To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at Cage’s most insane performance ever in Vampire’s Kiss – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
There’s something odd about Nic Cage’s accent in Vampire’s Kiss. Sometimes, he sounds a bit like Ted “Theodore” Logan of Bill & Ted fame (that’s the Keanu Reeves character), but I think a more accurate description might be that it’s a WASPy Comic Book Guy affectation. Just think about how he spits out “It doesn’t just go away, Alva. Nothing just goes away.” However, Vampire’s Kiss was made before Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released, and before The Simpsons entered our society’s collective consciousness, so we can only assume Cage created this bizarre affectation himself. It offers something for the viewer to pay attention to. It adds an extra layer to his Cageisms; it persists even when Cage is telling an unwelcome bat to “shoo,” or terrorizing his poor hispanic subordinate at work, or eating cockroaches, or pretending to be a vampire. Incidentally, there are an awful lot more Cageisms in this movie than there are in The Wicker Man or The Bad Lieutenant, and every bit of crazy is inflected with a weirdly articulate and condescending speech pattern that unravels when Cage’s character gets drunk and sounds more like a dumbass than smartass.
We’ve covered movies in this series directed by Brian De Palma, Werner Herzog, and John Woo. And to both larger and smaller extents, each of these movies is mostly reliant on the director as an author. Even with Adaptation, where the star of the film is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman above all, Spike Jonze maintains a noticeable presence throughout. But Vampire’s Kiss is different. It was helmed by Robert Bierman, who directed this and then a whole bunch of television. Visually, the movie is bland. Despite a vibrant screenplay and an eccentric star performance, the camera often pauses for long periods of time, the colour palette is muted, and the editor usually restricts himself to nothing more complicated than basic shot-reverse shot patterns. Fortunately, Cage makes up for this banality by turning in what must be the strangest performance of a career full of strange performances, full of outbursts, stunning realizations, and bizarre behaviour that seems less like the deeply held madness of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, and more like a high-school drama nerd who really got into his character and then forgot about his actual identity.
Let’s get back to the screenplay. The entire concept of Vampire’s Kiss is one particularly suited to Cage’s style of emoting. The gist of the story is that Peter Loew, a self-centred literary agent, brings a girl home from a club, she bites him on the neck, and then he starts to believe that he’s turned into a vampire. This catalyst is a starting point from which Loew turns into an increasingly psychotic individual. At first, he simply admonishes Alva, his subordinate, for things that weren’t her fault. Later, he screams her name loudly in the office hallways and chases her into the womens’ bathroom. It gets worse from there. Even if Loew was turning into a vampire, it wouldn’t really explain his behaviour. His method for hiding from the sun involves wearing a large pair of sunglasses and sleeping underneath an overturned couch, and he continues to seek advice from his useless therapist, where he legendarily delivers his famous ABCs speech.
The screenplay was written by John Minion, whose only other credit of note is the Martin Scorsese classic After Hours. By judging by these two movies alone, it would seem that Mr. Minion has a flair for turning Manhattan into the scene of a nightmare. But there’s certainly more to the script than a convenient excuse for Cage not to exercise restraint. After Loew chases poor Alva into the women’s bathroom, there is a scene of him and his fellow agents, all male, sitting around a table laughing about the incident. Misogyny within the corporate work environment would seem to be the target, as well as the extent to which men in power are capable of internalizing some terrible ideas about people who have no choice but to listen to them, demonstrated by the extent to which Loew’s behaviour is considered acceptable by his equals, even if poor Alva feels the need to tell Loew about the gun she carries to protect herself.
Eventually, however, Loew’s behaviour becomes a grotesque parody of the “ladykiller” he once was (although, no matter how much the film wants us to believe Loew is successful at picking up women in the earlier parts of the film, it stretches believability that someone who sounds like WASPy Comic Book Guy could bring girls back to his place without putting a whole lot of effort into it). I think my favourite scene in the film comes near the end, when his psychosis has almost reached its peak. Loew walks into a novelty item store and takes a look at a some expensive fibre glass vampire teeth. When he realizes he has no cash, he purchases a cheap pair of plastic teeth instead. This eventually leads to the YouTube-mytholigized scenes of Cage scurrying around the streets of Manhattan, biting pigeons, flashing his cheap fake vampire teeth at people, and screaming “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” Notice, however, that I said this was almost the peak of his psychosis. The actual event of which I will leave for you to watch yourself. Suffice to say, it’s a haunting depiction of how people can forgive themselves for their terrible deeds and justify some incredibly heinous and offensive opinions.
That’s right, even more so than The Wicker Man and The Bad Lieutenant, Vampire’s Kiss is a crazy Cage film with high ideals. Sometimes I wonder what the film would look like if Scorsese got his hands on it and made a companion piece to After Hours. I’m sure it would have gained something in pure cinematic exhilaration – very few filmmakers are as formally accomplished as Scorsese – but it might have lost something by reigning in the Cage. The bland direction actually helps his performance shine. It pops out at you like a red buoy on a blue ocean. It attracts your eyeballs like a magnet. It’s some kind of wonderful.