It’s impossible for film critics to discuss Vampire’s Kiss without framing the discussion around the wild Nicholas Cage performance in the film. In fairness to them, this film was essentially the moment where his “crazy Cage” persona was born and he began developing a reputation as an actor who will go over the top if allowed to run loose. As such, discussion of the film itself was obscured in the rush to chastise Cage for being too hammy. This is a shame because Vampire’s Kiss is actually a witty, sophisticated riff on urban alienation that could be seen as a precursor to the film version of American Psycho.
The anti-hero of Vampire’s Kiss is Peter Loew (Cage), a New York pseudo-sophisticate who goes to therapy, works a nice job as a literary agent and spends his evenings on boozing around and one-night stands. Things get complicated when he takes Rachel (Jennifer Beals) home and she apparently drinks his blood. He comes unglued, terrorizing a secretary (Maria Conchita Alonzo) at his office and indulging in strange, dangerous behavior as he convinces himself he is becoming a vampire. As things get weirder, it becomes harder to tell whether he’s under supernatural influence or just losing his mind.
Vampire’s Kiss has been misread by countless critics and fans who can’t get past the unhinged quality of Cage’s performance. Yes, he goes over the top at every opportunity here, even eating a real cockroach at one point, but this is not a mistake on the filmmaker’s part. It’s actually a deliberate design. Vampire’s Kiss is built around Cage’s flights of thespian fantasy, using his bursts of intentional overacting to satirize a certain type of overindulged, self-absorbed male psyche that often runs amuck in professional settings. The scenes where Cage terrorizes Alonzo are particularly effective and thematically potent if viewed through this prism.
If you look beneath Cage’s wild performance, you’ll see the film surrounding is subtle and clever in how it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Joseph Minion’s script is careful to present the horror elements in an ambiguous style that can be read a few different ways and director Robert Bierman maintains that approach in his direction. The third act is especially memorable, particularly a scene where Cage enters a nightclub full of indifferent partygoers to commit vampire mayhem: said sequence is hilarious, disturbing and surreal at different times.
The technical end of the film subtly backs up their work with style, including elegant photography by future Tim Burton cinematographer Stefan Czapsky that uses New York to atmospheric effect and a clever score by Colin Towns that mixes horror motifs with a New York jazziness.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Vampire’s Kiss also boasts a string of quietly impressive backup performances from a mostly female cast. Alonzo does well in a difficult role as the secretary that Loew preys upon, bringing an emotional reality and a gravity to her scenes that anchors Cage’s theatrics. Beal makes an imposing fantasy figure, doing a nice job with a very ambiguous moment late in the film, and Elizabeth Ashley manages to hold the screen with Cage as the therapist who tries to bring him back to reality. Also, look out for actor-turned-director Kasi Lemmons in a brief but vivid role as a woman that Loew dates.
To sum up, Vampire’s Kiss might be a must for connoisseurs of Nicholas Cage theatrics but it has much more to offer the discerning cult film fan than that. As stated earlier in this review, its portrait of a well-to-do man going mad in the big city often feels like the spiritual big brother to Mary Harron’s film version of American Psycho. It is as incisive in its satire as it is quirky and is deserving of rediscovery.
Blu-Ray Notes: Vampire’s Kiss has recently been released in high-def form by Scream Factory as part of a double bill with High Spirits. The image looks vivid throughout, nicely reproducing the frequent night scenes and dark interiors, and the 2.0 lossless stereo track is well-balanced and clear throughout. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer, which focuses on the film’s comedic elements, and a DVD-era commentary track featuring Cage and Bierman. The latter is a must-listen for anyone interested in this film as it finds Cage describing the thought process behind all his eccentric acting choice and Bierman chronicling how tough it was to get the film made as well as how Cage’s Method approach could make him difficult to handle on set.