Vampire’s Kiss: The Rage in Cage

There was a time when I considered Nicolas Cage my favorite actor, and not in some ironic way. This is a man, after all, who distanced himself from his relationship to one Hollywood’s saviors (and eventually one of the industry’s greatest purveyors of mediocrity, Francis Ford Coppola) because he wanted to make it on his own. Cage has embraced method acting with a crazy zest—and he fucking loves what he does. I’ve always explained to friends who didn’t share my love of “the Cage”, that there are two Nicolas Cages—the one who stars in popcorn fare like Honeymoon in Vegas, Snake Eyes, Ghost Rider, et al, and the one who inhabits more challenging roles like those in Leaving Las Vegas, Bringing out the Dead, and of course, Adaptation. For the most part, the first is embodied by his manic, scenery-chewing turns in Con-Air and Face/Off; the latter, is identified by roles in auteur films like the Coen Bros. classic Raising Arizona and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Vintage Cage.

But lately, due to rising levels of crazy getting the most of him, as well as much-publicizied money woes, the two Nicolas Cages have morphed into one. Nicolas Cage is now often the best and worst of whatever movie he’s in—and since the uproarious remake of The Wicker Man, he has spent less time buttressing his paycheck movies with roles that play best to his strengths. Instead, he has become the parody of a once great actor that the public consciousness projected onto him—a meme generating Neanderthal.

I can forgive Cage’s shotgun approach to acting in part because of the legacy he has established for himself (it’s funny how none of his movies are marketed as Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage any more). But it’s getting harder to defend the man’s merits when he has seemingly embraced the persona of a reptilian fucknut with full gusto. If there is one thing that is still great about Nicolas Cage it’s that he does not give a flying fuck in such a pure and admirable way. Cage is a now a high-profile B-movie actor untethered from conventional “acting” or “existing.”

It probably doesn’t help that Cage is pretty fucking weird to begin with, his Elvis obsession and love of snake-skin jackets aside.But for all of those who think this was some natural weird-then-went-crazy progression—that the parasitic black mold in his brain finally overpowered him— I direct your attention to the cult classic Vampire’s Kiss, a late 80s parable of misogyny and excess that provided the crucible for the Nicolas Cage we all love and know today.

This guy.

Most people aware of this movie probably know if from its appropriation as an Internet-meme gold mine. Watching clips of the film out of context, it is as if the Nicolas Cage of The Wicker Man Loopered himself into some generic 80s yuppie drama. Vampire’s Kiss is a rare movie that turns awesomely bad to awesome, with Cage’s high-flying performance and the film’s mediocre plot explained and justified by a twist ending. But even if the ending explains the context for Cage’s gonzo performance, it doesn’t explain the degree of exaggeration that Cage brings to the table. To borrow the words of Steven Tyler  many actors are men of colors, but Nicolas Cage is the full motherfucking rainbow.

Cage plays Peter Loew, a young publishing executive living in New York City. Loew has a preternatural yuppie existence—between his nice apartment, his high-rise therapist, his boozing, smoking, and one-night stands—Loew has it all, even a ridiculous accent worthy of his money and prestige. During one of these one-night stands, a bat flies into Loew’s apartment scaring off the girl. He later brings home another girl, Rachel, who is revealed to be a sexy vampire and makes repeated visits to feast on him, while Loew slowly begins to think that he himself is turning into a vampire.

It is this transformation that begins to alter our perception of the movie and keeps us engaged on a deeper level than watching Cage Godzilla himself through the scenery. There are three basic rules of the popular Hollywood version of the vampire myth:

–Once bitten, you become a vampire

–Vampire’s are nocturnal and cannot operate in the daylight

–Vampire’s have no reflection

Vampire’s Kiss, in turn, plays with these conventions. We see Loew in the daylight, and his transformation into a vampire is a steady one. He is bitten by Rachel but then is continually visited by her specter. He becomes fixated on vampiric elements—the coffin, the fangs, the blood sucking–but indulges these elements in a grounded, realistic way.  Loew’s coffin is merely his over-turned luxury couch. His fangs are cheap plastic ones he purchases in a novelty shop. His blood sucking comes later in his transformation, wherein he “feasts” on a woman he meets in a nightclub.

The whole time Rachel is his sexual tormentor—teasing out release and pleasure every time she feasts on him, and encouraging him to be part of her twisted world. But what is surprising about Vampire’s Kiss, aside from how unconventionally it approaches the vampire myth—is that much of the movie is not really about Loew turning into a vampire. We see many scenes, probably over half of the movie, of Loew just being a yuppie asshole; cackling with the other male board members at his literary firm, browbeating his secretary Alva, driving through the city. Of course, our perception is that he is becoming some creature of the night, and these scenes serve to reinforce the madness and transformation Loew is experiencing.

But they also show the reality of the film. While Cage’s performance is seemingly unintentional comedy in a staid late-80s vampire flick, the movie’s final twist turns both Cage’s all-in performance and its middling scenes into a brilliant deconstruction of fantasy versus reality. As absurd as the movie gets, there is still a level of doubt of what is actually happening that lingers over the film. As we move toward the film’s final sequences, it becomes overwhelming apparent what is occurring.

In the film’s crucial scene, Loew has one last meeting with his therapist Dr. Glasser.  The good doctor sets him up with one of her patients, because Loew expresses his desire for love (which, if I’m not mistaken, is not exactly what therapists do). This inspires a hilarious sequence in which the composed and charming Loew speaks to his therapist of his past deeds (snippets of this scene can be seen in this video starting at 6:20):

Peter: So long Dr. Glaser. Oh I almost forgot.

Dr. Glasser: Yes, Peter?

Peter: Well I did rape someone a couple nights ago. A girl at the office. I just lost control.

Dr. Glasser: It’s just a little id release.

Peter: Phew! I just thought I should tell you, okay. It’s a load off of my mind.  Oh yeah…Also I…

Dr. Glasser: Just spit it out Peter.

Peter: Well the fact is I did murder someone last night. I turned into a vampire. It’s a long story.

Dr. Glasser: Goodness. Peter, people get murdered everyday. Do you think that he world is going to stop?

Peter: I guess, but the police and everything. What if they find me?

Dr. Glasser: Would you stop worrying and just get on with your big romance? He hasn’t even been arrested and the big lug is carrying on. Get out of here, the both of you. Have a wonderful life together. And I will take care of the cops.

All of this is intercut with a bloody and deranged Loew speaking to a wall in broad daylight. What’s so great about this scene, beyond its obvious hilarity, is that in his fantasy, Loew is aware of his deeds, aware that there is a line between his delusions and reality, but this is all neatly packaged and smoothed over. In his mind, Loew is absolved and free to start the next chapter of his life.

You see, it was all in his head! Which explains Loew’s maddening behavior and undercuts whatever psychological suspension the movie had going for it. The movie is then, the blackest of black comedies—because as newspaper headlines and Loew’s confession to his therapist show—he really did kill somebody in a nightclub, his sexy vampire lover was only a projection of a failed conquest, and his demeaning transformation to a vampire was his encroaching and all-consuming mental illness.

Given how the movie plays out—Loew takes his vampire fantasy all the way to a stake in the heart—its apparent truth can also be seen as a little sad, because we join Loew right as he is turning into a manic demon. Loew may be some yuppie asshole, but his mental state has to come from somewhere. It could be the capitalist pursuit of wealth and honor or it could be that Loew had this in him all along. Either way the filmmakers brilliantly explore the relationship between self-delusion and reality, giving the film psychological depth that might be overshadowed by its high-theatrics, but nonetheless is there. Like Point Break, Vampire’s Kiss is a cult movie that can be appreciated on many levels because it has, beneath out-sized accidental comedy, a real structure and heart to it.

Which brings us back to Cage’s trajectory as this generation’s premier weirdass, where Cage’s real-life theatrics are overshadowing his art. I think what I like about him as an actor and as an entity is that, beyond his talent as an actor, he comes across as the ultimate kid in a toy store and has used his wealth, acclaim, and celebrity to pursue his puerile fantasies–even at the expense of bankrupting himself. He buys castles (had to sell some because of money trouble) outbids other, more serious celebrities for dinosaur bones, and makes movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice because he just wanted to play a badass wizard.

For some Cage sets the benchmark for eccentric celebrity spending and behavior, which handily makes him a walking punchline. His crazy candor during publicity tours and his far-reaching performances have curdled his public persona (It doesn’t help that the man keeps looking more craven and doesn’t to allow himself to bald with dignity). But as Vampire’s Kiss shows, in the right context, with the right material Cage can reach unparalleled heights of acting. Whether we know it or not, we need Nicolas Cage because he shows us where the line is.