Audiences of the late 1980s seeking a modern, fresh vampire flick had Vampire’s Kiss (1988) to choose from, to which they were either pleasantly surprised or confused and perturbed. This early Nicolas Cage-starring vehicle put out by HBO turns out to be one of the greatest absurd comedies of the late twentieth century. It wears a vampire story like a cape of illusory, confused masculinity. Cage’s character Peter Loew says so much about how urban yuppie culture was perceived at the time, as well as the insecurities hidden within predatory behavior and the facades of men in need of control. Peter Loew is an absolutely ridiculous man created from one of Cage’s best performances. Known for being a performer who has no problem taking his job to the extreme, Cage turns it up to 11 in Vampire’s Kiss. Those spectators expecting a creepy blood-sucker picture will soon find themselves watching a comedy about a sadistic and unhinged boss who is infatuated with making his secretary’s life a living hell.
The odd, unexpected tone of Vampire’s Kiss is what gives it the most character. It is a wacky slice of 80s excess, lampooning horror tropes and belittling any kind of realism that cinema tries to claim. We start off with Peter Loew on his psychiatrist’s couch, recounting his romantic and sexual issues–these meetings are at the center of the film, recurring time and again. Regardless of whether out protagonist is a good or bad person, he is someone unsatisfied with life and unable to make meaningful connections with women. He starts off a relationship with a woman named Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) only to ghost her afterwards. During this time he also happens to meet another femme fatale sort, who from the beginning may be a figment of his imagination. It is implied that this woman, Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is a vampire who becomes a dominant, draining force on Peter. As his imagined and cartoonish vampirism develops, the plot becomes much more narrowly about Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), an assistant at the publishing company Peter works at. The harassment and torment become more and more wild with each sequence.
Within twenty minutes of the film’s start, Peter is talking to imaginary people and serving coffee to a woman who doesn’t exist. Vampire’s Kiss makes no attempt to hide the protagonist’s insanity, and Nicolas Cage certainly doesn’t either. More than anything else, this film is notable for the completely unhinged heights he takes this performance. For a film that takes place in New York City, he certainly has quite a southern Californian accent, and some of the things he says have become memorable and quotable. The list includes a tour de force scene in which he screams “how can somebody mis-file something?” This is followed by him continuing to recite the entire alphabet. Later on he runs through the street screaming “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” He takes the performance to the point of absurdity. Hints of this are obvious from the opening scenes, but it isn’t until well into the film that viewers realize this grandiose mugging for the camera will not be reigned in. Nicolas Cage has since garnered a reputation for being over the top almost all the time. Vampire’s Kiss is just near the beginning of this trend.
The interactions between Peter and the exploited Alva present a story that is more about the abuse of power and how insecurity leads men down paths of false confidence and unnecessary violence. With each awful progression, we see how the illusion of alpha male dominance is about as hollow as one would expect. Peter asks Alva to find the Heatherton contract for “Rattlesnake Hills,” some kind of literary property, but as more scenes go by with Alva coming up with nothing, it becomes apparent that this contract probably doesn’t even exist. The surprise is when she really does find it; Peter inexplicably tells her it is too late. Vampire’s Kiss is about some supreme gaslighting, and who knew a subject like that could yield so much comedy. Once we realize this, the story becomes more about the anguish and sadism between the two characters with no kind of practical conclusion to be arrived at. Alva tells Peter that she has a gun and isn’t afraid to use it, to which later on he screams “aren’t you going to use your gun?” Peter is existentially lost and suicidal, hoping to factor in a death-by-secretary scenario.
One of the most obvious metaphors to pursue with Vampire’s Kiss is the capitalist yuppie as vampiric entity, yet this is mostly sub-textual throughout the film. A couple of years previously, a more serious film equated this kind of economic greed that permeates the soul with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Perhaps the best thing about Vampire’s Kiss is that it shows the shallow nature of the New York yuppie and presents the metaphor, but does not bother to continue with it. Instead the notion that Peter is a vampire becomes a running gag for a film that is ultimately about a man who goes crazy because he can’t live up to social obligations. He just hasn’t found the right woman, as he states directly to his psychiatrist near the end of the film. This is a film about a cavalier man who just doesn’t know how to handle relationships responsibly, treating the women around him like garbage. The maddening belief he has about being a vampire manifests itself more as a kind of psychic self-mutilation that presents him as on the border of hysteria.
The vampire narratives have always had to do with intimacy and relationships, whether it be the manipulation between two young women in Sharidan le Fanu’s Carmilla, or the dapper and pervasive masculine dominance of Stoker’s Dracula (and all of its film adaptations). Yet Vampire’s Kiss remains quite unique compared to other vampire films. It is not even particularly about actual vampirism or a deep metaphorical kind, but rather an indicator of the irrationality found in some powerful men and the pathetic–and comedic–situations this creates. This is certainly not a horror film, but more of something in line with macabre comedies like The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or the more recent What We Do in Shadows (2014). In some ways I can imagine it pairing better with films that have the same mood, not supernatural monster films. Vampire’s Kiss would make a great double feature with other helpless-man-in-New-York films like Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). It would also go great with other over the top Cage performances like Neil Labute’s train wreck of a Wicker Man remake (2006) or the recent Mandy (2018).