In the year 2000, I remember an imposing man, with questionable sanity, forcing me to watch a snowy, pirated copy of Blade. My friend Natalie and I were visiting her sister up the highway in Edmonton, the northern metropolis formerly known as the City-With-the-Biggest-Mall-in-the-World-Oh-and-Wayne-Gretzky-Too, and it was her sister’s tall, bulky boyfriend, “Stimpy” (nicknamed in honor of one half of a popular animated ‘90s duo), clad in camouflage cargo pants and black sleeveless sweatshirt, who suggested we all watch movies. He didn’t forcibly confine us to the living room, but the choice was either Blade or Heavy Metal, so we acquiesced wearily to the former (he later reneged and showed us both movies, the scoundrel). My avoidance of 1998’s Blade wasn’t borne out of a personal resentment of Wesley Snipes (whom I enjoyed in comedies and dramas alike in Major League, ‘Mo Better Blues, King of New York, New Jack City, Jungle Fever, and White Men Can’t Jump), but the cinematic snobbery that still infected me in my 20s, in which I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—take genre films seriously (a first date that had gone awry, courtesy of Batman And Robin, reinforced that attitude). I was a sneering little shit with too much attitude and arrogance. I had grown up loving vampires in movies (Bela Lugosi haunted my dreams), on TV (the vampire in The Night Stalker TV movie freaked me out at an early age), and in books (I read a plethora of ‘90s erotic vampire paperback novels secretly—I had to project the image of a discriminating English major), but I was now an adult, a cinephile, so I gravitated primarily to movies about angst and existential crises. Big studio Hollywood movies with popcorn thrills and broad pleasures were beneath me—cinephiles didn’t have fun watching movies! Why would I want to watch an action movie about a comic-book vampire slayer from the guy who starred in the dumb actioner Passenger 57? (I told you I was a sneering little shit.) Thankfully, such a hypocritical stance mellowed somewhat after I graduated university–with no clue to my future, I embraced heady cinema and genre delights again to comfort me in the real world. That didn’t mean I wasn’t trepidatious about watching Blade. I grew up loving comic books, particularly the offbeat DC Comics horror characters (Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Deadman, Phantom Stranger, Swamp Thing, etc.), but Marvel’s horror characters were largely unappealing to me. Dr. Strange seemed like a pastiche of Dr. Fate and the Phantom Stranger, but with a goatee and Reed Richards’ touch of grey at the temples, and the Ghost Rider was just a biker with a flaming skull for a head—what was the big deal? Blade was a peripheral character who first appeared in ‘70s comics like The Tomb of Dracula, but that’s all I knew. Following the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman phenomenon, many popular superheroes and obscure Golden Age comic-book characters appeared in a series of poorly received movies throughout the ‘90s, so I couldn’t be faulted for being skeptical about a horror-action hybrid based on an obscure Marvel D-Lister.
“Trust me, Blade is AWESOME,” Stimpy said, as he rammed the cassette into the VCR. In my previous limited encounters with him, Stimpy always oversold and under-delivered, telling outlandish tales about jobs he once held, whether it was working on The X-Files set in Vancouver as a key grip in ‘94, or as a DJ in a long-defunct Edmonton nightclub (I caught him in a lie when I’d asked him if he ever spun Scottish-Canadian punk band The Screaming Feces during his DJ stint. “Dude, of course!” he replied enthusiastically. Except that the Scottish-Canadian punk trio existed only in my short stories. I didn’t have the heart to call him out.). His effusive praise for Blade was not a good omen.
We sat in silence, watching a beret-wearing, clubgoing dude bro being driven by a mysterious also-clubgoing woman (“Do you know who that is? IT’S TRACI LORDS!” Stimpy shouted, eager to begin his own commentary). Nothing remarkable here. The two enter a secluded warehouse/factory, which is actually a top-secret, exclusive nightclub filled with throbbing bass and people dancing to bad electronic dance music–I’d been to plenty of raves, so this wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Lots of clubgoers snarl at the Beret Dude Bro and push him around, including a scowling Stephen Dorff. This secret nightclub isn’t filled with ecstatic ravers—they’re vampires! “THOSE GUYS ARE VAMPIRES,” Stimpy added helpfully. The terrible electronic dance music swells in intensity, vampire clubgoers start shrieking in ecstasy, without having ingested a single tablet, and the clueless dude bro feels drops of fluid stain his expensive Le Chateau clubbing apparel. It’s blood! The overhead sprinklers shower the nocturnal clubgoers in blood, an erythrocytic orgy about to commence. Beret Dude Bro crawls along the blood-soaked dance floor until he stops in front of the only person not dancing. It’s Blade, resplendent in a leather jacket, black combat gear, and one who most definitely wears his sunglasses at night. “Oh yeah! THAT’S BLADE!” Thanks, Stimpy. I believe this is the moment when Blade gets real: in a blur of expeditious action choreography, Wesley Snipes, as the titular protagonist, proceeds to dispatch a flurry of raver vampires, including Traci Lords, into a pile of glowing CG ash. I arched an eyebrow—this wasn’t what I had expected! We continued watching, and I found myself drawn into the hyperkinetic narrative of the vampire-slaying Day Walker, the sinister international cabal of vampires (hey, it’s Udo Kier!) that gives way to snotty upstart Dorff, even if I couldn’t make out a great deal of visual detail on a murky VHS tape. I enjoyed it, dear reader, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was guilty of judging a movie without having seen it, something a cinephile never does. Never ever.
In a time when Hollywood is clearly more interested in superheroes and established IPs rather than original ideas (fear not, dear reader, this isn’t one of those kind of pieces), looking back at how the superhero/comic-book genre became so dominant is intriguing. Many pundits will state that the modern era of heroes on celluloid began with X-Men (2000), but I think that’s a discredit to Blade—after the dismal reception for Batman And Robin ended the Caped Crusader’s cinematic journey (mercifully), comic-book movies fell out of fashion; it was an obscure ‘70s vampire hunter who quietly made comic-book movies cool again. Blade isn’t just a guy with an expensive leather jacket, deadly Japanese sword (for god’s sake—DON’T TOUCH IT), and breathtaking martial arts skills—he’s a lone soldier in the war to eradicate the undead. It’s noble, brave, and thankless, as nobody will give the man credit for his tireless work (unless unsavory politicians tip off the FBI, but more on that later). The surprise success of Blade showed that if filmmakers treated the source material with respect, audiences would respond positively (paging Joel Schumacher…). And it can’t be understated that a successful trilogy of comic-book films was led by an A-list African-American actor portraying an African-American comic-book character. Nearly 25 years later, he’s still one of the few prominent black comic-book characters seen on film and TV, paving the way for Black Panther to shine on the big screen as one of the most financially successful Marvel movies (not to mention the Oscar nominations/wins) and Black Lightning to be the best superhero TV series currently broadcasting or streaming. Numerous black comic-book characters should be at the forefront of films and TV shows, but as recent events will attest, Hollywood, like the world, is very slow to change its ways. But it was Wesley Snipes’ Blade that proved superheroics need not be the exclusive domain of Caucasian characters.
Recently, I purchased the 3-in-1 Blu-Ray and revisited the trilogy for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s remarkable how dated late ‘90s genre movies appear, even for a guy who proclaims repeatedly that he’s stuck in that decade (lest you think I adore everything about the pre-millennial decade, I do wish that the short-lived swing revival and cursed rap-metal hybrid fad never mesmerized people through the lens of misguided nostalgia). Yes, the CGI in Blade looks cheesy, especially in high definition, but that’s okay—isn’t part of the charm of watching movies is seeing outdated elements? (unless you’re in a film class with 20-year-olds laughing at Psycho, but not for the fashions or hairstyles.) Blade is a bit dated visually, but by no means is it less entertaining. The electronic dance music of the late ‘90s (is Fatboy Slim still DJing?) still sounds decidedly bad to me, but I’m a snobby, aged punk. Blade’s hairstyle seems apropos of the times, but I like a shadowy vampire slayer staying classy with a timeless look. The various vampiric villains and their henchmen all dress exclusively in black (except for Dorff’s vampire girlfriend, a fleet-footed blonde Scandinavian who favors all-white ensembles), but as stylish Goths do, they minimize outdated fashion.
Since Blade the character was largely unfamiliar to moviegoing audiences in 1998, director Stephen Norrington ensured that they would get to know him as well as one could for a man who seldom talks, but without the burden of an origin story weighing down the entire film. A quick flashback sequence explains how vampire hunter Whistler (a role tailored to Kris Kristofferson’s natural crustiness) found Blade as a teenager, gave him a home, helped him with his blood addiction, and gave him a sense of purpose. Unlike many comic-book movies today, Blade was not intended to be the start of a trilogy, with an entire film devoted to the character’s origin (if I have to see Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in an alley one more time, I’m going to suffer an aneurysm). We quickly learn that Blade is a human-vampire hybrid, his mother bitten by a vampire just before she gave birth to him, so he has all of the vampires’ strengths (super-strength, speed, nearly leaping over buildings in a single bound), and none of their weaknesses (silver, garlic, sunlight, etc.). That is, except one: his thirst for blood. Crafty Whistler fashioned a serum to keep Blade’s bloodthirst to a minimum (if you consider being strapped to a chair to prevent bodily damage from extreme convulsions caused by the serum to be a “minimum”). Luckily for Blade, he rescued a hematologist, Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright), freshly bitten by one of the surviving vamps from the opening nightclub orgy scene. As she staves off her own transformation into the undead, she also tries to improve Blade’s rapidly-ineffective serum while creating anti-coagulant “blood bombs” in the fight to rid the world of Nosferatu. Everybody gets something they need and we don’t suffer a clichéd doomed romance—Blade hasn’t got the time for love.
Blade’s vampires are a fascinating lot, especially considering how much mythology has been developed by a century of vampire films. Norrington and screenwriter David Goyer (who will punish us all with his future superhero scripting, Martha help us) are fascinated by vampire hierarchy. The international cabal I mentioned earlier comprises of pure-blood vampires, ones who were born vampires (I’m fascinated, but I still get stuck on the idea of a baby vampire who grows until a certain age and stops, becoming merely immortal, frozen at a certain age. Or maybe the Head Cabal Vampire, the awesomely-named Gitano Dragonetti [Udo Kier], was born from his mother’s womb, already full-grown, like he did in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom? I want answers!). Stephen Dorff’s character, Deacon Frost (one of Blade’s primary antagonists in the comics), is presented as an impure vampire, created by being bitten by another vampire, so he’s not allowed a seat at the table of power. He’s the ultimate nightclub owner/gangster archetype, oozing with ambition and self-assuredness. He comes up with a clever way to dispatch Dragonetti via sunlight, proving that ambitious gangster vampires are no different than their human counterparts. Dorff is suitably smarmy and a worthy foil for Blade, putting children in danger, feeding on one of his familiars in frustration (at his own party!), and kidnapping Dr. Jenson to lure the Day Walker to his prophesied doom. At the bottom of the hierarchy are “familiars,” human collaborators who keep vampires’ existence hidden and do their vampires masters’ bidding, often at the expense of fellow humans. Blade has no hesitation to kill familiars if they get in his way, but he does try to only maim them badly without killing them.
Like many mortals, vampires revere their own Bible, the Book of Erebus. Frost wants to resurrect the vampire god, La Magra, which is no good for the secularized purebloods and the rest of the human populace. And naturally, the blood of a Day Walker is key to the resurrection. It’s all a bit silly, but the cast sells the vampire mythology well, far better than many of their vampire contemporaries (the ones who fight werewolves in skin-tight leather catsuits or sparkle in the Pacific Northwest sun as they reconcile their puppy love for a lip-biting mortal). Blade takes traditional pieces of vampire lore and mutates it with bits of infectiology, technobabble, and well-executed action set pieces to create a thrilling new mythos.
Wesley Snipes is pitch perfect as Blade, committing to the role fully, as no actor had done before for a comic-book movie. Sure Christopher Reeve was tall, muscular, and benefitted from good genes to play Superman, but Michael Keaton and the other Bat-actors were encased in foam-latex costumes, creating the illusion of bulging biceps, barrel chests, and Bat-nipples. Not only does Snipes emit the necessary gravitas, but he sculpted his body with a regimen I’m sure would make Tobey Maguire faint. A taut, muscular body and serious disposition make the viewer believe that Snipes really is the Day Walker, the last defense for humanity. Even though Blade doesn’t talk much, Snipes does so much with his eyes: the way he looks at Whistler presumably for the last time, his “family reunion” near the climax, and the empathy he silently signals to Dr. Jenson as she struggles with her affliction. He does get a memorable bon mot at the end of the film, which births one of my favorite movie quotes that I still use today, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering partner, Amanda: “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill,” he sighs before dispatching vampires in wintry Russia before quickly cutting to the end credits. It’s a funny throwaway line, but it also suggests that his vampire-killing mission is still far from over. Deacon Frost and the resurrection of La Magra may have been stopped, but there are still plenty of vampires in the world, so the war continues. It also leaves the audience wanting more Blade. The producers could’ve hired a hulking wrestler or a wooden Tae Bo action star, but they chose an accomplished actor to sell the audience and it’s impossible to imagine anybody else but Wesley Snipes as Blade.
I often think about what became of Stimpy—I imagine he went on through life, going from dead-end job to the next, preaching the gossip of his pirated movie tapes (or bootleg DVDs in the new millennium). I’ve no doubt he’s still wearing his late ‘90s camouflage cargo pants/sleeveless sweatshirt ensemble, even into his early 50s, a man for whom time forgot (or chose to ignore wisely). Maybe he’s conned other people into thinking he’s had a colorful life of adventure, and if so, good on him. He didn’t inhabit my life for long, but I’ll be forever grateful that he introduced me to Blade and challenged, however unknowingly, my arrogant attitude towards cinema. I learned that there’s room for both substantive cinema and pure escapist entertainment—both have merit, both have artistry involved. Of course film is a narrative medium that straddles between artistic expression and crass commercial considerations: Blade was a sleeper hit, grossing over $50M at the box office, but it made even more money off video rentals and DVD sales, similarly to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in the previous year (for good or bad, depending on how you feel about Mike Myers and scatological humor), a component that Hollywood studios would rely on for over a decade, until the advent of streaming. Would there be a sequel? Always bet on Blade.
TO BE CONTINUED: BLADE II: WHEN HORROR AND AUTEUR THEORY COLLIDE!