An unmanned ship glides into a New York City harbour. The eery scene is an homage to Nosferatu, but the chaos the ship causes indicates that this film is going for laughs as well. Aboard is Maximillian (Eddie Murphy), the last surviving member of a Caribbean tribe of vampires, who has come to New York in search of a woman who is destined to become his wife. But while New York is wholly unprepared for his arrival, it is fair to say that Maximillian is also not entirely prepared for the challenges he is faced with in the city. But once he has set his eyes on his target, he is leaving no stone unturned to achieve his goal.
I had never seen this film before and, going into this, I somehow expected Vampire in Brooklyn to be a bit like a black version of Once Bitten. Instead this film thematically seems to go for a mix of Blacula and Murphy’s Coming to America. Tonally, Vampire in Brooklyn contains far more horror than I expected – traditional Gothic horror, as well as gore. The comedy is parcelled off into specific scenes or within specific supporting characters (especially those of Kadeem Hardison and John Witherspoon). So the comedy is in some ways too little; and, more importantly, it does not feel organic to the film.
Since the comedy and the horror elements are not well-blended, the film has an awkward tonal mix and does not really work as a horror comedy. Unfortunately, the jarring comedic elements also mean that the film does not work particularly well as horror film either, whereas the overall comparatively small amount of comedy in this film means that it cannot be counted as a straight comedy either.
According to imdb, there are conflicting statements about who is to blame for this incongruent tone. There are five story and writing credits, including one for Murphy and one for his brother Charlie. And Charlie Murphy claims that the film was intended to be a straight horror film, but that director Wes Craven insisted on the comedic take. Craven, on the other hand, says that he wanted Eddie Murphy to play the character of Maximillian as vulnerable, but that Murphy refused and instead insisted on employing his comedic routines.
Whichever version may be closer to the events at the time, one thing about Craven’s assertion is very true. In watching the film, you cannot help but feel that if Maximillian had been played as a lonely and somewhat sympathetically-tragic figure, the character would have worked better and the story would have gained much more depth. It was also a missed opportunity for Murphy, who I am sure would have been good at portraying such a vulnerable take on the character.
Instead, we get a stale triple performance by Murphy, who – as so often in his films – not only plays Maximillian but also two “comic” characters (both as themselves and as impersonations by Maximillian). Some people may enjoy Murphy’s side characters, but I don’t. And while their appearance works within the story (as part of Maximillian’s plot), their bloated scenes nevertheless bring the film – which has little momentum to begin with – to a screeching hold.
Not that Murphy’s performance is bad as such. He works reasonably well as the mysterious and alluring dark stranger, and he is also very good at bringing the aloofness and the callousness to the screen that his character requires. The callousness is necessary to convincingly sell Maximillian as a menace and to sell the horror aspects of the film. The aloofness is necessary to make the clash between Maximillian’s aristocratic demands and the realities of Brooklyn life work – a clash which, on the whole, is used too little in the film.
Apart from the tonal issues and the mediocre comedy, there are other problems with the writing as well. The lore and the extent and limits of Maximillian’s powers are seemingly bent at random in order to fit the momentary narrative necessities. The film also greatly suffers from the fact that the audience never gets invested in the relationship between the female lead (played by Angela Bassett) and her colleague (played by Allen Payne). It is set up poorly in the first place, and it is then not developed organically but in jumps and jolts. Directing and editing may be as much to blame here as the writing. The weight of Bassett’s character suffers as a result of this somewhat shoddy relationship portrayal, as that relationship is meant to be a crucial aspect of the character’s arc.
The performances by the cast are solid, but the best performance is that of Zakes Mokae in a minor supporting role. The visual aspects of the film are good. None of the sets or the props (of which there are many) looks cheap or flimsy. The practical effects hold up well, as does the make-up of a ghoul character in the film. The make-up of Murphy in “vamp-face” mode, however, is mediocre and rather reminiscent of limited budget TV shows like Buffy.
Some aspects of the film have aged better than others, but between Murphy’s goofy side-characters, the tonal inconsistencies, and the general shortcomings in the story, I cannot rate Vampire in Brooklyn much higher than 4 out of 10.