Film: Vampire's Kiss
Demeanor: Falsely affluent and ill-tempered, eventually snowballing into something that closely resembles a schizophrenic as envisioned by Brian Cosgrove.
Hair Quality: The Patrick Bateman yuppie cut, which becomes progressively more disheveled as the movie wears on.
Performance Quality: Something like a billion Cages out of Ten. All of the fucking Cages, okay? All of them.
There is a name that, when uttered among fans of Our Greatest Living Actor, brings a hushed sense of awe over those in the room. It's a name that is synonymous with all things Nicolas Cage. It is a name that brings with it an overwhelming volume of exasperatingly delivered lines of memorable dialogue, more bug-eyed facial expressions than one ever assumed a single man to be capable of, and more patented Nicolas Cage freakouts than any other movie before it, and any other movie since. That name is Peter Loew.
As the despicable, crumbling shell of a man at the center of Vampire's Kiss, Peter Loew is as loathsome a character as Cage had played to date. He's a horrific man, prone to gross displays of shameless narcissism, insane bursts of abject rage (often directed at his poor secretary, who we'll discuss more later), and crazed hallucinations that make him believe that, yes, he is a vampire. It is, in my assessment, one of the most exaggeratedly crazed deconstructions of a man ever put to film. It's the role that solidified Cage's raison d'etre as a vessel through which pure, uncut insanity flows with no identifiable hindrance. It is the movie that made Nicolas Cage into Nicolas Cage.
And to think, the role of Peter Loew almost went to Judd Nelson.
As the story goes, Vampire's Kiss was not a film that Cage's agent saw as a fit follow-up to his successful turn as Ronny Cammareri in the Oscar winning Moonstruck. Cage, at the time, wasn't overly thrilled with how that film turned out (though in retrospect has come to terms with what that movie aimed to be, and how his role played a part in it), and thus was on the prowl for a project that let him be a bit more...out-there. When he became acquainted with the script for Vampire's Kiss, a deeply black comedy from a first-time feature director with little budget to speak of, he believed strongly in the power that Peter Loew emanated on the page. And yet, it almost fell apart.
After agreeing to do the film initially, Cage backed out, leaving the producers scrambling to find a replacement. That replacement was to be Judd Nelson. Can you picture it? Can you see the wide-eyed, jowely face of Nelson, still young but far beyond his high school heyday, bugging out with the same level of aplomb that Cage does throughout Vampire's Kiss? Can you envision Nelson running through the streets, screaming "I'm a Vampire! I'm a Vampire! I'm a Vampire" with an energy even halfway to Cage's? Can you see Judd Nelson eating a live cockroach? I certainly can't.
Of course, that's because eventually Cage came back around and retook the role of Peter Loew for himself. And in so doing, he forever fused the name Peter Loew with that of his own. He gave that character its only imaginable face, one of ludicrous, wide-eyed insanity that was as terrifying as it was outright hysterical.
Throughout this series, we've seen many a moment of Nicolas Cage craziness. Some movies, like Valley Girl and Racing With the Moon, gave us little more than fleeting glimpses of it, while films like Raising Arizona and Birdy were fairly rife with Cage brand nuttiness. But compared to Vampire's Kiss, all previous Cage films seem remarkably dull by comparison. The Cage of Vampire's Kiss would leap up on a desk and shout nonsense at any of the other Cages we've addressed thus far, then proceed to chase them into a bathroom before shouting "BOO HOO!" in the most awkward way possible. He is like a sports car dangerously redlining from the opening credits sequence to the pitiful end his deluded character meets.
Yes, deluded. For those unaware, Vampire's Kiss is not really about vampires at all. It's actually about unctuous literary agent Peter Loew, who thinks he's a vampire. Eventually.
Before he believes himself to be a vampire, he's just another snotty, mean-spirited yuppie womanizing his way through a fairly empty existence in late '80s New York City. The immediate comparison one can draw is that of Patrick Bateman, the anti-hero of Bret Easton Ellis' famous novel American Psycho. Both are egregiously awful men, devoid of redeeming qualities beyond a kind of hilarity that can only be taken in from afar. Up close, to even breath in their scent would make you wretch.
But whereas Bateman's psychosis revolved very specifically around increasingly brutal acts of murder, rape, and torture, Loew's dementia brings him to believe that he is, in fact, a vampire. Early on, the film is not terribly up front about whether or not Loew is crazy, or if he really is becoming a vampire. His early sexual encounters (and subsequent ignoring of those women) leads one to believe that, sure, maybe Peter really does encounter a voraciously sexy vampire (Jennifer Beals) in a bar one night, and maybe she really does start sucking his blood on a regular basis, progressively transforming him into a demon of the night. After all, that would be a perfectly fitting comeuppance for such a reprehensible shitbag, wouldn't it?
But then things gets weird...as if they weren't weird enough already. Loew begins having conversations with himself in his apartment. Is this vampire lady invisible? Or is he just losing his damn mind? The latter becomes much more likely when we see Peter at work, barking obscene orders at his tragically put-upon secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso), who has been tasked with the Kafka-esque task of finding a single, ancient literary contract amid a file choked with thousands upon thousands of them. Her reluctance to take on this Herculean task only serves to further enrage her boss, who seems to take special delight in tormenting this single employee again and again, going so far as to take a cab ride to her Bronx home just to bring her back to work after she called in sick.
To be clear, Vampire's Kiss is a film that features Nicolas Cage literally chasing a poor South American woman around a nondescript office building not once, but twice. It is a film that features Nicolas Cage, shirt untucked and drenched in human blood, moaning like a shelling victim in some obscure war-torn country as he glides through the streets of NYC, carrying a wooden stake like it was his cross to bear. It is a movie in which Nicolas Cage literally eats a live cockroach, and is shown to have eaten a pigeon (Cage did not actually eat a pigeon for this role). It is a movie in which he tears through the streets screaming "I'm a Vampire!" over and over again, as if that were something that needed to be broadcast to the greater citizenry of New York. It is a movie in which he fashions a makeshift coffin out of a leather couch.
And yet, for all that absurdity, it is the previously mentioned scene, in which Cage innocently approaches the window of Alonso's home, tapping on the window as she, standing in only her bra and sweatpants, unassumingly irons laundry and watches television, that sums up Peter Loew in whole. She is alarmed by his presence, but seems genuinely disarmed when he cheerfully exclaims "I brought soup!" while shaking a little dehydrated packet of soup. He calmly, knowingly apologizes for his previous bad behavior, waving the white flag of a truce to help lull Alonso back to work. As soon as she's in the cab though, that calm, pleasant demeanor immediately gives way to more horrific antics. Not only is she now being dragged back to work to keep working on finding that one file, but she's given in to the whims of this perpetually more unbalanced man.
It's Cage's effectiveness as an actor that makes the idea of him pleading with Alonso to come back to work even remotely believable. The way he slides in and out of his polite societal mask with almost unnerving ease makes it all the more troubling when that mask completely shatters. He does this throughout the movie in more subtle ways as well. For instance, you may note that Peter affects a more "continental" accent when at work and dealing with those around him. In Cage's words (via the DVD's commentary track, which is a must-listen for any fan of the movie, Cage, or just people talking about crazy filmmaking) the accent was a direct reference to his father, August, a film professor. He noted that when his father was speaking to a class or in any kind of professional capacity, his voice altered to sound more authoritative, and perhaps even a bit haughty. This is why Cage's use of the phony continental accent slides in and out throughout the movie. When he's talking to his therapist, he all but drops it. When he's at work or trying to impress women, he's laying it on as thick as molasses.
For as histrionically bonkers as Vampire's Kiss is, it's details like these that almost convince me to describe Cage's performance as one of subtle wit. Almost.
There is subtlety in Cage's portrayal of Peter Loew, but by the final third of the movie, it's altogether disappeared in favor of complete derangement. When Loew finally transitions psychologically from a man having an affair with a vampiress to a man who is, in fact, a vampire, he pounces on his new-found immortality with the energy of a PCP-addled mental patient. He affects the hunched shoulders and bug-eyed, downward-glancing, expression of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, albeit with a cartoonish weirdness that more closely resembles Count Duckula.
By the time he's shoved a pair of cheapie vampire teeth into his face and begun prowling on unsuspecting club goers, it's frankly not even surprising anymore. By that point, the most ludicrous thing he could do is simultaneously the expected thing for him to do. He effectively renders the term "over-the-top" meaningless, for in Vampire's Kiss, there simply is no ceiling to break through. For the entirety of Vampire's Kiss, Nicolas Cage exists within the acting equivalent of that alternate dimension from Event Horizon that makes Sam Neill claw out his own eyes and Jack Noseworthy try to toss himself out an airlock. He operates exclusively inside of this previously unexplored space of pure energy, pure chaos, pure ludicrousness, and somehow harnesses it for the entire hundred minute duration of Vampire's Kiss.
Coming back to watch Vampire's Kiss for this feature, so many years after first tasting its myriad delights, was like revisiting an old friend that had spent the last couple of decades in a "special hospital" upstate. It is a film I love dearly, no matter how much its existence confounds me. As director Robert Bierman noted in the aforementioned commentary track, the whole production was a cheap, ramshackle mess. The budget was less than $2 million, producers and writers ended up playing small roles in the movie, only the director of photography had any previous feature film experience (and his experience wasn't as a DP), and practically every shot came out of a seemingly improvisational space. Sure, the lines were on the page, but Bierman was just placing cameras in peculiar spots, unsure of what he might capture. Cage, for his part, was rehearsing largely alone in his hotel room, pulling out random gestures cribbed from Mick Jagger and channeling German expressionism. It's a small wonder that Vampire's Kiss exists at all, but in bringing together this story, and this character of Peter Loew, with the burgeoning anarchic sensibilities of Our Greatest Living Actor, something truly miraculous formed, something that can only be explained either by providence, or by the polar opposite.
Whether it was divine intervention or just the randomness of the universe, the fact remains: Vampire's Kiss is amazing, and Nicolas Cage is amazing in it. Is it the most amazing performance of his career? Quite possibly, but let us not forget that there is yet a very long way to go with the Year of the Cage. There are many scarcely explored corners of Cage's career that must be examined before such a statement can be made.
Still, it's going to be pretty tough to top any of this.
- Several scenes that have become inextricably linked with Cage's craziness in the movie weren't even in the theatrical cut. According to Bierman, the producers futzed a good bit with the progression of the film, and excised a number of Cage's "best moments," including the scene of him moaning through the streets with the wooden stake. Those scenes were restored for all subsequent home releases, apparently.
- In the modern world, in which equality in the workplace and anti-harassment legislation is everywhere, it's difficult to believe that Peter Loew would have any less than a dozen lawsuits pending against him at any given time. In this regard, Vampire's Kiss is very much a product of its era...though I'm pretty sure he'd get sued in the '80s too. Maybe just less frequently.
- The movie never does quite resolve the notion as to whether or not his therapist actually exists at all, or if she was always another one of his delusions, does it? For my part, I believe she's a real person that eventually just becomes another piece of his deluded state, much as Beals' vampire lady did.
- Speaking of Beals, Bierman reveals in the commentary that she was cast, quite literally, the day before shooting began. He doesn't say who the original "hot young actress" he had cast was, but I'm just going to pretend it was Elisabeth Shue, just because I like thinking about Elisabeth Shue circa the late 1980s.
- The bat that swoops through Cage's apartment early in the movie was a radio controlled creature. Cage wanted a real bat, and was annoyed when he didn't get one.
- The cockroach scene took at least two takes, meaning Cage ate at least two real cockroaches. Apparently the producers got a lot of shit from PETA over that.
- Cage's delivery of the line "I never misfiled anything! Not once. Not one time!" may very well be my favorite delivery of any line by the actor ever. It's funny enough on its own, but the childish, whiny tone he affects, and the Mick Jagger hand/hip positioning just takes it into the stratosphere of ridiculousness.
- Cage ad-libbed jumping up on the desk right before the first time he chases Alva around the building. He also ad-libbed the "Am I getting through to you....ALVA!?!" line, basing it on the tone an old teacher of his would take with him.
- Tempo di uccidere (Time to Kill)