To mark the 25th anniversary of its cinema release – a Criterion edition must surely be on the cards – I’m revisiting cult Cage classic Vampire’s Kiss. The late 80s and early 90s were a troubled time for Nic – his career wasn’t one long succession of critical and commercial smashes like it is today  and Vampire’s Kiss was one of a trio of inexplicable misfires, along with Fire Birds (Top Gun, but with helicopters) and Zandalee (erotic thriller co-starring Judge Reinhold) to be released around this time.
Nic plays Peter Loew – a sleazy literary agent by day, and even sleazier womaniser by night. Events take a turn for the sexual when he gets an erection whilst trying to shoo a bat out of his apartment (yep, this film is literally batshit). The next night he pulls Jennifer Beals and before you know it he’s down to his socks. And when Nic’s down to his socks you know what time it is – it’s ACTING time. Flashdance proceeds to chow down on his neck but the next morning she’s vanished quicker than her own topline film career.
Almost immediately Peter begins to feel rundown and anxious, eventually convincing himself that he’s become a vampire. And it’s here that the psychodrama, and the acting, really begin. In a searing yet subtle critique of the yuppie lifestyle, Peter has been metaphorically sucking people’s blood for years, but now he’s doing it for real. Truly this film is a ringing endorsement of the Garth Marenghi maxim ‘subtext is for cowards.’
What follows is a masterclass of kamikaze acting – he’s taking the film down with no survivors. Nic wheezes, lurches, cackles and gurns his way from one scene to the next. He terrorises his secretary, and in a plotline which even the makers of the Twilight saga would deem ‘a bit pedestrian’ he genuinely spends a good 50 minutes of the film harassing her with increasing vigour until she finds a crucial misplaced file. Yeah, vampires may be pure evil, but they’re sticklers for administrative integrity too. As his behaviour becomes more debauched and debased we’re left to question whether his transformation is happening at all, or if it’s just the result of mescaline-induced hallucinations. Certainly I felt like I must be hallucinating watching it, and whichever lousy Hollywood fatcat saw the treatment for this and thought it had ‘solid gold hit’ written all over it DEFINITELY was.
The pace may be funereal, the storyline illogical, and the direction diabolical (the director only has one piece of stock footage of traffic in New York which he uses about half a dozen times) but Cage is never less than intensely watchable – this is the stuff YouTube compilations are made of. Even by his own standards Nic makes one of the most bizarre accent choices of his career, unveiling a unique hybrid of Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan and C Montgomery Burns, with a dash of Engerlish thrown in for good measure. In one key scene he eats a live cockroach – not only a Method tour de force, but also one which allowed Nic to exorcise some childhood demons, as in later years he would recount that he used to have nightmares that his mother’s head was attached to the body of a cockroach.
When asked to describe the film himself Nic thoughtfully comments ‘It’s not a film that can or should be analysed. It’s like a bad dream or a scary painting. People either hate it or absolutely love it – both viewpoints are valid.’ The New Yorker were slightly less charitable, noting ‘Cage delivers a remarkable portrait of a completely obnoxious jerk’, with fellow late 80s hellraiser Jim Carrey adding ‘He’s really talented, but what the fuck is he doing?’ That’s a question that has vexed seasoned Cage watchers for years, and never more so than here.
There are three archetypal Cage performances. The first is where a director and Cage are in perfect harmony, his maniacal energy and maverick instincts reined in and utilised to maximum effect. The second is where he’s on autopilot – not so much phoning it in as sending a sloppily spelled text. The third is where Nicolas is uncaged – he destroys the film from within with a blizzard of demented tics and untamed overacting. This falls squarely in the latter camp – he’s less Bram Stoker and more Ham Stoker.
Over the years Nic has ended more film careers than McCarthyism, and this was pretty much a stake through the heart of the celluloid careers of all involved. Jennifer Beals was barely spotted on the big screen again, and first time director Robert Bierman can more recently be found directing episodes of The Bill and Holby City. Over two decades on however, and the man himself continues to rise from the cinematic dead to terrify audiences, baffle critics and bleed one film studio after another dry.