I disagree vehemently with those of the opinion that the nineties was a bad decade for horror cinema. Sure, it marked somewhat of a decline in overall quality compared to the glory days of the seventies and eighties, but that doesn’t mean what we saw in the nineties was terrible by any means. That era treated us to countless gems and it deserves more respect and recognition if you ask me. We should recall those days being wonderful.
It was also a bloody good time for vampire movies. For Gothic adaptations, there was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire (1994). For crime caper crossovers, we were treated to John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992) and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1995). Elsewhere, maverick auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, Abel Ferrara, and John Carpenter unleashed Cronos (1993), The Addiction (1995), and Vampires (1998), respectively. For lighter fare, we saw comedic treats in the form of Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Vampire In Brooklyn (both 1995). Full Moon Entertainment, meanwhile, had everything covered on the low-budget schlock front with their sublime Subspecies series. On the small screen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — Joss Whedon’s television reboot of the 1992 movie of the same name — was a game-changer and remains one of the great series of all time. Finally, it’s also worth remembering forgotten gems such as The Reflecting Skin (1990), Def By Temptation (1990), and Bordello of Blood (1996). That, my friends, is a fine selection of fang-tastic entertainment right there.
Oh, let’s not forget about Blade as well. It’s the film we’re here to talk about after all.
Based on the eponymous Marvel character — first conceived in 1973 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan to dovetail with the Blaxploitation boom — Blade tells the story of a human-vampire hybrid superhero with the ability to survive in daylight. Brought to life by director Stephen Norrington and writer David S. Goyer, we follow Blade (Wesley Snipes) as he stalks the streets of Los Angeles, waging war on a vampire population that likes to attend raves and listen to New Order.
His reasons for doing so? They killed his mother and made him a monster. He wants revenge. So, armed to the teeth with swords and guns, he’s made it his life’s mission to slaughter their entire race. This guy isn’t your goody two-shoes kind of superhero, folks. He’s a genocidal madman with a thirst for blood that extends far beyond his natural appetite.
Of course, this doesn’t sit too well with the evil bloodsuckers. Upstart Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) and his band of hipster goon vampires are especially upset with our dude’s behaviour. You see, Frost is tired of living in the shadows like a rat. He wants usher in a new age of darkness by summoning an ancient vampire god to bestow him with enough power to conquer the human race. He also has it in for the elder race of elite vampires who believe in fitting in with the humans and surviving under the radar, who see Frost as inferior because he’s half-blood scum. In Frost’s ideological worldview, however, there’s no place for this archaic way of thinking. They can either accept him as their new leader and feast on humanity together, or they can perish.
Blade works on several levels. On one hand it’s a rip-roaring action yarn with plenty of martial arts mayhem, blazing gun battles, sword fights, and quotable one-liners. If you just want to kick back and watch stylish carnage unfold, the film has your needs covered and then some. The opening scene features a massacre in a rave and the bloodletting is plentiful from that moment on.
In Wesley Snipes, we also have one of the most effortlessly cool leading men to emerge from the decade’s action cinema. This is arguably his finest hour as well. Part Dirty Harry-esque harbinger of ruthless justice, part John Shaft embodiment of urban cool, with some lone wolf samurai hero detachment thrown in for good measure, Snipes is cooler than a polar bear’s toenails. The villain ensemble is also gleefully cartoonish in their evilness, while Kris Kristofferson rounds off an excellent cast as Blade’s take-no-shit mentor, Whistler. Udo Kier also appears in a couple of scenes as a classist vampire leader. You can’t ask for more from a cast.
Blade’s legacy, however, surpasses that of a fun, nineties action movie. Most people pinpoint X-Men (2000) or Spider-Man (2002) for kickstarting the current age of superhero films, but it was Blade that laid the foundations and got the genre back on track after years of unfortunate efforts. In 1997, superhero movies were dead in the water following flops like Batman and Robin, Steel, and Spawn. It took a mid-level Marvel vampire to save crime-fighting crusaders on the big screen.
Blade also marked the first successful black superhero movie. Until this year’s Black Panther, though, it was the last notable superhero franchise to feature a black protagonist (Halle Berry’s Catwoman could have been in this conversation if it didn’t die on its arse). But, perhaps even more so than Ryan Coogler’s Afro-centric opus, Blade addressed conversations pertaining to race relations in America which are at the forefront of today’s socio-political discourse.
Take Frost, for instance. While on the receiving end of bigotry at the hands of the vampire ruling class, he is still a snooty, entitled, privileged, cracker. On top of his party-centric, hedonistic, rich brat lifestyle, he also wants to replace one corrupt status quo with a brand new one of his own. In the vampire kingdom he’s the victim of social inequality, but should his plan to enslave humanity succeed, he’d be responsible for something even more nefarious.
Blade, meanwhile, isn’t only a threat to Frost’s plans — he’s also a means to an end. Frost wants to possess Blade’s day-walking abilities before he turns our hero into dust. Basically, he’s just another self-serving honky looking to build his empire off the sweat of a black man. Dorff plays the part to perfection and makes for one of the finest villains to ever grace a comic book movie.
Furthermore, the film’s establishment vampire elite represent the notion of a white, privileged society. They’re mostly men in suits having midnight board meetings — like the Illuminati who pull society’s strings from the shadows, if you believe in that sort of thing. They own the cops, who have no problem murdering innocent black people as evidenced through their attempted assassination of Blade’s friend Karen (N’Bushe Wright). That’s been known to happen in real life from time to time. But even when you remove the shadowy conspiracy element, the vampire old guard still play to the idea that the world is governed by corrupt white men.
Whether Frost or his forefathers reign, whitey still wins. Apart from Blade and Karen, the film’s non-white characters are vampire lackies who serve to do the Man’s bidding without questioning his authority. Blade, on the other hand, represents the fight against this tyranny. Like many of the Blaxploitation films that inspired the comics in the first place, Blade signifies black racial revenge in the form of an anti-establishment superhero destroying predominantly pale vampires.
It’s also worth noting that Blade showcased a strong black woman and didn’t make her a love interest. Karen supports Blade on his endeavours to eliminate the undead and, while their friendship blossoms along the way, it never extends to romance. She’s there to assist in the fight against the oppressive establishment and the film has no interest in detracting from the mission at hand. Most Hollywood blockbusters couldn’t have resisted making the pair fall head over heels for each other. The fact that Blade didn’t go there was very refreshing. It also re-enforced the idea of strong African-American heroes fighting for justice in a world that wants to keep them in their place.
Blade‘s message is quite subtle compared to the Blaxploitation flicks that inspired its creation. For a mainstream Hollywood superhero movie, though, it bites. Overall, the film works first and foremost as a raw spectacle of visceral action-horror. But it still scores points for addressing some social ills with its fangs out, all guns blazing, and no fucks given. More blockbusters should have this attitude. 20 years ago, this unexpected hit showed Hollywood how to make good superhero movies. Maybe more of the modern crop could embrace its ballsiness.