You wouldn’t know it from the film’s iron-clad second-life reputation these days as the butt-end of a joke in internet compilations of Nicolas Cage losing himself to convulsions of life-panic, but there were, in fact, other people in the room when Vampire’s Kiss was being made. At the same time, the black hole of Cage’s performance sucks in any and all vitality from the production elsewhere, energy no one else seems to have exerted in the first place. But if this is Cage’s Vegas one man show (much more than Honeymoon in Vegas, or Leaving Las Vegas even), the birthing pool of the film remains writer Joseph Minion. That’s a name you probably don’t cotton to immediately, but he’s famous in screenwriter’s and cult object circles for writing After Hours, a film picked almost at random by Martin Scorsese when the production of The Last Temptation of Christ screeched to a grinding halt.
Minion wrote that script before he graduated from college, and frankly it shows, but not like it shows in Vampire’s Kiss, his second screenplay and the beginning of a downslide into irrelevance. While After Hours was skeptical and scatterbrained to say the least, it boasted, as if by accident, a manic, furious director livid at the production machine and looking to vent in cackling mad rays of demented glee. An absurdist riff on New York, a city that was Scorsese’s muse, proved to be just the ticket for the director to let his eyebrows down with a quiet little maelstrom of expressionistic hellfire about a man who seems to have slipped beyond the barrier of perception. The ensuing film wasn’t a masterpiece – in fact, it sometimes seems to self-consciously throw caution and masterpiece status to the wind – but it’s an energetic little nervous bundle of thorny yarn that Scorsese enjoyed pawing at with his fangs fully drawn and ready to commit acts of criminal intent.
Vampire’s Kiss, in comparison, boasts Robert Bierman in the director’s chair. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, and while the similarly adolescent screenplay – a work of molding clay in Scorsese’s hands – bears connection to Minion’s work on After Hours, it turns a little sour in Bierman’s more hands-off, invisible approach to the material. Kiss’ swivels into absurdism handled rather bluntly, Bierman is thoroughly unable to replicate the murderous energy of Scorsese’s directorial flourishes or his incomparably devious mise-en-scene. If New York was a crackled bottle of nerves in After Hours, it’s an after-thought here, a passive background for characters to say their lines in. If New York was a weapon destroying Griffin Dunne in After Hours, it’s a bystander her. And if it was a visualization of Dunne’s, or Scorsese’s, unraveling mental cortexes in After Hours, it’s curtailed to a sort of mildly hysterical sideline glance here, with Cage the only figure working at all to explore the madness and trembling bafflement at the core of the tale. Scorsese’s deep-focus camera mutated the city into a crucible of free-associative hysteria, an un-bestable gauntlet rather than backdrop, but Vampire’s Kiss is too passive to give it the old college try.
Lest I get ahead of myself, Scorsese’s visual acumen would have been appreciated in this black comedy about a similar night-crawler in the Big, Poisoned Apple, making Vampire’s Kiss too similar a film to Minion’s other script to avoid the contraposition to Scorsese’s work. The Vampire’s Kiss New York – another poison-pen love letter from Minion to his college city – is more mildly hysterical than actually vaguely hostile, with none of the malevolent twinges of scattered-ash elegy found in After Hours, where the city was massaged into a sort of ghoulish playground and perdition for the woman-fearing protagonist. After Hours turned too-literal themes into oil for Scorsese to slather all over his home city, putty to liquefy and warp the cross-hatch of streets and avenues into a labyrinthine corridor of his choosing, whipping up a fruitful cocktail of madcap glee and maniacal zest.
For Bierman, the themes turn to lead. Specifically, the “vampires as (insert theme, any theme at all)” allegorical angle is about as front-and-center in the film’s text (as opposed to subtext) as a film can get before it just sort of turns into a monster truck and assaults you with its obviousness while you’re watching. Cage plays a New York literary agent with a gradual, and then rapid, mental deterioration that is either the cause or the effect of his implicit discomfort with women he prowls, hunts, and then discards (sexually speaking, although every vampire film dissolves the typically rigid embankments between sex and violence, as with the partitions between social “othering” and social power). Essentially, Cage begins to think he is a vampire, and this is carte blanche for the film to indulge in metaphors so over-baked they set off your smoke detector.
Fittingly, because Cage eventually erupts into a feral fire bent on tearing your mind, and your mental categories for “good” and “bad” performance, to smithereens. Smack dab in the middle of a cabal of revisionist vampire films that mutated vampirism into whatever social issue of their choice, Vampire’s Kiss is comically literal in its vision of the sex-hungry man as a mentally deluded vampire who wanders the streets in hopes of drawing blood from the women who frighten or confuse him with their humanity. Cage’s expressionistic performance radiates a kind of obsessive, out-of-control negative energy that jolts the whole film awake for the full girth of its admirably trim 103 minutes. Indeed, in his hands, the obviousness of the screenplay even mutates into a parody of works like The Hunger that were playing willy-nilly with vampires as metaphors for anything and everything around this time. Cage’s character is essentially content to invent vampire fiction for himself to justify his own perseverant sexual abuse, with this literary agent character acting out the very foul self-metaphor so many filmmakers preferred around this time.
It must be said the film is keener on name dropping actual expressionist films than incarnating that expressionism in its own visuals (perhaps that’s the point; it’s a faux-vampire film, a false-allegory, rather than the real deal, but even then a more expressively chintzy aesthetic – as opposed to a “non-aesthetic” – would have animated the scorching irony even further). But Cage’s gross, malformed overload of a vampire pastiche hits the nail (in the coffin) right in the head. Acting out a kind of heavily-affected failure of a vampire, he is doing something absolutely, illegally expressionistic with his voice and body throughout the film, incarnating a satire of expressionism more than a proper totem to it. Deep in the throes of whatever the hell his accent is (call it faux-British posh dragged through a sewer and minced in a grinder), Cage pulls the film inward bodily, and thus away from whatever cumbersome “but vampires are rapists, bro” film-school mindbender it might have become in the hands of other forces, probably hip college men eager to show off their particularly male variation of feminist cred.
Cage alone navigates the shift from overly concept-y thematic “idea-focused” cinema to bodily perception-focused cinema (the higher order art form) where the themes are subjectively expressed in the film’s world rather than simply present in the narrative. Or, in this case, they’re expressed not in the world but in the body of this man with a Count Orlok chip on his shoulder. His inner-twinge of personal panic incarnated in his very physical being – bug eyes, bent body, a perpetually askew gait – Cage’s character is somehow both insular, all shriveled up in an unwell and sickly mass, as well as outré, jutting outward in rictus angles that are at once limber and spasmodic, like he’s trying to reach out to a world he remains oblivious to. And a world that remains oblivious to him. His vampire status is more like a delusion of grandeur and mythic import to pacify the real-world terror he initiates, but his angst, his vampirism itself, is unrequited by a city that is emblematic of new-gilded-age indifference to any individual that crosses its path. In the end, pitiful and alone, Cage is left talking to a post while glimmers of people in the background walk on by, an unsettling scene for how uncannily it refrains to earlier moments where Cage showboats and the ever-busy, ever-insular world barely even raises an eye.
Which is why Vampire’s Kiss, 27 years later, may be the definitive Cage role: it is assuredly the closest thing in his career to a one man theater show, a study in a man knotting himself in ticks and gestures a mile wide in a desperate bid to receive the recognition his character (a literary agent, not a writer) fails to receive in everyday life. His audience numbers zero however; just as the city is too busy to acknowledge his abuse of Latin-American and African-American women, the public, a non-entity in this film, remains cruelly unfazed by his desperate plea for attention and almost mythological power. Perhaps, then, the fact that Cage’s cathartic, galvanizing role, alloying himself to every emotion in the operatic canon, enervates the film around him is oddly emblematic of his character’s self-centeredness. If the film only occasionally staggers into a vaguely ominous visual, especially in the oddly underpopulated city streets that soundtrack Cage’s creature of the night hunting parties, it’s because his character is far too busy not noticing his true self to ever actually look outward and intake the world around him.
Vampire’s Kiss is hardly horror or black comedy essential studies, but Cage alone makes it worthy of an extracurricular. When the film is no longer content to tickle a kind of low-flying insanity and unclogs the channels to fulfill the sordid arc to full-tilt madness, it’s all Cage as an anxious mass of throbbing neurons catalyzing a monstrosity of a man to nearly destroy himself. The madness Scorsese filtered through an entire physical space, the city of New York as a whole, is instead all bent up in this one man’s body. No wonder he bought a castle in New Orleans years later; it feels like the only biome that could contain him.