Thomas Foster calls it a literary vampire, but since we’re talking film here, I’m going to revise that to metaphoric vampire. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster sums it up like this:
The essentials of the vampire story…: an older figure representing corrupt, outworn values; a young, preferably virginal female; a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue; a continuance of the life force of the old male; the death or destruction of the young woman.
Now I intend to discuss how the villain(s) of Inherent Vice are vampires. SPOILERS!
The Victimized Young Women
We first get indication of our vampire when the movie opens to Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc being surprised by the return of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay. When he knew her she had a happy innocence, wearing band t-shirts and bikini bottoms, full of lightness and joy. Now he sees how she’s changed. She’s wearing a “straight” person’s outfit (here “straight” means not-hippie rather than heterosexual) and her face is conflicted with deep sadness. She clearly feels trapped in a mess she can only be cagey about in her discussion with Doc. She looks weary and tired, sapped of energy, and defeated by her situation. In short, she looks like a vampire’s victim, entrapped and exsanguinated.
Doc’s now on the job, trying to find her boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, and get her freed from the harmful relationships that have placed her in this situation.
But Shasta isn’t the only young woman being victimized by this vampire. The second is Jena Malone’s Hope Harlingen. Note that her name suggests innocence and positivity. Her loss of innocence has an immediately obvious source: heroin. Heroin has drained her of calcium, causing her to lose her teeth so that now she has dentures. Heroin also had originally deformed her baby, an overt symbol of innocence, though the baby has since recovered. But she has also lost her husband, Owen Wilson’s Coy Harlingen. Coy has been reported dead, but she believes he’s been kidnapped.
Between these two young women, Doc has two paths to walk to find the vampire, the source of these young women’s hardships and loss of innocence: find Mickey Wolfmann, follow the drugs.
Now, to try to unwind the full plot of the film here would be foolish, and it would end up being so long, no one would read it. So let me jump to some chases.
The Older Figure(s) of Corruption
Now Mickey himself could be the vampire…or his wife Sloane. Their last name is adjacently related to the most famous vampire of film–Dracula–since both the Wolfman and Dracula were huge icons of 1950s horror. And Mickey does turn out to sexually objectify and victimize Shasta, as she reveals later. He “loans” her out to friends and colleagues. But Mickey appears to also be a victim in this mess. Sloane on the other hand seems cool, collected, and manipulating the police force by throwing them a pool party. Suspicious. Shasta had indicated that Sloane and her boyfriend had wanted to put Mickey in a loony bin. Mickey could be a previous victim of the Master Vampire who in turn became a vampire but also a victim.
Another clear vampiric older man is Martin Short’s Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd who has repeatedly drawn a teenage girl into a life of drugs and sex, a life her father has repeatedly worked to get her out of. Blatnoyd also dons a purple suit, a callback to the cheesy, classic vampire costume now made suitable for the 1970 setting. But Blatnoyd himself is killed in a freak trampoline accident and left with two fang bite marks on his neck. It would seem he too is a victim of our Master Vampire.
The True Vampire
Doc first hears of the Golden Fang from Jade, manager of a prostitution house that also launders money for the Golden Fang. He meets Blatnoyd in the office headquarters for the Golden Fang, a building that looks remarkably fang-like, but also fairly phallic. Shasta is taken out on a mysterious boat called the Golden Fang. But what is it, really?
The Fang is our Master Vampire–I mean, it’s called the Golden Fang after all. It’s a drug-cartel, but one that has expanded to make a multi-tiered conglomerate, feeding on American society. Shasta and Hope, Mickey and Rudy, are all victims of this greater criminal organization. Golden Fang supplies the heroin, gets the user addicted, and then supplies them a place to treat their addiction in the “loony bin” facility that Doc finds both Coy Harlingen and Mickey Wolfmann in. That’s not all. They also have a dentistry organization, which includes Blatnoyd, to help the heroin addicts with their calcium-exanguinated teeth. They also seem to be working with the police and are behind Bigfoot’s partner’s execution.
The Message of the Vampire
This is where it gets totally metaphorical. This is 1970, a time of paranoia, cults, and the twisting of the hippie philosophy. In Pynchon’s and Anderson’s world, the vampire of the Golden Fang, the capitalist organization in cahoots with authority like the police, is corrupting the idealism and innocence of the hippie way of life. By supplying seriously addictive drugs, as opposed to the arguably less damaging marijuana, the Fang is draining the society of money, of wholesomeness, of love and peace. What’s left are the confused, dependent masses who are themselves draining society.
Shasta and Hope stand in for hippie innocence and idealism. It is really capitalism and greed, in the form of the Golden Fang, that are desiccating, sucking the life-blood out of that love and peace idealism, in the name of amassing more money and power.