Sunday 5 February 2023

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Director: Robert Bierman
Writer: Joseph Minion
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Kasi Lemmons, Bob Lujan and Elizabeth Ashley

Index: The First Thirty.

OK, this is what I’ve been waiting for! Never mind all those period dramas and attempts to be a serious actor, this is the true beginning of gonzo Cage, the man who isn’t so much acting as deconstructing the very concept of cinema and bending it to his will.

He’s Peter Loew, who’s some sort of literary agent working in foreign distribution for some company in New York, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is that he goes mad and very believably so. When this begins and what prompts his descent into madness, I honestly can’t say. What’s real, I can’t say. The therapist he’s talking to at the very beginning of the film may not be real. Surely she isn’t at the end. Was she ever real and who else in the film is real? Maybe Peter Loew isn’t real. Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure.

Somehow I’ve never seen this movie before, even though it’s exactly the sort of thing that I ate up in the eighties and nineties. I’m coming to it fresh and at a good time, because Cage is about to release Renfield, in which he plays the actual Count Dracula, and the last book I read was Guy N. Smith’s Wolfcurse, about a man who goes mad because he believes that he’s turned into a werewolf.

Mix those two together and you get this, in which Cage and Kari Lemmons, as Jackie, are interrupted during foreplay by a bat flying at them out of nowhere. Loew tells his therapist that he was aroused by his fight with the bat. Next thing you know, he’s in bed with Rachel, who bares fangs and bites his neck. From that point on, he starts to believe that he’s become a vampire.

What makes this movie special is that Cage goes the extra yard and then some. It’s offbeat to start with but, as Cage turns up his sense of surreality, it becomes magnetic.

His antics start simply badly, as if he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, an awful actor in a movie where the only name above the title is his. Then they become comedic, dropping his jaw like a cartoon character as vampire Rachel leads him upstairs to bed, trashing everything in his apartment, screaming into the mirror, “What is happening to me?” But then they get surreal and we’re sucked in because we have to know what he’s going to do next.

Had this movie been made during the era of Tiktok, it would have gone viral in a heartbeat and become the box office smash it never was, instead gradually building a cult following. It’s easy to pick half a dozen scenes to throw out to the wolves of social media as perfect memes of the level of “The bees! The bees!”.

He deliberately tries to bug out his eyes in a slew of scenes. He screams the alphabet at his therapist in a frantic version of the kids’ song. He runs through the streets shouting “I’m a vampire!” at everyone he passes. He even buys a pair of cheap plastic fangs and sashays over to a young lady in a disco as if he’s Nosferatu.

And, while each of those scenes was shot in what I presume was a controlled environment, he goes even wilder. Instead of the raw egg he was supposed to eat in the actual script, Cage decided it would be more shocking to stuff a cockroach into his mouth, so he did precisely that. And yes, it’s shocking. When he stumbles around New York covered in blood, asking the good people of the city to kill him, those aren’t all actors. Some of them were homeless people who didn’t see the distant camera capturing it all on film.

At points, when the story moves back to an almost rational framework, I wondered about whether it wasn’t Peter Loew talking with his therapist, it was actually Alva Restrepo talking with her therapist, because maybe this is her film and he’s a sort of Drop Dead Fred in what reads like a psychological thriller.

She’s Loew’s long suffering secretary, who has at least a dozen serious cases to make in a courtroom against her boss, on a whole slew of grounds, even before he chases her into the basement and rapes her. The big MacGuffin in her story is a contract that some client wants to frame, because it was his first foreign sale. This was decades ago, so it’s not easy to find in the files and Loew is adamant that Alva find it, enough that he leaps onto tables to pour scorn on her, chases her into the women’s bathroom to demean her, even shows up at her house to guilt her. How she puts up with him, I have no idea, but then that’s the point. And that’s an unwitting pun that I’m not going to explain.

Cage has said that, to him, this picture was about “a man whose loneliness and inability to find love literally drives him insane.”

Joseph Minion, who wrote the script, did so as therapy, unburdening his pain over a toxic relationship with his then-girlfriend, who left him over it during production of a film that she happened to be producing.

To us, it’s black comedy with plenty of cult drama, a dab of horror and meme after meme of Cage in batshit insane mode.

What I want to know is what María Conchita Alonso saw it as. To her character, this has to be a Kafka-esque tale of a young office worker trying to do a simple but tedious task that her boss continues to make harder. If he decided that, instead of a vampire, he’d turned into the insect in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, her movie would be pretty much exactly the same.

Cage had made some unusual decisions in a few of his films before this point, but none of them really worked. His decision in The Boy in Blue to play a 19th century Canadian sculler in his usual SoCal surfer accent didn’t work. His choice to use a high nasal accent sourced from Pokey in The Gumby Show as Kathleen Turner’s love interest in Peggy Sue Got Married didn’t work. This, on the other hand, is so utterly out there that it’s hard not to watch and harder to not talk about it. It’s a good decision, as much as that was debated back in 1988.

And that’s the appeal of modern day gonzo Cage. We have no idea what he’s going to do in anything and we have to go see his movies in order to find out. That’s what truly begins in Vampire’s Kiss. No wonder this failed at the box office. No wonder it became a cult success.

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