Monday, 14 November 2011

Vampire's Kiss (1989)

With anti-capitalist protestors in New York and London haranguing the poor old bankers I thought it was a good time to take a retrospective look at that short-lived subgenre of the 1980s – the ‘yuppy nightmare’ film and, in particular, the toothsome satire from 1989, Vampire’s Kiss.

What a feeling: Nick Cage is bitten by Jennifer Beales ...

Vampire’s Kiss was written by Joseph Minion, whose first screenplay, After Hours (1986) pretty much set the template for the ‘yuppy nightmare’: a young upwardly mobile city dweller falls foul of a dark criminal underworld after being lured in by the promise of a woman. As a kind of Dante’s Inferno for the Reagan era, it gave rise to some of the decade’s most interesting films, including Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1987), and perhaps most notably, Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

The yuppy nightmare played on the white middle class guilt of the affluent new breed of city professional profiting from short-term economic policies (the so-called Reaganomics) that led to stockmarket bubbles and a boom in consumer credit, but also widened the gap between the rich and poor, creating (particularly in the United States) a burgeoning underclass.

In Vampire’s Kiss, Nicolas Cage plays a young upwardly Manhattan publisher who spends his evenings picking up woman in nightclubs and taking them back to his gothic-looking brownstone apartment for casual sex. One night he meets a seductive vamp (Jennifer Beales) with a taste for blood and a nice pair (of fangs). Before he is knows it, Cage is spiralling into madness, believing himself infected with the ‘curse’ of the undead and finding himself compelled (as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed) to ‘act accordingly’.

...which makes him buy cheap plastic snappers...

Like Romero’s ‘Martin’ we never really believe that Cage is truly joining the ranks of the undead  - he just thinks he is - therein lies the satire of the film, and the basis of some deliciously dark humour. Lacking the traditional vampire accoutrements, Cage is forced to sleep under his upturned sofa in lieu of a coffin and to don a cheap pair of plastic fangs – the kind you might find in a joke shop - because he only has five dollars on him at the time of purchase. Also like Martin, Cage’s image of what it is to be a vampire is entirely shaped by his exposure to popular media, in this case a late night viewing of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Therefore Cage gradually transforms into Max Shreck, until he is stalking nightclubs in his fangs leering crazily at the women, in search of a victim. They think his vampire stance is an act, that he is joking around, but we know it isn’t.

...turn slowly in to Max Shreck from Nosferatu...

With it pretty much a given that Cage isn’t becoming a real vampire (the film hints heavily that Jennifer Beales is a figment of his imagination – a guilt-projection from his womanising past), Vampire’s Kiss digs deep into the aforementioned white male middle class guilt in showing Cage’s pathology. His main victim is his Latino secretary (Maria Conchito Alonso) whom he bullies mercilessly. When she has to take time off sick due to the stress, Cage - in a particularly uncomfortable-to-watch scene - takes a cab to her house so that he can continue the harassment there.  The film spends some time showing the lives of the poor working immigrant through Alonso’s character, in contrast to Cage’s privileged Manhattanite lifestyle. This gives some context to Cage’s peculiar guilt-based love-hate fixation on his secretary, whom he eventually attempts to rape: white middle class guilt sublimated into victimising the ‘despicable’ immigrant.

...sleep under his upturned couch in lieu of a coffin...

One of the criticisms of the 'yuppy nightmare' movie is that the audience is encouraged to wallow in the grimy world of the criminal underclass (almost like they did back in the Victorian age) before being allowed to denounce it.  In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey is recuperated into his white middle class world of picket fences and ‘healthy’ sex, ‘cured’ of his fascination with the seedy underworld of Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens. To its credit, Vampire’s Kiss doesn’t do that. Cage’s character is not redeemed, nor does he ever regain our sympathy. Instead, as 'nosferatu', he has to suffer the inevitable (as Martin had to) in punishment for his excesses and those of his brethren. And it serves him right too. 

..and stalk nightclubs in search of victims.

2 comments:

Wes M said...

Terrific review Jon. I've always been indifferent about this movie, but your review has really opened up the film for me - I must track this down. Wasn't there some story about Cage in full method-mode eating live cockroaches ? I think the best of the yuppie nightmare movies is still American Psycho...

Jon T said...

Thanks, Wes. I agree with you. The film has its flaws (it's not always coherent) but its interesting. Yes, Cage goes spectacularly over the top in this but for once the story seems to demand it. American Psycho - now there's a film!