It may seem like a matter of putting the hopelessly-crazy cart before the socially-integrable horse to start off a Nicolas Cage retrospective with Vampire's Kiss, but it may be the film that best represents my intentions in starting this little project: the exploration of Nic's routinely over-the-top acting beyond giggling face value. In a wonderful feature-length commentary for the film with director Robert Bierman, Cage mentions that "over-the-top is one of those things that doesn't work with me, 'cause I don't believe in such a thing. I feel that it's just stylistic choices--and this was obviously a choice to use grand gesture and go bigger." A reasonable enough explanation, because a deeper look validates his performance here as something more than just madness for madness' sake--it may be hilarious when the actor flails his arms and screams the alphabet, but realize that this occurs upon the slight suggestion that his character has committed a misdeed and you'll find that pinning everything down becomes a lot more difficult.
After all, Vampire's Kiss isn't about a man descending into insanity so much as it is about a neurotic corporate asshole's transformative search for redemption--it avoids the pitfalls of Michael Clayton, however, by better realizing that such people are trapped by what they know, and by how they have operated their entire lives in clawing their way to the top; their idea of redemption only means being absolved of wrongdoing. The film doesn't have an ounce of sympathy for its lead character, Peter Loew (Cage), by any account a complete fraud in everything that he does: his dragging, "Continental" accent is a put-on to make himself seem more worldly (Cage mentions that he got the idea from his father, who adopted the same accent as a professor of comparative literature); he has little desire to admit fault during sessions with his therapist, Dr. Glaser (Elizabeth Ashley); and his day job as a literary agent seems to have little consequence beyond harassing his secretaries. It eventually wears down on him when he recognizes some never-fully-explained sexual inadequacy in the form of a wayward bat. After what is surely his most flagrantly prickish act (without a second thought, he skips out on love-interest-of-the-moment Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) when he excuses himself to go to the bathroom), he receives a sharp rebuke on his answering machine--to which he drawls a depressed response from his ersatz psychiatrist's couch. ("Yeahhhh, well fuck youuuu tooooo, sister.") Loew finally recognizes that he is a bad person and sets out to do something about it: make sure that he can come up with a good excuse. In that case, you could call the preceding scene--his vampiric encounter with Rachel (Jennifer Beals)--a retroactive fantasy, a one-night-stand purposely misinterpreted to set a plan into motion.
At first, Loew's regular bouts with hallucination feel like a forged doctor's note, a conscious attempt to exploit his innate eccentricity--and there's a distinct feeling that he already gets away with a lot of things based on that alone--entering a false plea of insanity to pardon everything that he's ever done. (Note that, after a hollow apology to Jackie, Loew's first post-bite vision of Rachel prevents him from attending a follow-up date.) The problem is, of course, that the plan works too well. In order to convince others that his natural douchebaggery is worthy of forgiveness, he believes that he must convince himself that he is a monster controlled by supernatural urges--eventually ending with his death in a state of grace mandated by "it wasn't his fault." Cage's primary treatment of the material as slow transformation (rather than as simple loss of mental capacity) can be traced to an early scene: after chanting his secretary Alva's (Maria Conchita Alonso) name from a mumble to a shout, Loew finally storms out of his office--and in one athletic move, he leaps on top of a desk and points an accusatory finger at her: "There you are!" When Alva instinctively runs out to the hallway, notice how Loew initially gives "chase"--mixing the confident stride of a go-go eighties power-player with the unstoppable gait of Michael Myers.
But the most prominent among Cage's touted influences in playing Loew (alongside Mick Jagger and the Brando of Reflections in a Golden Eye) is another great screen bogeyman, Max Schreck. Only one scene shows Loew watching Nosferatu, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had become a nightly ritual for him, picking up villainous traits here and there in order to better convince others that he is a menace to society that must be vanquished. In that, there's another example of how you can follow Cage's inexorable build-up--after cruelly berating Alva with great big bug-eyes and a weird, rectangular grin, he calls after her with a touch of sadness in his voice: "Don't you wanna use your gun, Alva?" Loew soon realizes (after the "formal" viewing of Nosferatu) that he must adapt some rudimentary sense of charm before he can convince anyone that this run-of-the-mill eccentric dickhead has transformed into a vampire. Thusly come some of the oddest scenes in a film full of much louder oddities: shortly after eating a cockroach, Cage/Loew does his best to embody Schreck in his entirety, visiting Alva's home when she fakes sick. He attempts to curry her favor with apologies and "soup!" while arching his shoulders and tucking his arms into his body in such a way that he comes to resemble a crooked, German Expressionist stick. At last, after this bout of charm is replaced with more invective, Alva is convinced to fill her gun with blanks provided by her brother Emilio (Bob Lujan).
Alas, Loew's imagined self-pity reaches its apex when he discovers that the blanks fail to do him in, crying out loud, literal sobs of "boo hoo" as Alva lies unconscious next to him. It seems that, in his latest attempt to turn Alva into his personal Van Helsing, Loew has raped her--but it is of no concern to him. Such a self-conscious act of prefab emotion draws attention to the several layers of "actor" that embody this character (Cage as Loew as "Continental" Loew as "Vampire" Loew) and the "Method" attempt to bypass anything that could possibly stand in the way of the performance. It's an idea enforced by Loew's subsequent spree through the streets of New York ("I'm a vampi-yah! I'm a vampi-yah!") which perfectly captures Cage's palpable joy at being able to shake loose any misgivings and go bigger, to use those grand gestures--and, handily, it also reflects Loew's masked elation at achieving a vital step towards freedom from responsibility.
But Loew finds that he is in need of external validation, because his "former" self is gnawing away at his newly-discovered vampirism--with only a few dollar bills in his wallet (never mind the credit card), Loew plays the cheapskate, eschewing professionally-crafted fangs in favor of dime-store plastic. The scenes that follow may be inherently ridiculous--acknowledged by the dramatic music sting when Loew sticks the fangs in his mouth--but watch how Cage plays the next few scenes, with his forays into exaggeration borne of complete earnest: Loew's call to his therapist through his new choppers (his desperate pleas to reschedule an appointment are actually heartrending in a knee-jerk pathetic kind of way); the capture and devouring of a pigeon; and finally the murder-by-neckbite of a young woman at a discotheque--which plays out like a self-contained, minute-long version of Dracula and represents Cage/Loew's most valiant attempt to encompass his identity in the hallucination. But it's all for naught--even his visions of Rachel have begun to mock him for his inability to completely succumb to the night.
And so he continues into the dawn, begging for someone to kill him with a makeshift stake. Wandering down the street, wailing at the top of his lungs, he soon walks face-first into the corner of a building (silent horror becomes silent slapstick), an interruption which he naturally interprets as his appointment with his therapist. The scene alternates between the reality and the imaginary; the latter features a newly-invigorated Loew, announcing that he has decided to abandon his therapy sessions and that he will search for love on his own. What I really adore about Cage here is that, cutting back and forth as they do, the two versions of Loew flow together so nicely--the upstanding, self-sufficient hero and the slobbering, blood-drenched maniac are both such outrageous fantasies on either side of an acting spectrum that they circle around and meet each other.
It seems to be a last-ditch effort to let Loew have his cake and eat it too: "Dr. Glaser" rationalizes away any guilt from the rape and the murder (presented here, of course, as an after-thought fear of consequence) as "a little id release" and even pairs him with "Sharon," a theoretically perfect soulmate who, we gather, comes to dog him about his "identity" as a vampire, until--"God damn it, what did I just say?!"--he launches into a hate-filled diatribe directed at thin air. After so many moments that could be interpreted as mere silliness (or moments of terror purposely masked by Cage's own hysterical melancholy), Loew's explosion finally introduces a sense of fright to the proceedings. Cage has suddenly become a terrifying on-off switch. His film-long build-up is no longer some cycle of weirdness, but has finally culminated in choppy mood swings that exude pure danger--the very final stage of this on-the-street insanity. Even previous outbursts were not quite as violent and abrupt; the actor's ferocity in battling himself translates as the final attempt from whatever sanity Loew has left (or whatever sanity he ever had in the first place) to deny him his self-contained forgiveness and peace of mind.
But Alva's brother, dramatically set up in the last few minutes of the film as some ever-approaching avenger/demon slayer, storms into his apartment as a whimpering Loew brings the "stake" to his chest; Emilio obliges and forces it in. At this point, Cage performs his final act of reining it in: after a brief, painful scream, he slowly brings his arms to his side, his final thoughts being of Rachel, begging that he dream of her. In other words, the asshole wins because we've taken him up on his fantasy. He had it comin', but we've all got it comin', kid--Loew has beaten the rap by dying on his own terms, successfully pleading "not guilty" to the crimes committed during his life by reason of supernatural monstrosity, and his mind has finally thrown up the white flag and forgiven him. Cage mentions that he didn't want Loew to go out quietly, and perhaps he doesn't--but Loew's death rattle is not exaggerated in any way, which emphasizes his mortality and drives the point home that this is an inappropriate end for such a horrible person. The dual expectation for more histrionics and some form of cosmic retribution leads to one inevitable, "unfair" conclusion: he should be going out in a much louder fashion.