrast to the speedy human "march of days:" a never-ending procession from night to day and back to night. Indeed, this is how the mortal realm might very well look to an immortal creature of the night.

In addition to a hyper-kinetic sense of pace set in what The New York Post termed a "techno-styled urban landscape" (Rod Dreher, August 21, 1998, page 57), Blade offers breath-taking vistas of extreme and stylish violence. 

The opening set piece -- a pulse-pounding, party or "rave" for vampires -- starts the film off in blistering fashion. A sexy woman (secretly a vampire) leads an unsuspecting human male into the crowded subterranean party. But before long, the real "underneath" is revealed as overhead sprinklers douse the gyrating revelers in gallons of human blood. Rapidly, the human realizes he’s surrounded by vampires,and that he's the only mortal in attendance. As vampires sensuously rub blood all over their bodies, the color palette of the film morphs from cold metallic blue to hot, lurid red.

Down on all fours -- a position exposing his position in the food chain in this hidden world -- our imperiled human reveler crawls for safety until he comes upon an immovable object: Blade, making his stunning arrival in the film. The vampires back-away in horror at the sight of the Daywalker, and Snipes remains frozen in the frame, literally a stone.

That the vampires retreat (and retreat quickly) and that Blade does not move at all (at least at first...) provides the viewer a visual cue about who is dominant in this situation. The framing and choice of blocking asserts the Daywalker's “power” over his vampire prey.

What quickly follows this stellar introduction is a furious action scene. 

This bload-soaked battle between Blade and scores of vampires is a tour-de-force of choreography, stunt work, scoring, and editing. And Snipes himself is poetry in motion. Gene Seymour at the Los Angeles Times describes the actor as "the movie's biggest asset." The reviewer added, "He may snarl, hiss and twitch in ways that are often disorienting, but you can't take your eyes off of him." (August 21, 1998, page 4). Indeed, it's a star performance.

To some extent, the film’s final battle between a possessed Frost and the wounded Blade in the temple of La Magra can’t match the pure exhilaration of that vigorous, red-blooded opening fight scene. Yet Blade still impresses with its sub-textual commentary on a conspiracy of the rich preying on the weak and poor, and with its impressive sense of visual style.

As many critics suggested, the Norrington film is also part "Oedipal Drama" (Justine Elias, The Village Voice, September 1, 1998), since Blade must in the course of his battle and heroic journey face down his own mother, now a twisted, perverted "assimilated" vampire. 

Momma Vanessa (Lathan) offers Blade belonging, succor, and even sexual comfort. On the latter front, it is noted, quite literally, that Blade, Vanessa and Frost can be one "big happy fucking family.

But Blade understands that his Mother has bought into the sick value of Deacon Frost and resists the proffered family ties. By breaking the human taboo of incest, Blade understands that he is playing into Frost's chosen method of domination: erasure of "traditional" cultural barriers and differences.

Watching Blade today, and looking past some of the superficial 1990s cliches (a hero garbed in black leather finding his destiny as The Chosen One), one senses a genre film grappling with big, intriguing ideas. Blade, the Daywalker navigates the knife's edge between two cultures that want to own him; but to which he doesn't, and can't ever, truly belong. Today we've had two sequels and even a Blade TV series (which aired on Spike), but in some ways, this first, blazing journey into Blade's world remains the most satisfying and artistic one.

In Blade, the "world we live in is just a sugar-coated topping." 

Beneath that topping is racial strife and resentment, conspiracy, domination, and even the difficult quest for independent identity.

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