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Sometimes, just the idea is enough. Such was the case with George Romero’s Martin, discussed last time. A kid is convinced he’s a vampire. Boom! Great idea. The viewer has to decide whether the kid is delusional or not. After all, this is a movie and, for all we know, he really could be a vampire. George Romero’s Martin takes this premise and explores it with heartbreaking sincerity. Martin, the protagonist (he’s hardly a hero), is a confused kid, in his early twenties at most, certainly no older. One could describe the film as Catcher In The Rye with fangs, and that concept alone was enough to propel it, with its micro budget and lack of name talent, into cult film status.
This raises the question, if it’s a good enough concept for a serious approach, what would happen if you were to approach it comedically? In that case, you’d get 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss. Written by Joseph Minion, hot off the success of his script for Martin Scorsese's After Hours, Vampire’s Kiss takes place in the same New York City and deals with many of the same themes: urban loneliness and sexual alienation in the greed-obsessed, shoulder-padded, over-moussed hellscape of New York in the 1980’s.
It is weird when you are of an age where you can recall a time and place, symbolic of an era, that is now clearly long gone and forgotten. A place of memory. Such was New York in the 1980s. It’s hard to envision now, when Times Square feels more like downtown Disneyland than anything else, that there really was a time when that same chunk of real estate was genuinely dangerous.
That was the New York of Minion’s After Hours, the story of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a data entry clerk trapped in Soho one night in the dark and Medieval days before cellphones and ATM’s, when having a $20 bill fly out the window of your cab could leave you stranded. The script for After Hours was plucked from obscurity by Martin Scorsese, smarting after having his first attempt at making The Last Temptation Of Christ scuttled by Paramount Studios. Itching to get a camera rolling on something, he was steered toward Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson’s Double Play Company. Double Play was sitting on a script called One Night On Soho based on a radio monologue called Lies by the late, great, Joe Frank. The script was written by Joseph Minion as an assignment for Columbia University. Scorsese signed on and developed the story, which eventually became After Hours.
The film won raves and turned a nifty profit, which then turned Minion into a hot property. He wrote a road-trip story called Motorama that had stalled out (sorry) and pounded out Vampire’s Kiss on a rented typewriter while vacationing in the Caribbean. He later claimed, in an article on the film in The Ringer by Zach Schonefeld (linked below), that the story was part of his attempts to process a toxic relationship he was in at the time.
Vampires Kiss tells the story of Peter Leow (Nicolas Cage), a standard-issue, suspender clad, money-worshipping, yuppie, (remember that?), eyeball deep in era-appropriate nightly indulgences of booze, cocaine and meaningless one-night-stands. In other words, Peter Leow is coming slowly unglued. BUT, Peter Leow is being portrayed by Nicolas Cage, so both “slowly” and “unglued” are open to interpretation. More on that in a bit.
It is during one of Peter’s nightly club crawls when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals) who reveals herself to be a vampire and subsequently bites Peter in the neck. He awakens the next day convinced he is turning into a vampire, despite ample evidence that the mysterious woman is a figment of his own under siege imagination. This sets in motion the “story,” which is essentially a front row seat at Peter’s psychological deterioration.
Boom! A great idea. But what has given the film eternal life (again, sorry) is Nicolas Cage’s unhinged performance.
Vampire’s Kiss was made at a very interesting time for Cage career-wise. He was just getting his footing in Hollywood as an above-the-title name, and had just come off a big, shiny mainstream success in the form of the Cher vehicle, Moonstruck. The last thing Cage’s agents wanted was for him to follow up Moonstruck with a small, weird, low budget indie comedy about a guy who thinks he’s a vampire. But the story appealed to Cage, and the project gave him an opportunity to, according to Schonefeld’s article, “pursue an experimental mode of acting.”
Nicolas Cage‘s performance in Vampire’s Kiss is something to behold, especially when you realize that it arrived six full years before Jim Carrey turned it into a signature style with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask. But it was Cage who broke down the door Carrey gesticulated, albeit brilliantly, through. Like Carrey would be later, Cage was vilified by many critics. Years after its release, Cage would explain the method to his madness. Despite the fact that Vampire’s Kiss was a talkie, Cage wanted to give a performance with a silent film’s level of theatricality and expression. Max Schreck in Nosferatu, but with dialogue, or as is the case in the film, singing the alphabet.
What is not up for debate is that Cage pulled off something. he is Goddamn bananas in Vampire’s Kiss, and it is something to behold. Again, his performance is way ahead of its time. If today you were to put it on a double bill with Jim Carrey’s The Mask today, people would simply shrug and think, “Oh, I guess that guy does that too.”
After its completion, Vampire’s Kiss had a hard time securing distribution and sat on the shelf for a while. It finally hit screens a mere week or two before Tim Burton’s Batman was released and obliterated any attention given to any movie that wasn’t Tim Burton’s Batman.
Time has been kind to Vampire’s Kiss, and the film has since achieved a beloved, if perplexed, cult following. If you haven’t seen it, now’s the time. Unless you know of another film where Nicolas Cage eats a big, live cockroach.