***½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley
screenplay by Joseph Minion
directed by Robert Bierman
**/**** Image B Sound B+
starring Daryl Hannah, Peter O'Toole, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D'Angelo
written and directed by Neil Jordan
by Walter Chaw Delightfully, extravagantly bizarre, Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss houses arguably Nicolas Cage's most peculiar performance in the service of a piece the contemporary in every way of Oliver Stone's Wall Street and the precursor, in every way, to Mary Harron's American Psycho. It excoriates the boy's club of the executive boardroom, treats sexual harassment and assault like real things with real consequences, and has something to say on the subjects of race and the economic caste. It's a canny satire of the vampire genre even as it's an honourable addition to it, exploring those metaphorical elements that transformed vampirism in the '80s into the equivalent of being the "cool kid" (The Lost Boys), the rock star (The Hunger), and the eternally demon lover (Fright Night). Working from a script by Joseph Minion, who not only wrote Martin Scorsese's brilliant (and in some ways similar) After Hours but also the Scorsese-helmed episode of "Amazing Stories" called "Mirror, Mirror" (itself an antecedent to David Robert Mitchell's It Follows), Bierman proves himself an able navigator of Minion's liminal cartography. Vampire's Kiss is about the spaces between and the things that fall in there.
More particularly, it's about dream states. Cage's Peter Loew falls into one, and doesn't get out again. He's a literary agent, the kind with a secretarial pool, who wears his privilege like a cudgel. He haunts clubs, looking for women and one-night stands, and one night finds a nice-enough girl (Kasi Lemmons, eventual director of the fantastic Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine) when what should happen but a bat flies through the window just as things are heating up. Loew believes it's a vampire--a succubus, maybe; he tells his shrink, Dr. Glaser (Elizabeth Ashley), that the bat made him sexually aroused. He has no explanation for it. But then the vampire, Rachel (Jennifer Beals), visits him in her human form and starts using him as a blood puppy. Except that the wound on his neck is more likely a shaving nick, and Rachel is a fantasy of a club girl he saw across the room who's not at all interested in him, and the horror of Vampire's Kiss is male, white privilege and the callous misuse of that institutional/biological/cultural power. It's also very funny. All that's missing is an obsession with the paper on which one prints one's business cards. What I mean to say is that Vampire's Kiss is better than both Wall Street and American Psycho.
For no good reason, Loew is obsessed with ruining the life of his secretary, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso). He asks her to retrieve a lost file--the needle in the proverbial haystack--and as the film progresses, his demands of her grow increasingly abusive. He screams, he cajoles, he threatens. He chases her into the ladies' room, leading to a pivotal scene where he laughs about her terror with all the boys in the executive suite. Vampire's Kiss is unusually sensitive to the plight of women in the places traditionally coded as male. Though Peter descends into madness and paranoia, Minion/Bierman make it clear that more often than not women in the workplace are already there. There's a scene where Alva takes the subway and a vagrant starts working his way down the aisle. We anticipate her discomfort and expect a confrontation. When Alva gives him some money and he moves on without incident, it's surprising. The film implies that every interaction between a man and a lone woman is laced with dread and its attendant relief. Later, Peter rapes Alva in a strange, oddly-framed sequence, and Alonso plays the fallout from that event with extraordinary transparency and vulnerability. She doesn't disappear; she suffers mightily.
Vampire's Kiss treats mental illness as largely incurable through therapy alone, then documents what happens when it's left undiagnosed. It conflates derangement with competition and the cult of masculinity. A nightclub sequence late in the game that leers at tits and ass, as such sequences will, takes on an appropriately hungry feeling as Peter literally hunts for his first human prey. The picture has the effect of making the act of looking uncomfortable. It's anti-scopophlic. Its excoriation of voyeurism is prefaced by an earlier scene where Peter comes to Alva's house and spies on her while she's ironing, shirtless but wearing a bra, through a window. Forced to take Peter's perspective, the gaze turns twisted, perverse. There's a suggestion, too, that Peter's illness progresses to the point it does because he's insulated from social niceties by his status as wealthy, white management. Set against Alva's wage-enslaved Hispanic secretary ("You're the lowest of the low, Alva, there's no one lower than you here"), Peter is allowed, nay, encouraged, to abuse and terrify her. When she tries to stay home from work, her mother chastises her. Just before Alva tells her brother about her rape, we see the family unit (sans Alva) sitting down to a hearty breakfast spooned out by the mother. Vampire's Kiss establishes this as normalcy. All the rest of it is madness.
Bierman and DP Stefan Czapsky (right before he became Tim Burton's favourite cinematographer during Burton's most productive period) do wonderful work. Consider a God's-eye shot in which Peter falls before a neon cross and gets helped up by a good Samaritan, followed by a sharp, unexpected pan to the right that sees Peter stumbling across the street. The film is full of disorienting movements and surprising perspectives: a bat's-eye view; a low angle framing Peter against a picture window; a series of matching crosscuts between the inside of his therapist's office and Peter, face blood-smeared and exhausted, talking to a pole. Vampire's Kiss is smart in every aspect. It balances its very weird, anarchic sense of humour against a yawning maelstrom of chaos and disorder. It understands every implication of the word "hysterical": the thinness of the line separating laughter from screeching, the masters from the Margaritas. When Peter unsuccessfully tries to kill himself, twice, by swallowing a bullet, Cage's exclamations of "BOO-HOO...BOO-HOO" are inexplicable and hilarious...and at the same time, entirely explicable as an example of the film's self-knowing meta-intelligence. Vampire's Kiss is fantastic stuff and an exemplary example of cinema from the American '80s.
Less successful is Neil Jordan's supernatural bedroom farce High Spirits, which appeared the same year as Vampire's Kiss and, as it happens, Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. I mention this because High Spirits is exactly as good and as bad as Beetlejuice, sharing many of the major plot points, afterlife shenanigans, and almost-unbearable obnoxiousness. It opens promisingly enough with Peter O'Toole's Peter Plunkett preparing for suicide before the impending foreclosure of his family's castle by an evil American industrialist. Before he offs himself, though, he's struck with the thunderbolt that perhaps he could lure more lodgers, of the American-tourist variety, by touting said castle as the most haunted in the Isles. Thus launches Jordan's The Money Pit: a large-scale slapstick contraption wherein the servants of lord Plunkett contrive with their master to tart themselves up as headless knights and mournful banshees, the better to "entertain" their guests.
The first major misstep is the casting of Steve Guttenberg in what is essentially the lead. I've always seen Guttenberg, a hot property after the previous year's Three Men and a Baby, as an affable fellow who's not really to be trusted. As Jack, a guileless, enthusiastic naïf doing his best to rekindle the flame in his failing marriage to ice queen Sharon (Beverly D'Angelo), he comes off as plastic, dim, and unlikeable. D'Angelo, on the other hand, is a delight. She's always a delight, and between this and The Miracle proves a good fit for Jordan's high-Romanticism. Jack falls in love with actual ghost Mary (Daryl Hannah, doing a sweet brogue when she remembers to do it), who, centuries before, was killed by her husband Martin (Liam Neeson) on their wedding night. She's doomed to repeat that fatal moment into eternity until the cycle is somehow broken by Jack, thus freeing Mary to pursue him and Martin to pursue Sharon. I don't know. Meanwhile, two other guests--a priest named Tony (Peter Gallagher) and a sexpot named Miranda (Jennifer Tilly, also a delight)--fall in love, as do a few others.
Beautiful-looking, as Jordan's films can't help but be, High Spirits mostly falters whenever it becomes a Rube Goldberg contraption. What Jordan does not do, at least not well, is manic. He tends to the lyrical in his best moments. Where John Boorman is moved mainly by the Arthurian legend, Jordan, one senses, is moved by Burns and Yeats and the lilt and gambol of Irish mythology. The flicker of his work is firelight. I love Jordan's films for their charmed rhythms and flows; consider even critically- and popularly-derided Jordan movies like In Dreams, with its consumptive dreaming and a certain obsession with ripe apples and submersion. The Crying Game, after all, only works because it's first drowned in hiraeth--ditto his The End of the Affair. Jordan attempting this kind of screwball is akin to Hitchcock giving it a go with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. There are glimpses, suggestions, maybe mere after-images of suggestions driven by the fan's desire to locate them, of the director here and again, but the overall impression is given over to embarrassed miscalculation and ill-considered inflation. I don't think Jordan is very funny, in other words. It makes him a poor fit for a comedy.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Scream Factory brings Vampire's Kiss and High Spirits to Blu-ray in a double-feature platter, pairing them, I can only guess, because of their temporal proximity to one another and because they're each sort of paranormal. Sort of. Given what at first appears to be a slipshod approach to its HiDef debut, Vampire's Kiss gets a more-than-honourable 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that preserves some of that vintage '80s murkiness while providing enough fine detail to read the titles on the books behind Peter's desk. The source print isn't in perfect shape and there is minor occasional motion blur, perhaps resulting from artifacting in the grain structure (a problem with precedents our own Bryant Frazer touched on here), but it's a significant improvement on MGM's DVD, especially in the areas of colour reproduction and dynamic range. Sometimes you just can't see into the dark of the image, which I'm inclined to believe is unintentional; blacks rarely seem electronically "crushed." A 2.0 DTS-HD MA track presumably reproduces the film's Dolby Stereo mix and is notable mainly for how faithful it is to a very low-budget production.
The highlight of this release is a commentary track, recorded circa 1999 (they say it's been 11 years since they last spoke at the end of production), starring Cage and Bierman. It's collegial and, at times, uproarious. Truly, it's among the best of its kind and stands proudly alongside yakkers recorded by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, or John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Amid the voluminous gems, Cage reveals his weird-ass accent as a slight against his father, a comparative literature professor who affected a continental air to convey authority. He describes the piece as a bit of "punk rock," and the two agree (and I agree wholeheartedly) that the film is a couple decades ahead of its time. They speculate that stuff like Mike Nichols's Wolf was directly influenced by the picture, and Bierman confides that several of the camera set-ups were dictated by a love for Jean Cocteau's Orpheus and Polanski's The Tenant. Cage talks about a moment when a high-school drama teacher, one Andy Grenier, put him down in front of everybody, screaming, "Coppola, you're not big enough or bad enough to pull that crap with me"--and how that became the infamous "Am I getting through to you, ALVA?" sequence. There's much laughter, and along the way the two recall a fairly contentious shoot during which Bierman got revenge on Cage for refusing to help Bierman the day before ("What did I do?" "Nothing. You didn't do anything. You said you weren't moving and you made it all so much more difficult than it needed to be") by making Cage eat a live cockroach...twice. I love Cage saying of that moment that it was a business decision. "That one thing was worth a two-million-dollar special effect: eating a bug." I also adore the explanation for why Cage runs like a freak at one point: Bierman recalls asking Cage to run more slowly so he can be shot at and Cage says something like, "Well, if I have to run slower, I'll run like this." He must've been a pleasure to work with. A trailer for Vampire's Kiss additionally appends the film.
High Spirits receives a 1.85:1, 1080p presentation that is brighter, sharper, and more tactile than that of Vampire's Kiss, although the film's optical effects are transparent and have for the most part aged poorly. That being said, while there's a ceiling on how good the F/X can look, Jack and Mary's first encounter under moonlight has about it its own logic that forgives any compositing. Jordan is a wizard. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is loud and clear--appallingly so during antic moments. There are no special features specific to this B-side.