Vampire’s Kiss/High Spirits (Robert Bierman/Neil Jordan, 1989/1988) I’ve always had a fondness for DVD double bills. Pick up one movie you love and get another one almost as a bonus feature. Hey, it could be worse. That’s exactly how this latest disc from Shout Factor feels. The A-picture is a cult classic long overdue for HD appreciation: the ‘Nic Cage Goes Nuts’ groundbreaker Vampire Kiss. It’s a masterpiece for lovers of Cage’s very particularly brand of nuttiness. Along with that film comes High Spirits, a fairly justly forgotten 80s haunted castle comedy. However, that mediocre movie also stars Peter O’Toole and Steve Guttenberg and was directed by Neil Jordon. So, it’s far from without interest even if it’s also far from without problems. Put ‘em both together and you’ve got a big stack of accidental and deliberate 80s Hollywood hilarity with horror undertones. Just the thing that Shout loves to highlight through their Scream Factory label. Good to know that company hasn’t changed.
So, first up Vampire’s Kiss. The story is simple: Nic Cage plays an uptight and insane 80s yuppie who is convinced that he was bit by a vampire after a one night stand and precedes to grow from insane into Cage-level insane from there. That’s that and thankfully, that’s all you need. What makes the flick work is the fact that while in the early going Cage overacts the movie into camp, eventually the movie actually raises in insanity to almost match his performance. The script came from Joseph Minion who wrote Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and it shows. Vampire’s Kiss shares After Hours’ rambling surrealist, sketch comedy approach to exploring New York insanity and pushes it to a horror movie extreme that plays like a cross between Martin and American Psycho. Director Robert Bierman ended up in TV after a brief feature film career and brings a particularly British brand of deadpan ironic comedy that works quite well with the unconventional script.
Yet, there’s no denying that Vampire’s Kiss is above all else the Nic Cage show. At the time, Cage was still an eccentric character actor with a Coppola heritage and not the walking monument to camp comedy that we know today. In a way, Vampire’s Kiss is the first truly Cage-ian performance from the actor and in some ways he’s never topped it. Cage picked an inexplicable continental accent for the performance that he seems to slip in and out of at will. Before vampirism takes over, he’s already leaping on desks and milking monologues for burlesque blasts of physical comedy. When he gets into the vampire mode, he somehow cranks it up from eleven to at least fifteen on an overacting chart out of ten. He wears plastic teeth and embraces Max Schreck’s Nosferatu physicality, while also screaming down the streets and eating up live cockroaches. It’s one of those Cage performances that rides a line between horrible overacting and cockeyed genius. In a weird way, he’s completely in control of how out of control his performance gets and it’s a spectacular bit of work. There might be more famous Nic Cage performances than Vampire’s Kiss, but none are better. It’s as simple as that.
Now, High Spirits….well, it’s cute. Peter O’Toole plays a struggling, drunken Peter O’Toole type hoping to drum up some interest in his rotting, debt-ridden Irish castle by pretending it’s haunted. Then he accidentally raises some real ghosts and an American tourist version of Steve Guttenberg shows up and falls in love with a beautiful ghost played by Daryl Hannah. The film was made the same year as Beetlejuice and is clearly trying to scare up the same brand of laughs (apologies for the pun, couldn’t resist). It absolutely doesn’t deliver the same consistency of comedy (see Steve Guttenberg casting for more) and quite often feels rather corny. However, the flick does boast a delightfully vamping late career Peter O’Toole performance that is far from without its charms. High Spirits was also Neil Jordon’s big budget debut and while his comedic touch isn’t his greatest strength, the man does have a way with cinematic spectacle. This is a beautifully designed production by Jordon and his crew (including Anton Furst, designing the heck out of this film the year before he designed the finest of all Batmobiles for Tim Burton). So, while High Spirits can only honestly be described as a failure, at least it’s an interesting failure with some wonderful visuals, comedic highlights, and Peter O’Toole cutting a rug.
As usual, Shout Factory does a damn good job transferring these vintage genre romps onto Blu-ray. High Spirits might be the weaker film of the two, but it’s easily got the best transfer. Credit of course goes to the restorers, but much of it comes down to the Irish countryside, Jordon’s restlessly roaming camera, and Furst’s crusty production design. The depth, clarity, and detail achieved in the original film serves the Blu-ray well, even if the awkward old blue screen effects don’t exactly benefit from HD scrutiny. It must be said that Vampire’s Kiss looks damn good too, even if that film’s style is a little flatter. Still the dirty details of the filthy 80s New York the filmmakers captured have never looked better and you can see every pore in Nic Cage’s face as he pushes himself to levels of overacting few dreamed possible.
There is precisely one special feature on the entire disc, but it’s a damn good one: an audio commentary from Nic Cage and his director. It’s a hilarious, jovial chat in which the typically secretive Cage reveals all sorts of hilarious secrets like how he based the ludicrous accent on his father, fought for a pencil moustache above all reason, and was forced to eat that onscreen cockroach twice by the director as revenge for bad behavior. It’s a spectacular track for Cage fanatics (aka Cage-ists) and enough to make you wish the guy did a commentary for every film. It also rounds out a disc that I can’t recommend enough for fans of camp comedy and extreme 80s-ness. High Spirits is at least worth a look in a “wtf did I just watch” way and Vampire’s Kiss is an overacting master class Caged within a genuinely intriguing cult horror oddity. What do you get when you put them together? A pretty damn great Blu-ray from the pretty damn great Shout Factory that is well worth a spot on your shelf.