Thursday, March 19, 2015

Culture Shock 03.19.15: 'Vampire's Kiss' brings us peak Nicolas Cage

Nicolas Cage in "Vampire's Kiss."
If you've ever seen a YouTube montage of Nicolas Cage's most over-the-top performances, you've already seen many of the choice cuts from "Vampire's Kiss," Cage's 1988 dark comedy directed by Robert Bierman and written by Joseph Minion.

Stripped from its context, Cage's performance is unreal. In context, it's almost equally so.

With any other actor in the lead role, Bierman and Minion's film likely would be, at best, forgettable or, at worst, a confused misfire. With Cage at his most bug-eyed and manic, "Vampire's Kiss" is impossible to turn off. Like the vampires of myth, it's almost hypnotic.

Shout Factory now brings "Vampire's Kiss" to Blu-ray as part of a comic horror double feature, paired with Neil Jordan's 1988 supernatural rom-com "High Spirits," starring the equally '80s pairing of Steve Guttenberg and Daryl Hannah.

In "Vampire's Kiss," Cage plays Peter Loew, a womanizing publishing executive who spends his nights cruising clubs and his afternoons confessing his feelings of ennui to his therapist (Elizabeth Ashley). In between he spends most of his time at the office making life miserable for his put-upon secretary, Alva ("The Running Man's" Maria Conchita Alonso).

During one night of carousing, Peter picks up a gorgeous woman named Rachel (Jennifer Beals of "Flashdance") who, in the middle of their passionate encounter, bites him on the neck.

From there, Peter, who already was an eccentric, becomes more and more unhinged as he comes to the conclusion that he is turning into a vampire.

At first we think Rachel might really be a vampire and Peter might really be her victim, slowly transforming into a creature of the night. But it's soon clear all this is Peter's delusion and he is descending into madness. And madness is where Cage excels.

In Victorian vampire literature, such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla," vampirism represents a release from one's inhibitions. The proper Victorian heroines of Stoker's novel become depraved temptresses after they're bitten by Dracula. In "Carmilla," virginal women succumb to lesbianism. Vampirism in 19th century literature is, more than anything else, an assault on propriety.

When we meet Peter, he's already a jerk and more than a little odd. Even before the  "transformation," Cage gives Peter a strange, unplaceable accent. But after Rachel bites him, Peter ascends to a whole new level of weird. Cage breaks free of his inhibitions and any sense of propriety, and the audience comes out the winner.

Cage's Peter rants, he moans, he twitches — all the while, his mood swings between existential despair and a kind of malevolent glee. When the "vampirized" Peter really gets his freak on, he resembles a comic version of Max Schreck's ratlike Count Orlok in the 1922 version of "Nosferatu." We laugh at Peter, but we wouldn't want to run into him alone in a dark alley.

Vampires in folk tales display obsessive behavior, and so does Peter. He becomes obsessed with a client's contract, which has disappeared from the office files. The notion that something could simply be misfiled makes no sense to him: You put the contract in the file where it belongs. Simple, right?

The missing contract leads to two of Cage's most delirious rants, one to Peter's therapist and the other to Alva, who by this time has become the primary target of Peter's now overt hostility.

Alonso is Cage's perfect foil. Her Alva is every bit as grounded as his Peter is extravagant. Seen from her point of view, "Vampire's Kiss" isn't a dark comedy at all, but a straight-up horror movie about a woman terrorized by a boss whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic until he finally becomes a danger to her. Alva's perspective keeps us grounded, too, lest we buy into Peter's fantasy.

Cage's filmography is filled with off-the-wall roles, from Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" to the 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man." But none of them is quite as outrageous as Cage is in "Vampire's Kiss." This is where we reach peak Nicolas Cage.

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