Vampire’s Kiss features one of Nicolas Cage’s best, most out-of-control performances
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“You’re a very bright girl. That’s why I know today, by God, is the day you’re going to find that Heatherton contract.” —Nicolas Cage, Vampire’s Kiss
A performance like Nicolas Cage’s gonzo turn in the brilliant 1989 black comedy Vampire’s Kiss—and this is true of many Nicolas Cage performances—raises the question of what good acting really means. Take accents, for example. As Peter Loew, a womanizing New York literary agent, Cage isn’t identified as British. But some kind of accent comes out of his mouth anyway, flickering in and out like a fluorescent bulb, and nearly impossible to pin down. The most likely explanation is that Cage imagined Peter as a fop of the first order, the type of ivory-tower Manhattanite whose exalted sense of privilege naturally leads to a hilariously affected manner of speech. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Peter is British, and Cage utterly failed in sticking the accent. Does that mean his performance in Vampire’s Kiss somehow isn’t the best of his career?
Of course it doesn’t. Which also suggests, say, Keanu Reeves’ deplorable accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t the reason his performance is terrible; his performance is terrible because he’s hamstrung by the accent, and his evident struggle with it makes him stilted and awkward. (Contrast that with Peter Dinklage on Game Of Thrones, frequently decried for his wavering accent, and yet the runaway star of that show.) What’s important about Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss is that he be unhinged, an American yuppie turned American psycho whose fear and contempt for women manifests in sadism, madness, and finally, full-on vampirism. For Cage, this means a steady amplification of intensity, from the charming drunk on his nightly conquest to the obsessive tormenter of an office underling to the lunatic who greets the morning in a blood-spattered dress-shirt, shrieking at the sun and begging passersby to stake him in the heart with the sharp end of a broken wooden plank. To put it in Spinal Tap terms, this film requires him to start at about eight and go all the way up to 11—which is something Cage is fully capable of pulling off. He goes far out on a limb in Vampire’s Kiss, and the movie goes right out there with him.
The screenplay for Vampire’s Kiss was written by Joseph Minion, whose other major credit is Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, a script he famously wrote as a student at Columbia University. The two films are natural companions: dark, mostly nocturnal New York comedies in which a man’s feelings of estrangement from the opposite sex drive him to the brink. They also share a wonderful absurdist streak that Vampire’s Kiss presses even more audaciously than After Hours, which cut from the script a scene in which Griffin Dunne’s character was supposed to hide from an angry mob by crawling into an available womb. By contrast, there’s nothing stopping Peter Loew from picking up a set of cheap vampire fangs from a costume shop and taking a chunk out of a pretty club-goer’s neck. Minion and director Robert Bierman follow his premise through to the end, when Peter’s strange transformation into a blood-sucking creature of the night is complete. Needless to say, audiences in 1989 largely declined to take this journey with them.
Bierman isn’t a director of Scorsese’s caliber—Bierman’s career shifted permanently to British television after this movie flopped—but he gives Vampire’s Kiss the ominous noir quality it requires. Like After Hours, it takes place in an abstracted New York, one that’s vaguely hostile and conspicuously underpopulated, where the inexplicable happens and no one bats an eye. Peter feels comfortable prowling this scene, just as any skirt-chasing executive with no commitments might, but then he takes his girlfriend (Kasi Lemmons) back to his apartment one night and a bat intervenes in their coupling. The bat never visibly bites Peter, but the incident triggers a change in him: He confesses to his therapist (Elizabeth Ashley) that he was “turned on” by the creature, and soon after, he encounters a mysterious seductress named Rachel (Jennifer Beals) who pins him down and sinks her fangs into him. Rachel doesn’t exist—viewers see him cut his neck shaving, in the place where the marks would be—but he believes he’s turning into a vampire, and modifies his behavior accordingly.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Peter reclaims all the power he yielded to Rachel by tormenting Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), the meekest guppy in the secretarial pool. An author has requested a copy of an old contract that’s been misfiled, so Peter has Alva pore through a mountain of files searching for the thing, even after the author calls back to say it’s no big deal. Vampire’s Kiss is a proto-American Psycho in many ways, including its portrait of a male-dominated office culture where executives have no apparent responsibilities and plenty of time to belittle their underlings. In scene after hilarious scene, Minion has Peter focused on this one stupid, meaningless task, and keeps increasing the lengths he’ll go to terrorize poor Alva. When she requests a little help in this scene, he puts her in her place:
And that’s just a taste of Cage’s theatrics. Here’s another, where it seems the missing file genuinely bothers Peter, and gives him a chance to prove he knows his ABCs:
The question of whether Peter is actually a vampire recalls the great 1976 George Romero film Martin, in which a young man goes about his business by doping up women with a syringe and, in lieu of fangs, slicing open their wrists with a razor blade. Once Peter finally has a thirst for real blood, he acquires a $3 pair of fangs for himself—he doesn’t have the cash for a more durable, convincing fiberglass pair—and sets off on his conquest. In both films, the protagonists are convinced of their vampirism and the audience is made privy to their delusional visions, which here include Peter’s many rendezvous with Rachel and new habits like making a coffin out of his overturned couch, guarding against the sunlight, or eating a live cockroach. Of course, Peter isn’t a vampire, but he is a creature of the night, and the distinction between the two—between reality and fantasy—is ultimately meaningless. He draws blood either way.
Cage’s unbridled exuberance is reason enough to cherish Vampire’s Kiss—his scenes with Alonso should dominate any proper showreel of crazy Nicolas Cage performances—but Minion’s script gives it purpose. As a study of misogyny, the film taps shrewdly into Peter’s fear of women—of being dominated, as he turns submissive and powerless to Rachel’s love (she’s always on top), or of being understood by his therapist. Griffin Dunne shrinks in the face of these fears in After Hours, pinballing through a city intent on punishing him for trying to get laid. By contrast, Cage is all raging id, aggressive and demonstrative and unrelenting in his stampede through the night, but he’s tortured for it all the same. In Minion’s world, the pursuit of love eats people alive—and if there’s anything left of them, this buzzard of a city will pick it clean.
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