I feel too biased to talk about this movie in a critically honest way so while I’m going to promise now to keep this as short as possible, it’s a promise I’m going to break. This is one of the single best vampire movies ever made, and follows a line of movies that each offer more and more specific re-contextualizing of what vampires are. Murnau’s Nosferatu gives us the ghastly, primal “Symphony of Horror” true to the film’s German title. Bela Lugosi gives us the romanticized predator. Herzog’s Nosferatu remakes the original’s otherworldly invader into a more literal plague-bringer whose corruption never dies and always creeps at the fringes of society. An existential threat rather than a personal nightmare. Near Dark and The Lost Boys ground this take in contemporary times, giving us vampires in the form of drifters and bikers that are as far from Lugosi as possible with results that still hold up today. Lance Henriksen is barely playing a different character between his turn as a head vampire in Near Dark, and as an Aryan Brotherhood gang leader in Stone Cold four years later. But in 1988 Vampire’s Kiss goes even further and darker. All metaphor is stripped away as Nicholas Cage hallucinates a beautiful woman he can’t control. He’s shaken by this, and it leads him to treat the women around him like shit so he can feel a sense of normalcy. Instead of blaming what he does on a mythical creature of the night, he embraces it happily, and we get the vampire as a stalker and rapist who blames everything he does on his victims. It can be a rough film to watch due to how smoothly its tone slides from goofy to harrowing.
All of this culminates in Blade, a movie where its titular hero wages a war against a boardroom of elitist businessmen who are obsessed with racial purity. In Blade vampire society is built around what factions are able to bribe law enforcement to protect/ignore their actions most effectively. A lot of this came from Udo Kier. His screen time is limited, but behind the scenes it was his idea to present vampires as evil stockbrokers most concerned with keeping business going rather than the more flowery and romanticized lines he was given from David S. Goyer’s script. Vampires are
bloodsuckers capitalism thanks to Udo Kier.
This might seem heavy-handed, but is in fact prophecy.
Of course, a young upstart named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) emerges in the vampire’s upper echelons to disrupt the current order, and in today’s terms it’s hard not to see Frost as a Silicon Valley resident running up a huge tab in both money and blood to solve a problem that didn’t exist (for vampires at least). Vampires have a status quo where they can operate within the limits of deals with human law enforcement and no one cares. But in Blade “vampirism” doesn’t just mean you hate daylight and drink blood, it zeroes in on the thirst for power and dominance that runs through almost very treatment of the vampire and brings it to the forefront. Frost presents himself as a savior for his fellow vampires compared to the established “pure bloods,” (in the world of Blade vampires put a huge emphasis on whether one was born vampire or turned into one) promising freedom and unlimited power for vampire society like in the old days. But as can be expected those benefits are meant to only actually apply to Frost and his inner circle.
The only real threat to them is Wesley Snipes as Blade. Snipes is Blade, end of story. He completely owns the role, and basically everything good about the character’s dialogue and place in the movie comes from him. But there’s more to that than just the physical commitment, Blade’s whole thing is that he’s only part vampire who, due to the complications of his birth has the same abilities as them but can handle walking around in daylight. He’s a living vampire but is also the most dead character in the movie. He has an unending hatred for the system the vampires have run successfully for so many years and its only in the moments where he gets to ruthlessly slaughter them that he feels alive. He says as much to his newest ally, Karen (N’Bushe Wright), but that doesn’t phase her. Instead it galvanizes her to help. Wright is really cool here, and it’s great to see her go from a confused potential victim to having screen presence in the same room where Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson are hamming it up.
This movie’s first act hits a few different beats. Everyone remembers the iconic blood rave opening, and with good reason. Seeing the look, the editing, the soundtrack of Blade today you may have to remind yourself that it came out a year before The Matrix). But the cast also does great things with the script to pack a lot of world building into a few minutes, and much of the early film is less about Blade and more about Karen entering and learning about his world. The movie’s pacing is perfect, as Karen allying herself with Blade despite his extreme emotional distance from humanity adds a ruthless tension to him we rarely get to see in superhero movies today.