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Vampire’s Kiss

Today’s request comes from “Joshua,” a longtime reader. I don’t know him personally, but I’m very grateful for all the support he’s shown and the comments he’s left over the years. Anyway, he wrote in to offer “a bit of diversity with some schlock, some more recent pictures and some unusual films.” Of the films he suggested that I hadn’t already seen, the one that leaped out at me was Vampire’s Kiss.

This was the film that inspired the “You Don’t Say?” internet meme. The film that had Nicolas Cage running down the streets of New York, screaming that he was a vampire. Yeah, I had to see this great big ball of crazy. And it wasn’t nearly as interesting as I had been led to believe.

First, a bit of context. Cage had been working for about a decade by this point, and developing a very impressive filmography for so relatively short a time. But despite his hard work, Cage was in an awkward place among his peers. He wasn’t quite one of the so-called “Brat Pack,” (Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, etc.), but he wasn’t exactly a young up-and-coming artiste either (like Sean Penn or Esai Morales, for instance). Even worse, from his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in ’81 to The Boy in Blue in ’86, Cage was mostly stuck in films that could charitably be described as “awkward.” The Cotton Club is a prime example; after countless script rewrites, an inflated budget, and director/producer/writer squabbles, the film came out to a pathetic box office turnout (half its budget was lost) and positive reviews (Siskel and Ebert listed it among the year’s best).

But then Peggy Sue Got Married happened in 1986. And for some reason, Cage decided to play a teenager with a doo-wop obsession and a squeaky voice inspired by Gumby’s horse, Pokey. It was a choice so over-the-top oddball that Cage was very nearly fired by his own uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. Though in retrospect, Cage’s nascent brand of crazy was a perfect fit for the Coen Brothers, who cast him in Raising Arizona to do what he did best. Cage then followed this up with Moonstruck, in which he played a fiery Italian (heavy on the stereotypes) who lost his hand in a bread-slicing accident. Which brings us to Vampire’s Kiss in 1989.

The point of all this prelude is to make it clear that Vampire’s Kiss was not the film that introduced Cage’s trademark style of bug-eyed hyperactive crazy. No, this was the film that perfected it. More than any other picture he had made prior, this is the earliest and best representation of the scene-stealing overcooked ham known to modern pop culture as Nicolas Cage.

And it’s a good thing too, because this film would have had nothing if it didn’t have him.

There’s nothing memorable or interesting about the main character of Peter Loew that doesn’t stem directly from Cage’s whacko performance. He takes every opportunity to bug out his eyes, scream at the other characters (particularly his secretary, Alva, played by Maria Conchita Alonso), show various nervous tics, leap onto desks, destroy the scenery in a temper tantrum straight from the climax of The Room, the list goes on. And it’s entertaining to watch, in large part because there’s nothing else going on through half the movie. Absolutely nothing.

Incidentally, this film was the directorial debut of Robert Bierman. Word has it that Bierman was set to make his debut two years earlier with the remake of The Fly, until Bierman’s daughter tragically passed away and he handed the reins to Cronenberg. I feel for his family and it’s entirely possible that Bierman might have turned in a solid remake if he was able to go through with it. But based on what I’m seeing here, probably not. Between his constantly awkward editing choices and his reliance on composer Colin Towns to provide intrigue where none existed, I get the strong impression that Bierman had no idea what he was doing when he made this picture.

The basic premise of the film is that a mentally ill literary agent may or may not be turning into a vampire. Yet it takes a solid hour for Loew to even say the V-word, and any vampiric antics are kept to the third freaking act. Until that point, we only get the odd appearance of (cheap-looking) bats and Peter’s vampiric lover/hallucination (Rachel, played by Jennifer Beals), and Peter tries so hard to brush these moments aside that their effect on the overall plot is minimal. In turn, this means that the plot takes so much longer to get going, which means that we’re stuck watching Cage play an over-the-top dickbag employer instead of a vampire.

I kept scratching my head through the whole running time, wondering what genre this picture could possibly fall into. There certainly isn’t any action (especially not in the first two acts), so we can rule out any kind of escapist fantasy. The label of “horror” doesn’t exactly apply when Loew’s vampirism is so clearly the mere product of delusional psychosis. I think the film tries to be a romance, since so much of Loew’s arc involves finding a woman to return his affections, but Loew only drives people further away (even the imaginary ones) as the film continues, so even that doesn’t work.

There is a bit of subtext about workplace harassment, mental instability, a need for interpersonal communication, and so on, but how the hell am I supposed to take any of it seriously when it’s being conveyed by Cage’s hyperactive performance? The film completely fails to work as an intellectual drama or as a tragedy because we’re seeing the downfall of a man who barely acted like a plausible human being in the first place. That just leaves comedy. It’s hard to call this movie a comedy when it’s about a man’s sharp downward spiral into incurable madness, culminating in bloodshed, but that’s the label that best fits. And even then, the only reason this movie could possibly get any laughs is because Cage keeps playing to the cheap seats. On the moon.

I really can’t stress enough how boring this film would have been without Cage. For example, take a look at this. When you get right down to it, that scene is just a guy saying the alphabet to his psychiatrist. Who could possibly have put such an awkward and boring concept into a “comedy” and expect it to work? The only reason it’s the least bit funny is because it’s Nicolas Cage delivering the bit with an unhinged type of scary that only he can deliver. Is it interesting to watch? Hell yeah. But is it worth sitting through so many minutes of nothing just to get to that point? And is it enough to justify a scene that’s ultimately inconsequential and otherwise boring? You tell me.

Vampire’s Kiss is a movie without a single interesting character (except maybe Alva), paced so poorly that the central question of “Is he a vampire or just insane?” never even gets asked until halfway through the film. And even then, we’re expected to feel pity for the growing homicidal mania of a person who’s never shown a single prior reason for sympathy. There’s a reason why Cage’s performance in this movie is so infamous, and it’s largely because Cage’s performance is the only notable aspect of this otherwise hopelessly bland movie. But oh, what an aspect it is.

Nicolas Cage in this movie is a truly unique spectacle. No one could ever do hyperactive craziness or bug-eyed nervous insanity with the perfect blend of dangerous psychosis quite like Cage ever could (except maybe Jack Nicholson in his prime), and this was made at pretty much the exact point when the guy was hitting his stride. If that sounds like something worth watching, give it a look. Otherwise, just forget it.

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