Watching Vampire’s Kiss is like watching a mad, performing animal; occasionally glimpsing what looks to be a zipper on its back, up near its tufty black neck, half-hidden beneath the fur. Behind the animal, out of the corner of our eye, we see – or think we see – the twirl of a moustache; some pulleys and puppet strings; hidden and fiendish mechanics. We leave the theatre not knowing whether we have just watched a cruel and mindless spectacle or an intricate pastiche of the same. Once again, it was Nicolas Cage who was billed in bright shining lights on the marquee as we entered the theatre and surely Nic who was looking at us from within the dancing bear suit, giving us a knowing wink from beneath the furry mask barely perceptible upon the darkened stage.
Hello you! After a Christmas and New Year hiatus, Cage Wisdom returns like a squawking and insufferable baby cuckoo to the warm and homely nest of online film criticism. Just as Rudolf needs his brandy-soaked carrots to keep him going through the long nights of the season, so too do we Cage fanatics need new Nicolas Cage movies, like brightly burning SAD lamps, to ward off Jack Frost with his big black sack of melancholia. Yet, while watching Cage deport himself madly upon the film stage, strutting and flailing, may have kept my humours in check, Vampire’s Kiss is a film about a man who can’t do the same; a man called Peter Loew whose black bile we watch bubble up through the movie like a sadly salted slug.
Peter Loew is a literary agent by day and womanizing bar-fly by night. He is not, seemingly, a man of friends, exemplified by the fact that instead of some cherished loved one, he keeps within his office a framed photograph of Franz Kafka, a man who died around three decades before his own birth. He was born in Philadelphia, yet speaks with what sometimes sounds to be an affected English accent. Perhaps like Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) in Spike Lee’s ludicrously underrated Bamboozled (2000), Loew affects a continental accent (and Kafka portraiture) in order to appear more cultured to the colleagues he has failed to bond with.
Cage’s voice is at its most expressive as he attempts a form of ‘vocal gurning’ encompassing whines, cackles, whoops and bellows. The effect is singular because the dialogue is simple and unadorned. Characters state intentions and ask questions clearly, without recourse to, say, the syntactical pirouettes of the Coen Brothers or the stunted half-sentences of David Mamet. So, in contrast to the Coen’s Raising Arizona, where the stylisation of the script matched the cartoon eccentricities of the performance, Joseph Minion’s script is a blank slate where Cage is free to kick up some manic chalk dust! Lines are made quotable, not due to their inherent absurdity (although the situations in which these lines occur are absurd) but due to Cage’s inspired, gesticulatory deliveries. Often, Cage has (perhaps behind scenes) devised some arm-thrusting hand-bending gesture which, throwing caution to the wind, he pairs with an otherwise innocuous line. Consider, for example, his delivery of the phrase “It’s all you have to do”:
The stills above are taken from a scene in Loew’s psychiatrist’s office. During these sessions Loew enters into rants of raging, sulking, petulant defiance like some righteous shock jock, on topics as diverse as proper filing etiquette (“You just put it in the right file!”) and bat bite induced erections (“I was a little drunk… plus I was horny.”) When we meet Loew he is already dangling from sanity’s gorge by a precious thread, but when the clandestine bat bite leads to the belief that he has become a vampire, resulting in a remarkable sequence in which Cage rushes down a New York street proclaiming his vampirism to passers-by, Elizabeth Ashley’s psychiatrist becomes a locus of sanity for the audience, who watches Loew’s erratic descent with concerned, yet bemused detachment.
Another figure of sympathetic engagement is Maria Conchita Alonso’s Alva, who is tormented and bullied by Loew through the film. The scenes between the two at first elicit laughter due to Loew’s ludicrous expectations of his secretary and become gradually more troubling and distressing as Alva’s psychological distress becomes increasingly apparent. The effect is not dissimilar to watching Jack Nicolson’s Jack Torrence torment Shelly Duvall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). At first, Nicolson’s charisma and derelict charms ask us to root for the bad boy, to take snide and secret joy in how Jack lords it over the quivering Wendy. Kubrick almost constructs a litmus test for the audience, tempting us to hold out sympathy for the victim, until a point where not to do so would be to share in Jack’s psychosis. We begin by cheering on the exciting male transgressor and end up inadvertently cheering for a monster.
Yet, Cage’s charms are of a more daffy variety than Nicolson’s. At first, we resist seeing Loew at a monster, not due to his “machoistic” charisma, but precisely due to his lack of it. Strutting through bars searching for ladies, he seems like nought but a dandified yuppie, whose limp handshake and foppish parting belie his attempts at suavity.
Later, when he is bitten and gormlessly seduced by a (possible) vampiress he is a tragic yet witless victim – the rubbish younger brother of an Oedipus or Hamlet, undone by his own pants buckle. Before Vampire’s Kiss Cage had mostly played gangly firecrackers, young idealists, lovers and whippersnappers, so an audience as of yet unfamiliar with his idiosyncracies, may have been surprised to watch him lauch so energetically into dereliction and depravity. Yet, what fascinates about Loew is that even when hollerin’ and psychotic, he remains wretched. Though the Kafka portrait is not matched by a labyrinthine design, gnomic dialogue, or enigmatic direction, Loew is as hopeless and festering as Gregor Samsa and the film, like Birdy from 5-years previous, shows Cage at his most hunched and beetley.
Also, while fun, the film is a little unkempt and abject. It’s both much darker and dafter than expected, with passages of absurdist humour followed by moments of genuine unpleasantness. It’s a curious beast, but not without its strange delights, especially from Cage who is a whole curiosity cabinet of contradictions; manic yet controlled; aggressive and submissive; hair brill-creamed but foppish. These apparent contradictions might suggest that the role should feel fragmentary and disjunctive, but through the repetition of stylised gestures and vocal mannerisms he holds it together, like some mad acting robot that’s learnt emotions and gone haywire!
Peter Loew may not be a good vampire, but Nic seduces with the best of them, convincing you through his sheer commitment to the role of his character’s insanity. By the end of the film Loew’s delusions have grown fully fledged and he’s stalking through the nightclubs looking for prey with a black suit and a plastic fang over-bite, like a cartoon Vincent Price half remembered from Saturday morning tv. He walks stiffly through the crowds and, on meeting a lady charmed by his eccentricity, gestures graciously like the count and chitters his teeth.
We’ve come full circle back to the early scenes of Loew’s bar haunting, but now he is fully ensconced within the jaws of madness and can never go home again. A low-rent tragic hero Loew may be, but Cage gives no half-measures in transforming himself into a shambling wreck.
This is what Nic does at his best, he makes the ludicrous inarguably convincing. There’s a much recounted scene in which Loew (and Cage) eat a cockroach crawling across the stove in his apartment. Originally the script asked for Loew to eat a raw egg. Yet for Cage there must be a sacrifice, a ritual, a gesture towards the authenticity of his character. Like Werner Herzog insisting that a real boat be pulled up a mountain, simulacra isn’t enough. This kind of method acting registers Cage’s early love for Marlon Brando and James Dean, who acted with an intensity that became inseparable from their lives. Yet Cage is also, to paraphrase David Lynch, a ‘jazz actor’ and this was his self-proclaimed Picasso period and while this never meant anything as literal as descending a staircase naked, it meant mixing things up and giving a distorted vision of angular shapes and ritualistic repetitions. Here, deep in the late 80s of synth-pop anthems and sensible hair, Cage offer us an experiment in form and if that means jumping on a desk and reciting lines like he’s doing the macarina, then jimminy-f’ing-cricket he’ll do it.
post scriptum: at the height of his Vampire fever, Loew sleeps under a leather three-piece-suite as if it were a coffin. This is inspired!