When Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, and Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn hit theaters back in October of 1995, the horror-comedy was savaged by critics who felt the film’s deviations from more “traditional” vampire lore made it a lesser entry to the canon. Looking back, it’s obvious they were wrong.
Vampire in Brooklyn tells the story of Rita Veder (Bassett), an NYPD detective who begins having prophetic dreams about grisly murders right around the time a mysterious ship full of corpses and a lone coffin crashes into a Brooklyn dockyard. The sole passenger of the ship is revealed to be an ancient vampire from the Caribbean named Maximillian (Murphy) who’s been sent to New York on mission to locate the dhampir child of a fellow vampire.
Maximillian’s ship and the bodies he leaves in his wake put Rita and the NYPD on his trail, with the authorities suspecting that they’re looking for a typical serial killer. But as Rita becomes more and more involved in the investigation, her disturbing dreams become increasingly violent, and she begins to believe she’s slowly losing her mind.
There’s a brooding darkness and visceral gore to Vampire in Brooklyn that makes it a strong psychological thriller and horror story. In multiple scenes, Maximillian brutally eviscerates his human prey with a calm collectedness that strikes a balance somewhere between Tom Cruise’s portrayal Lestat in Interview With the Vampire and Alexander Skarsgård’s Erik Northman from True Blood. The madness that Rita suspects she’s descending to is palpable as her visions begin to more closely mirror the gruesome murders that neither she nor her lazily-named partner Justice (Allen Payne) are able to explain. Vampire in Brooklyn deftly uses its two leads to decouple the agony and ecstasy that makes the idea of vampirism compelling. If Maximillian is the personification of the allure of being an ageless apex predator, then Rita represents the terrifying loss of humanity required to become that sort of being.
But none of this takes into account the fact that Vampire in Brooklyn is also funny as hell in a way that few horror-comedy films manage to be. Though Maximillian is a very typical suave monster of the night, he moves through ‘90s New York City in a number of comedic guises meant to distract humans from his vampire weaknesses. While stalking Rita, he takes on the appearance of her pastor before unwittingly being dragged into a church where he promptly starts to burn up, since he can’t be inside places of worship.
Thinking quick on his feet, he calls an impromptu service on the church’s lawn and delivers a sermon about the necessity of sin and evil. It’s very much the sort of twisted logic that a vampire might hold dear, but Murphy delivers it with a perfectly-calibrated camp that makes you briefly forgot how scary the rest of the movie is.
But Vampire in Brooklyn isn’t just a funny, scary film; it’s also an important one. Vampire lore is a living, breathing thing that’s in a constant state of reimagination and evolution and different storytellers develop new ideas.
The concept of the undead sustaining their corrupted lifeforce by feeding on the living appears in the myths of cultures across the globe, but there’s a very particular way in which vampire stories have been dominated by a narrow set of rules and images rooted in Eastern European folklore and works inspired by it like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s oeuvre. There’s an overwhelming whiteness to most of the books, television shows, and films we produce about vampires that can at times feel exclusionary and lacking in imagination.
Vampire in Brooklyn bucks that trend both by centering on a predominantly black cast of characters and infusing its spin on the vampire mythos with elements of West Indian zombie lore. Those elements, combined with Murphy’s very distinct comedic vision, set Vampire in Brooklyn apart from its peers, making it one of the most unique films in its genre—and one of the best. There’s no cult classic more deserving of a bigger cult.