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Here's something to wrestle with: a PhD candidate in philosophy at NYU becomes a raving and ravenous Greenwich Village vampire and junkie--the two conditions are seen as interchangeable--while contemplating the victims of the Vietnam War and Nazi extermination camps and then promptly receives absolution. The dumbest, most pretentious script of 1995 is served up straight, with absolute sincerity and triple-distilled formal and thematic purity, by what may be the most beautiful and powerful direction in any American feature this year. The direction is by Abel Ferrara, working with his frequent screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Ken Kelsch's nocturnal black-and-white cinematography is sometimes even breathtaking enough to justify the Dostoyevskian conceits of the dialogue ("The entire world's a graveyard, and we're the predators picking at the bones"), and the performances by Lili Taylor as the grad student and Christopher Walken (in only one scene) as a fellow vampire have comparable voltage. The mood of Catholic despair and excess is often close to that of Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, but it's even more metaphysical and delirious. At the Berlin film festival, Ferrara maintained that St. John studied philosophy at Heidelberg, though some of the seminar dialogue here sounds like he must have made it through on college outlines. No matter: without exactly transcending the awful material, Ferrara puts it across with astonishing poetry and conviction. With Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Kathryn Erbe, and Michael Imperioli. Fine Arts, Pipers Alley.

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