Ham Salad: "Vampire's Kiss"
Confession is sometimes good for the soul. It’s a relief to let something go that’s been weighing you down for so long, even if you risk judgment and perhaps even ostracization from your peers. So here goes. I pray your forgiveness when I say…I don’t care for Vampire’s Kiss.
I know, I know. Wait, please, don’t go. I can explain. “But Gena, you like vampire movies!” That is true, but this isn’t really a vampire movie. “How can this be, when you enjoy comedy?” I do, very much, and, to be fair, Vampire’s Kiss is occasionally funny, but not nearly as much as it thinks it is, nor is it as clever. I accept that I’m in the minority for not thinking it’s a misunderstood gem, brilliant social satire similar in style to American Psycho. Its satire is about as subtle as slamming your fingers in a car door, and by 1989 its anti-yuppie message was like shooting fish in a tiny bucket. Nevertheless, it should be experienced, if for no other reason than to witness Nicolas Cage back when he wasn’t taking roles to pay off the purchase of dinosaur skulls, when he still gave a damn, when he treated the scenery like a toddler treats a birthday cake, tearing off chunks of it and stuffing it into his face.
Cage followed the same theory of acting as the previously mentioned Eric Roberts, in that if your co-stars weren’t covered in your saliva by the end of a scene, you weren’t trying hard enough. Both refused to acknowledge that screen acting and stage acting are different beasts, and that in film you don’t need to project to the back row, out the door, across the street, and into another theater. Both thought they needed to do…something (to borrow a turn of phrase from a dear friend of mine) with their voices that made their characters sound distinctive, but end up sounding like no one from any recognizable planet in this galaxy. In Cage’s case, playing Peter Loew, a New York City literary agent, he puts on a bizarre hoity-toity accent, pronouncing his character’s last name as “loo.” He amps it up when he’s around his rich friends and business acquaintances, who never once stop and ask him “The fuck you talking like that for?” like actual human beings would do. Other characters failing to remark upon Peter’s strange behavior is a running theme in this “subtle” satire.
I can’t even hone in on one specific scene. Cage has set phasers to “annihilate” from the moment he first appears on screen. A pompous, obnoxious phony who torments his meek secretary by day, by night he’s a repulsive scumbag who trolls for women in bars. Despite the very sight of him making you wish you could spray Mace at the movie screen, Peter manages to get the beautiful, mysterious Rachel (Jennifer Beals) to go home with him one evening. In the midst of their passionate throes, Rachel chomps into his neck, and disappears shortly thereafter. When Peter becomes an even bigger asshole than normal and grows sensitive to sunlight, he deduces that Rachel is a vampire, and thus must have turned him into one as well.
While trying to explain the situation to his perplexed therapist, Peter also continues to receive nighttime visits from the possessive Rachel. His treatment of his secretary becomes stalkerish and abusive, and she inexplicably suffers it in silence, more like Peter’s battered spouse than his employee, while their co-workers do nothing. As all this is happening, he also embraces the trappings of vampirism, wearing a set of Halloween fangs, eating a live cockroach, pulling his couch on top of himself like a coffin, collapsing at the sight of a cross, and even crawling around on all fours at some point. When bugs and pigeons aren’t enough to satisfy his newfound lust for blood, Peter eventually turns to humans, attacking and killing a young woman in a nightclub, although considering no one seems to notice it’s more likely the incident takes place only in his imagination. He goes completely over the edge (though that would suggest he had ever been on any edge in the first place) when Rachel abandons him for another man, and he skulks through the streets holding a wooden stake to his chest and begging passersby to kill him. Naturally, because it’s New York and hey, people are walkin’ ovah heah, no one gives him a second glance. Only his secretary’s brother, finally acting after possibly years of her mistreatment at Peter’s hands, puts him out of his misery, and, thankfully, the movie itself.
It’s obvious from the get-go that Peter isn’t really a vampire, he’s just crazy. It doesn’t take multiple viewings and an unusual amount of insight to see that Peter is finally being made to suffer for his sins, that he’s self-destructive, that the only thing he hates more than women is himself, that Rachel is the embodiment of vengeance for every woman he’s mistreated, that the hunter is now the game, etc. It also isn’t exactly cutting and witty to portray New York City as a cold, uncaring town, where people treat the sight of someone staggering around claiming he’s a vampire and demanding that they kill him as just another Tuesday. The kind of “dark comedy” that says more about the screenwriter’s feelings about women than anything else, as evidenced by the three female characters who all neatly fit into specific archetypes (the Madonna, the whore, and the mother/confessor), its lowest moments are during the scenes between Peter and his secretary. It’s clear that he covets his mousy secretary, who wears a series of identical dresses that make her look like a cast member of Little House on the Prairie and can barely bring herself to make eye contact with him. This repressed desire results in increasingly violent encounters, eventually culminating in Peter raping her, but yet she continues working for him, because apparently it’s the only secretary job in all of New York City and she needs the money. These darkly menacing scenes are in stark contrast to the slapstick comedy moments of Peter sleeping under his couch and making goofy vampire faces at people. Often it’s though you’re watching two completely different, yet equally not good movies at the same time.
While the supposed “surprise” reveal that Peter’s problems are organic rather than supernatural is the high point of the film, it’s also done in the clichéd “split personality” manner, with clean-cut, charming “good Peter” declaring himself magically cured with the power of love (because he loves his secretary, I guess?), while filthy, blood-spattered “bad Peter” is reduced to a slurring, explosive wreck.
But, oh, what an explosive wreck it is. I earlier compared Nicolas Cage to Eric Roberts, but that isn’t fair. Even Eric Roberts probably watched the infamous filing scene and said to him “My dude, you need to dial it back severalteen notches.” Sweaty, wild-eyed, and with his hair flopping around in all directions, much of Cage’s dialogue is shouted at his co-stars while flailing his hands about. While reciting the alphabet in a foaming at the mouth rage runs a very close second, his Tasmanian Devil-style emoting peaks during a scene in which Peter runs through the streets screaming “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” and only plateaus from there. No one else in the film even attempts to match him, which is wise because trying to compete with that level of hamming could possibly result in a brain aneurysm. Jennifer Beals, the bad girl who leads Peter down the path to destruction, spends most of the film looking as though she’s about to dissolve into a fit of laughter, while Maria Conchita Alonso, playing Peter’s put-upon secretary, just looks baffled at his performance. It’s comforting to know that they didn’t seem to know what the hell he was doing any more than the audience does.
So yeah, I could tell you that if you’re looking for a movie that does a far better, much more subtle job with the “mental illness as vampirism” metaphor, you should watch 1997’s Habit, written and directed by indie horror mainstay Larry Fessenden. That being noted, Cage’s thermonuclear, “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” level acting in Vampire’s Kiss needs to be witnessed once. Just once is enough, because it will be burned into your eyeballs forever.