Nicolas Cage has never been more bonkers than in the cult classic Vampire’s Kiss, which is now 30 years old. Sarah Ward pays homage to this batshit crazy movie and the wildly eccentric actor who brought it to life.
Is there anything more satisfying than watching Nicolas Cage at his delightfully unhinged best? Eyes a-popping, hair a-flailing and lips a-grinning; his over-amped expressiveness soaring past scene-chewing to hit frame-gnawing levels, every word uttered hitting like a careening bullet fired from his flapping mouth? As films as diverse as Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Snake Eyes, Ghost Rider, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mandy have shown, to name a few both good and bad, the answer is no. As the ‘90s action trio of The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off proved, Cage is big-screen (and box office) dynamite when he’s allowed to run wild.
The man himself has said he’d “rather be a performer than an actor,” as he told The Guardian. ‘Performer’ is certainly an accurate label. Cage rarely feels like he’s simply playing a part, and more like he’s driven to exorcise whichever fictional role he has stepped into from the very depths of his soul. He can be devastatingly restrained when needed, but his is a case of passion bordering on possession. Or maybe the latter term just feels appropriate when considering Cage’s most Cage-esque display in his near 40-year career: Vampire’s Kiss.
Directed by Robert Bierman and written by Joseph Minion — the big-screen highlight for a filmmaker better known for British television, and a screenwriter whose After Hours script was accused of plagiarism — Vampire’s Kiss is a curious movie. Unleashed onto the world three decades ago, the supernatural black comedy tells of a literary agent who epitomises ‘80s excess (arrogance, oversized suits, a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em approach to the ladies, a penchant for partying and a fondness for boasting and bragging), following the chaos that springs when he believes he’s undead.
Peter Loew (Cage) is an overblown jerk from the outset, when he’s ranting about trivial woes to his psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley). He doesn’t treat his one-night-stands (including Jackie, played by Kasi Lemmons) or secretary Alva (María Conchita Alonso) any better. But when a bat flies into his apartment, and then he comes to believe that his date Rachel (Jennifer Beals) feeds on him with the next evening, Peter’s craziness escalates.
As brought to the screen in a portrayal that sits between manic and maniacal, buying plastic vampire fangs, crawling along the footpath, shunning sunlight, and biting both Alva and strangers are just the beginning. Peter also fashions a makeshift coffin from his couch, destroys his flat, drinks blood, eats cockroaches, catches pigeons, screams at empty rooms and begs passersby to kill him with a stake. He watches Nosferatu on television as if he’s in a trance, then adopts many of Count Orlok’s mannerisms. He runs through the streets yelling “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!”, because he’s…not subtle.
Elsewhere, a subplot harps on about a lost contract, which Peter fixates upon to further prove he’s overbearing and oblivious. And insane. Too much of the movie focuses on his thread, although the obsession with misplaced paperwork does set Peter’s behaviour against a relatable workplace setting, augmenting its outlandishness.
It all points to a portrait of loneliness, and to an obnoxious, toxic man turning delusional in an unforgiving world. However even then, the film is decidedly deranged. Indeed, it’s impossible to overstress how ridiculous Vampire’s Kiss’ narrative is, even as a supernatural comedy.
That said, the movie would’ve remained a so-bad-it’s-bad footnote if not for Cage. Reportedly annoyed that Minion wasn’t directing as he believed, Cage dropped out at one point, with Judd Nelson considered as his replacement. It’s an understatement to say that, if the switch had stuck, this would’ve been a vastly different film. Vampire’s Kiss can’t be called good, but it is wholly committed to its batshit nature — and no one is more committed than its star.
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Who else could make laughably clichéd dialogue such as “am I getting through to you?” both compelling and amusing? When Cage spits a line like “I’ve got to take a piss”, it feels as if it’s the biggest insult in the world. When he utters “I guess I was pretty horny” with a straight face,, it’s unbalanced, disturbing and an indication of Peter’s mental state. Cage’s delivery not only adds to the movie’s demented vibe, but dictates it. So does the broad, snooty accent and drawn-out way of speaking that he adopts — like Keanu Reeves’ work in the Bill and Ted movies, but with an American Psycho rather than lovable slacker tenor.
Whether he’s looking simultaneously vacant and exulted during an early lustful encounter, moaning “well, fuck you too, sister” in response to an answering machine message while lazing hazily on a couch, or screaming obscenities (and about Peter’s sexual prowess) in a nightclub, Cage’s work is a gift. So is one mesmerising scene in the psychiatrist’s office, where he shrieks the entire alphabet because he’s so riled up about the misfiled contract. Later, he devolves to crying “me vampire” at strangers, wailing in traffic and decrying “Christ, the tortures of the damned”, like a tormented soul condemned to squeal his every thought. Here, as he does throughout the film, Cage possesses not only the voice and look for the role, but the forceful physicality. Again, it’s as if he can’t contain Peter inside him.
Unsurprisingly, his is the performance that launched a thousand gifs and memes, albeit decades later. It feels like the inspiration for Paul Reubens’ bloodsucking turn in the original Buffy the Vampire film, too. Reports of the feature’s on-set insanity have become legendary, including the fact that Cage actually consumed crawling critters, smashed up an entire set and required hot yogurt to be poured on his feet during a lovemaking scene, adding to the allure of his performance.
Once seen, Vampire’s Kiss can never be unseen. That, thanks to Cage, is its unparalleled achievement. Undoubtedly the reason he was cast in oh-so-many parts afterwards, it lingers like a shadow over each and every one of Cage’s loopy on-screen displays. In fact, for a man who plays crazy like no one else, he’s never been as bonkers since.
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