It seems hard to believe now, but Eddie Murphy was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. In the golden age of Saturday Night Live and its stars’ transition to movies, Murphy was its biggest success. But he could mix it up, whether in buddy cop movie 48 Hours or action-comedies such as the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy or The Golden Child. In a roundabout way, he also attempted a form of social commentary in the likes of Trading Places and, to a lesser extent, Coming to America. The latter is, perhaps, most well-known now for Murphy’s transformation from a suave, if naive, African prince, to, in several scenes, an elderly Jewish character as he and co-star Arsenio Hall mercilessly parody New York stereotypes. At the time, in the late ’80s, this was seen as evidence of Murphy’s comedy genius and natural ability but, looking back at the white-face routine – a trick repeated in Vampire in Brooklyn – the scenes come off as trashy and offensive, and seem to say more of Murphy’s overindulged ego, and less to his undoubted comedic talent.
It’s a source of optimism then, when about a third of the way in to Vampire – Murphy’s collaboration with legendary horror craftsman, Wes Craven – street-hustler Julius Jones (Kadeem Harrison) tries to cool off Murphy’s vampire, Maximillian by quipping:
“You ain’t got to pull that Blacula shit with me.”
The line is an attempt to link what seems to be a half-hearted star-vehicle with something else: blaxploitation. By simultaneously comparing Murphy’s ’90s effort with its ’70s predecessor, whilst slyly digging at the older genre’s foibles, the gag it is a somewhat noble, if pithy, effort to give Vampire in Brooklyn more heft.
And yet, aside from Blacula’s setting in Los Angeles, Murphy’s film lifts almost its entire plotline from the one made two decades earlier. Both movies see their vampires arrive in modern-day America, tearing up the city, leaving a trail of corpses. This, in turn, leads to a flat-footed police investigation – led, in Blacula, by LA pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) and, in Vampire, by NY cop, Detective Justice. The vampires insinuate themselves into the community and appear suave and debonair gentlemen from a different age, enabling them to seduce women well known to both of our Van Helsing-substitutes. Finally, both investigations culminate with the vampire’s love interest in his clutches – although, where Blacula’s Tina (Vonetta McGee) is slain, Vampire’s Detective Rita Vedder is saved by Justice. So far, so Bram Stoker.
However, the truth is that the best bits of Vampire are actually what it lifts from Blacula. The latter’s ’70s lounge bar with live music and garish costumes is replaced by a Caribbean club with a reptilian clientele – but it’s essentially the same deal. By contrast, the worst parts of Vampire are its own unique touches. Maximilian’s seduction of Rita is about as bland as it comes – magically deducing that she likes red wine, Italian food and the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh: traits shared by nearly every human being in New York City. The sight-gags of Julius’ necrotising body are about as effective as his wooden hand and the movie seems to revel in its gratuitous violence against women. Justice is as thoroughly one-note a character as his name would suggest, leaving the audience unsure as to who to cheer: is it our apparent hero, the good-natured but wooden policeman or the big-name star playing the undead creature of night? Finally, and most discomforting, Maximilian’s body-swaps into an evangelical preacher and an Italian mobster involve stereotyping at about as offensive a level as possible. With Murphy’s character possessing almost unlimited powers of charm, humour and style, it’s absolutely no surprise that the script for Vampire came from the minds of two Murphies – Eddy, and his older brother Charley.
And it’s a shame, too. In its opening 10 minutes, as Mamuwalde seeks Count Dracula’s help in ending slavery, Blacula says more about America’s race-relations than Vampire could if it was twice as long, and that’s without factoring in the disparity in budget, star power and special effects between the two. Aside from its interior decorator couple – a homophobic throwback from another age – it is the original blaxploitation horror that comes across as the more enlightened movie. Whilst ’90s films such as Jackie Brown, New Jack City, From Dusk Til Dawn and, most notably, Blade, were able to play with and re-tool concepts from blaxploitation and horror, Vampire in Brooklyn seems to be stuck between the Abbott and Costello horror crossovers of the ’30s and the low parodies of the Scary Movie franchise from the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Worse too that none of Vampire in Brooklyn’s acting principals would ever, really, recover from the film. Angela Basset, Oscar-nominated just two years previously, has never really fulfilled the potential promised by What’s Love Got to Do With It? and has had a curate’s egg of a career since. Male leads Allen Payne and Kadeem Harrison have never made the crossover into movie success from TV, as Murphy had managed previously. Strangely, only director Wes Craven would escape into a new wave of success, with Scream, a similarly self-aware horror-comedy that followed two years later. But, worst of all, for Murphy, the movie was a new low in a rapid career decline that began with a move into family-friendly roles and soon plummeted to the depths of Pluto Mars and The Haunted Mansion.
Murphy has since said that his participation in Vampire in Brooklyn was part of a deal that enabled him to remake The Nutty Professor – a piece that further showcased his chameleon-like qualities. And, despite the failure of the Dracula parody, rumours have swirled lately that Eddie Murphy has, over twenty years later, begun plans for a sequel…
Well, as the Count himself might say: thanks, but no fangs.