243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

“Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent labouring under the delusion he is a vampire, is a weird film that is kind of great in its weirdness and in which Cage exposes himself fearlessly to ridicule, not least for appearing in a horror movie in the first place.”–from a 2013 Guardian profile on Nicolas Cage

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DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: Peter Loew is a well-to-do young literary agent with a hedonistic lifestyle, who is also in therapy. One night, he is interrupted while romping with his latest sexual conquest when a bat flies into the bedroom; later, he takes home a one night stand who (maybe) bites him on the neck in the throes of passion. He begins to believe he is becoming a vampire, while at the office he grows increasingly annoyed with and abusive to a junior secretary, Alva, to whom he assigns the task of combing through the agency’s archives looking for a missing contract.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was screenwriter Joseph Minion’s second produced script—the first was After Hours (1985).
  • Cage had originally committed to the part before the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) ignited his career. He tried to back out of Vampire’s Kiss, and Judd Nelson was tapped to play Peter Loew; thankfully, Cage changed his mind and decided to honor his commitment.
  • According to the commentary, a late scene where Peter is walks down a Manhattan street talking to himself with blood on his shirt, and none of the passersby appear to take any notice of him, was filmed with real New Yorkers who had no idea they were on a movie shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the vision of Cage’s manic face as he mocks poor Alva (an image Dread Central’s Anthony Arrigo brilliantly summarized as “the infamous shot of Cage’s eyebrows attempting to flee the insanity that is his face“), a sight so powerful that it birthed an Internet meme. The notoriety of that shot aside, there are probably a dozen Cage expressions or poses that could vie for the honor of most unforgettable image in Vampire’s Kiss. We ultimately went with the view of Cage’s defeated face as he lies under his couch-cum-coffin, with Jennifer Beals’s hallucinated legs perched above him—an image also used for the film’s original theatrical poster.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Alphabet-mastering Cage, cockroach-eating Cage, plastic-fang Cage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cage, entirely Cage. This is Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and it’s this performance as a literary agent who thinks he’s turning into a bloodsucker that’s his strangest. Without Cage jumping onto desks, eating cockroaches, and posing like Mick Jagger after demonstrating his mastery of the alphabet, this would merely be an oddball tale; with him in the role, it’s a totally bizarre one.


Original trailer for Vampire’s Kiss

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just maybe—that explains Nicolas Cage’s scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing, cockroach-eating performance in Vampire’s Kiss. It doesn’t explain Peter Loew’s behavior, however. The emotionally battered Alva (a sympathetically depressed Maria Conchita Alonso) gets more to the point: “this guy is very weird.” Loew is a weird guy indeed. It all starts with his from-nowhere accent, which is not European, New England Brahmin, or even “Mid-Atlantic English,” the made-up dialect spouted by Golden Age Hollywood actors like Katherine Hepburn (though that one comes closest). The accent is insane, but it does reveal Loew’s character: this is the kind of guy who would affect an aristocratic dialect in order to give himself airs, but get it wrong—and stick with it, not caring a bit whether it was accurate or not. When such an arrogant and flamboyant character goes crazy, you can bet that the results will be fiery. Cage holds nothing back. He shouts, slurs his words, breaks stuff, eats bugs, screams obscenities, vomits, puts his hand on his hip and prances like a mad Mick Jagger, rants, and makes insane faces with his huge, unblinking eyes. His furious recitation of the alphabet, which plays like a Sesame Street sketch delivered by a drunk guest star with anger management issues, is by itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re wondering why this movie seems a little weird, even without Cage, reflect that it was written by Joseph Minion, who also brought us 1985’s crazyfest After Hours. With a serious psychology manifesting itself through campy fireworks, the picture’s style is halfway between an art film and a B-movie; it exists in a tonal limbo. There are a number of odd features, even putting aside the performance art mimes who hang out outside of Loew’s apartment. Loew is surrounded entirely by women; girlfriends, pick-ups, office secretaries, his female therapist. His only significant relationships are with women, a surprising number of whom wear black garter belts. Might Peter have issues with the opposite sex? (You think?) How did Loew become such a casual sadist, and why does he obsess about vampires in particular? Why does simple act of “misfiling” irritate him so profoundly? (Seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it?) It’s no surprise that so many key sequences take place in the psychiatrist’s office. With all its unexplained, clashing symbols and preoccupations, the movie itself begs for psychoanalysis.

Not that it requires an analyst of Elizabeth Ashley’s ability to diagnose Loew. But it’s one thing for us to recognize that his hedonistic womanizing and petty tyranny is a cover for his essential loneliness, and another thing for him to accept it for himself. The cognitive dissonance of realizing unpleasant facts about himself that contradict his idealized self-image comes out in dream imagery (in Loew’s case, waking dreams, delusions). The movie begins with Peter on the psychiatrist’s couch, discussing his strategies to ditch his sexual conquests in the morning. The pivotal scene, however, comes when he is interrupted in the night’s lovemaking with “a really hot girl” (Kasi Lemmons) by a bat flying through the window. Later, discussing the incident with his psychiatrist, he says he doesn’t know if this really happened or he dreamt it, but “I’ll be damned if I didn’t get really turned on” while fighting off the bat. Although it made quite an impression on him at the time, on his next visit to the office, he downplays the significance of his arousal. In the meantime, he has picked up another woman (Jennifer Beals) who (it seems) sports fangs and bites him on the neck during sex, and also asked Lemmons out for what we assume would be a rare second date—and abandoned her. “You chose me,” the vampire tells Loew, and it’s true; he chooses the illusionary Beals, and the bestial lust-bat, over the real (and sweet) Lemmons.

The story itself is told nakedly, without straining for metaphor or relevance. In fact, one of the odd things about the movie is that it seems like two separate Nicolas Cage movies playing in parallel: one about an abusive boss taking delight in psychologically torturing a meek underling (prefiguring Neil Butte’s In the Company of Men), and the other about a yuppie with delusions of vampirism. Only near the end of Alva’s storyline do the two plot concepts converge. The relationship between the two themes—corporate sadism and vampirism—is left for the viewer to draw comparisons. Loew is a monster who feeds his own predatory ego at the expense of the weakest member of his staff. Isn’t this the film’s point? Loew realizes his own monstrosity, but is unable to control it, and unable to face the fact that the real cause of his atrocious behavior is his own failure to form intimate relationships. So he invents the vampire story (which casts him as victim rather than victimizer) to justify his suicidal breakdown.

Cage was not a neophyte actor trying to make an impression at the very beginning of his career here. He was coming off a prestigious role as the romantic lead in the mainstream hit Moonstruck. Vampire’s Kiss, along with his equally mannered performance as a hick burglar with Shakespearean diction in the Raising Arizona, gained him the reputation as the greatest ham of his generation. It’s rare when an actor can single-handedly dominate a film, making the script and direction almost irrelevant, but Vampire’s Kiss is completely Cage’s movie. He invented the accent, he demanded to eat the cockroach (the script apparently only called for a raw egg, a vastly inferior substitute for squirming meat a la Renfield). Cage drags novice director Robert Biernan along in his wake, and the film is far more memorable because the actor is not reigned in and is allowed to take the character to the absolute outer limits, far beyond the realms of believability. Vampire’s Kiss stands as a twisted testament to a thespian who has gone further in service of weirdness than any actor of his generation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Written by Joseph Minion, who also wrote Martin Scorsese’s ‘After Hours,’ ‘Vampire’s Kiss’ similarly requires a style as darkly comic and deft as its bizarre premise. Instead, the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr. Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“A bold but ultimately doomed effort that will irritate all but cultists of the bizarre and the most rabid fans of Mr. Cage.”–Angie Errigo, Empire

“Cage always surprises in weird, funny ways… certainly has its tasteless patches, and it may be too kinky and out of the mainstream for devoted horror fans. But it is inventive and clever, a cartoonish metaphor that has bite.”–Mark Chanlon Smith, The Los Angeles Times (VHS)

IMDB LINK: Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

47 Things We Learned from Nicolas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss Commentary – Rob Hunter picks out highlights from Cage and Biernan’s DVD commentary track for Film School Rejects

Vampire’s Kiss (Film) – TV Tropes’s Vampire’s Kiss page is so complete it even contains a link to our List Candidate review

Nicolas Cage Names His Favorite Performances, Bashes Modern Film Criticism – Far from being embarrassed by Vampire’s Kiss, Cage views the role as one of his greatest accomplishments

Vampire’s Kiss Film Locations – A virtual tour of some of the NYC locations used in the film

LIST CANDIDATE: VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988) – This site’s original appraisal of Vampire’s Kiss

DVD INFO: Although fondly remembered by fans, Vampire’s Kiss has always had a hard time finding a home on DVD. It has never been released in it own, but in 2007 MGM paired it with the insultingly bad early Jim Carrey comedy Once Bitten on the “Totally Awesome 80s” double feature DVD (buy). In 2015 Scream Factory released Kiss on Blu-ray together with the comedy High Spirits (buy). Both editions include the same commentary track from Cage and director Robert Bierman. The two releases are identical in content, so the choice comes down to: do you need Vampire’s Kiss on Blu-ray, or are you satisfied with DVD? And, would you rather have Once Bitten or High Spirits as your second feature?

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