Summer Shocks 1998: Blade

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The Day Walker reignites the Marvel movie madness

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

Call me old-fashioned but when it comes to vampire movies, I’m always on the side of the vampire hunters. Long before the Twilight franchise was even a glimmer in Stephanie Meyers’ eyes, I never bought into the romanticizing of vampires. The Anne Rice-ifcation of the eternal undead always struck me as wrong-headed. I don’t want stories that sympathize with vampires, I want stories about them being snuffed out, hardcore style. Stake ’em, burn ’em, do whatever it takes but kill ’em all. A moment like Ben Mears driving a stake through Barlow’s heart in Salem’s Lot – that’s what makes a classic vampire movie for me. For me it’s not Team Jacob or Team Edward; it’s Team Van Helsing or Team Blade. And as much as I love Van Helsing, let’s face it – Blade makes him look like a slacker.

When New Line Cinema released Blade in the summer of ’98, few of the viewers that made the action-horror film a surprise hit had any idea (unless they paid close attention to the credits) that the character originated in the pages of Marvel Comics. Mostly, that was due to the character’s obscurity. But also it was because at that time, in the wake of misfires like The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990), the fact that a film was a Marvel Comics adaptation was not seen as a selling point.

Created in 1973 as a supporting character in “Tomb of Dracula” by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, Blade never had his own ongoing book in the ’70s. Limited to his Tomb of Dracula appearances and a few solo stories in Marvel’s black and white magazines of the time, like “Vampire Tales” and “Marvel Preview,” there wasn’t a Blade series until as late as ’94 and even that was short-lived. As well loved as the character is by comic fans, for some reason Blade has never been able to carry a book on his own. There have been several attempts at a Blade series (two of which were launched in the years after the movies took off) but none ever caught on, with the most successful lasting only a paltry twelve issues.

Given the character’s lack of solo success in his original medium, one has to wonder what the movie did right. The simple answer to that is “everything.” Blade successfully combined the character’s comic book roots with inventive new ideas about vampire mythology and it brought together heroics and horror better than spiritual predecessors like Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). This is the movie that finally turned things around for Marvel when it came to adapting its characters to film. At a cost of close to $50 million dollars, Blade was one of the most expensive films New Line had produced in those pre-Lord of the Rings days, and every dime of its budget showed on the screen.

Screenwriter David S. Goyer has said in several interviews that initially, New Line had planned for Blade to be done on the cheap (at least cheap by Hollywood standards, with a budget in the $6-8 million range) and to take more of a camp approach to the character. As a comic book aficionado and a horror fan, Goyer convinced New Line to go with a more serious and more costly approach. People often cite films like Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) or Batman Begins (2005, on which Goyer also worked as a screenwriter) as being the films that shaped the comic book movie as we know it today, but those films take a backseat to Blade. Had Goyer not sold New Line on his vision for Blade, a crucial step in the maturation of comic book movies, and a crucial step in their commercial success, would’ve been missed.

Bringing Goyer’s script to the screen was director Stephen Norrington, whose one previous feature (after an early career working in special effects on such films as 1985’s Return to Oz and Young Sherlock Holmes) had been the little-seen, made in the UK sci-fi horror film Death Machine (1994), a movie that did a lot with a low budget but didn’t indicate the impressive leap that he’d be able to take with Blade.

Then there’s Blade himself. At one point while Blade was in development, L.L. Cool J was a name in contention for the title role but no one beside Wesley Snipes could’ve made this character work so well (as shown by 2006’s lackluster Blade TV series, with Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones in the title role). With his martial arts training, Snipes was able to handle the majority of the fight scenes himself and that made all the difference when it came to selling the audience on the character. It helped, too, that Norrington wisely filmed the action scenes so that the viewer can actually follow what’s going on. There’s none of the tight shots, shaky camera moves and disorientating editing that plague so many modern action movies. The following year, The Matrix revolutionized action with its bullet time photography but Blade‘s Hong Kong-flavored fight scenes have dated far better.

While another performer with Snipes’ martial arts skills could’ve handled the film’s elaborate fight choreography, it’s Snipes abilities as an actor that make Blade interesting: the way he moves, the way he reacts, the way he stands, even. With so little dialogue, Snipes’ performance relies heavily on body language to convey Blade’s character and there’s not a single movement that he makes that doesn’t seem thought-out for how it’ll read on the screen. Other actors in Blade (like Kris Kristofferson as grizzled mentor and weapon-maker Whistler) may steal some scenes but Snipes owns this movie.

In the trio of Goyer, Norrington, and Snipes (who also served as co-producer), Blade had three perfect collaborators. The secret weapon of Blade, though, is Stephen Dorff. As the cocky, ambitious vampire Deacon Frost, Dorff is a perfect foil for Snipes. Their dueling, dichotomous characters and their respective acting methods are instantly at odds but in a way that makes their on-screen conflict a perfect match. Dorff’s Frost is a scrappy little dog, greedily gunning to oust Udo Kier’s Dragonetti as the top vampire, whereas Snipes’ Blade is as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce. More than anything else, Dorff is why Blade remains a better movie than Blade II (2002). Guillermo del Toro did a mostly bang-up job on that sequel but Frost made for a better bad guy than Jared Nomak (Luke Goss) and movies like this live and die on the strength of their villains.

As evidence of that, when an early cut of Blade had Dorff replaced during the climax by a CG representation of LaMagra, the Blood God, it tested badly. Audiences didn’t want to be cheated out of seeing a real final fight between these two archrivals and reshoots were called for. Dorff also had some notable back up on hand in the form of Donal Logue as Frost’s henchman Quinn and Arly Jover as Frost’s ruthless lover, Mercury.

The only negative to Blade is that the CGI is abysmal. It looked bad in ’98 and it hasn’t gotten better with age. That said, the physical effects by Greg Cannon are outstanding, with the highlight being the unforgettably obese form of Pearl, the 2,000-pound vampire librarian (played by Eric Edwards). Special mention should also be made to the production design of Kirk M. Pertuccelli. With the film’s sets predominantly cast in cool colors – gleaming whites and steely grays and blues – when blood spills in this film (as in the bloodbath at the underground rave, a scene that instantly guaranteed Blade a place in vampire movie history), it pops right off the screen.

It’s been said by some that we’re living in a Golden Age of Geek Cinema, a time where movies that cater to hardcore sci-fi, horror and comic nerds have become the norm and I wouldn’t dispute that. But while 1999 has been cited as the year that Geek Cinema began – the year of The Phantom Menace and The Matrix – I’d go back a year and say that Blade was the real Ground Zero. Not a bad accomplishment for a C-list comic character.

Given the enormous success of Twilight, Vampires Diaries and True Blood, it appears that romantic bloodsuckers will be embedded in our pop culture landscape indefinitely. To each their own, but it used to be that even if you were meant to sympathize with a vampire in a movie or TV show there’d still be some determined human armed with stakes and crosses (or whatever worked according to the mythology) out to exterminate them. These days, not so much. The recent Daybreakers (2010) was in that vein but of course it failed to draw an audience. Still, I like to think that vampire hunters aren’t gone for good.

This much I do know: when Blade does make his comeback, he’s going to have his work cut out for him.

Other genre films released in the summer of ’98:

Godzilla (May 20th)

The X-Files: Fight the Future (June 19th)

Pi (July 10th)

Halloween: H20 (August 5th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

SUMMER OF 1990:

Class of 1999

SUMMER OF 1991:

Body Parts

SUMMER OF 1992:

Single White Female

SUMMER OF 1993:

Jason Goes to Hell

SUMMER OF 1994:

The Crow

SUMMER OF 1995:

Tales from the Hood

SUMMER OF 1996:

The Craft

SUMMER OF 1997:

Blade






Source: Jeff Allard