After Wicker Man became a major meme and object of ridicule many years ago, internet denizens went searching for a new Nicolas Cage movie to make fun of and turn into a camp classic. Not surprisingly, they immediately went after Vampire’s Kiss (1988), which contained his second most ridiculous performance (or perhaps third, if you want to count Peggy Sue Got Married).
Normally, I would’ve been laughing right along with everyone when it came to Vampire’s Kiss, just as I had laughed myself hoarse watching Cage scream “how did it get burned” a half a dozen times in Wicker Man. But Vampire’s Kiss was a movie I couldn’t laugh about. The reason why is the historical context behind it.
Starting in the early 1980s, thousands of homeless people began to show up on American streets. Initially, they were dismissed as winos, panhandlers and bag ladies (elderly women abandoned by their loved ones). However, over the years, people other than the usual suspects appeared and before anyone knew it, families and vets joined the ranks.
Rather than react to the homeless with a sense of urgency and compassion, Americans regarded them with hatred and disgust. The reason why is that the myth of the American Dream was at its peak. According to this myth, the United States was so brimming with opportunity, anybody could start out at the very bottom of the social ladder with nothing in their pockets and become well off if they did all the right things to get ahead.
Because of this prevailing attitude, to become homeless in 1980s Reagan era America was to commit a cardinal sin. In fact, it was possibly the worst thing you could’ve been at the time. If you were homeless, you deserved to be laughed at, hated and even “kicked in the ass” because as Sam Kinison once famously ranted, “If you can’t get it together here, where the fuck do you expect to go and make a life for yourself?”
When Americans weren’t sneering at the homeless as losers, they were painting them as free spirits who had merely become that by choice or lifestyle. To put it another way, the homeless weren’t destitute; they were simply the 1980s version of the happy-go-lucky hobos, tramps or drifters of yesteryear living a carefree existence in which they didn’t have to hold onto a job or deal with adult responsibilities.
The reality, of course, was quite different. Some of the homeless were responsible people who had fallen on hard times without any safety nets when the Reagan administration slashed social welfare programs to nil. But a substantial number of homeless were also mentally ill people who had no place to go after state-run mental health facilities were closed across the country in the 1980s. Instead of just ending up in community centers like politicians had hoped, tens of thousands of individuals too incapacitated to take care of themselves wound up on the streets.
The poster child of the homeless crisis was Billie Boggs, a mentally ill homeless woman from NYC who made national headlines when she refused to be taken off the streets. After NYC mayor Ed Koch embarked on a program to force mentally ill homeless people into psychiatric facilities, she fought to stay homeless. In a form of pretzel logic, the anti-homeless brigade thought they had struck a major coup with her as in, “Ya see? These people choose to be homeless!” But because Boggs was quite clearly mentally ill (she was often seen rambling to herself, burning money and covering herself in feces), she was the first person to finally confront Americans with the reality that no, the homeless weren’t just bums who couldn’t “get it together here”; a vast number of them were people needing psychological help.
When you consider the year it was made, Vampire’s Kiss seems to have been written with all of these social issues in mind. The movie stars Nicolas Cage as Peter Loew, a high level executive who works at a publishing house in the heart of Manhattan. As a Yuppie, he cuts an admirable figure. Not only does he hold a powerful position at his job, he has everything you could possibly want in life–status, money and power. He is proof that in America, if you work hard enough and do all the right things, you will be rewarded.
There’s just one thing Peter doesn’t have, though, and that’s peace of mind. Because he’s troubled, he sees a therapist once a week. No problem, though, because he has more than enough money to pay for his therapy sessions.
One night, he has an unusual run-in with a one night stand named Rachel (Jennifer Beals). As they’re having sex, she bites him in the neck. Not too soon afterwards, she keeps stalking him. Before long, he suspects that she is a vampire and that he is now becoming one, too.
Initially, the movie plays this plot out in the vein of Miracle Mile (1988), in which it teases the audience about whether what Peter believes to be happening is true or not. However, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that Peter was never bitten by a vampire at all. He is in the throes of schizophrenia and is now having delusions in which he imagines that every woman he sleeps with is really Rachel stalking him.
As his schizophrenia gets worse, Peter trashes his apartment, then becomes increasingly violent towards his secretary, Alva, because she can’t find a missing contract. After committing a few heinous acts (I won’t spoil it), he finally breaks down. By the end of the movie, Peter has been completely transformed–not into a vampire like he had imagined, but into a disheveled bum wandering the streets of NYC while rambling incoherently to himself.
This pivotal scene in Vampire’s Kiss--of Peter finally succumbing to schizophrenia–should’ve hit 1980s audiences like a ton of bricks as in, “Oh, my God. He’s one of them now. He’s one of those people we see all the time huddled in street corners, who we think are just a bunch of lazy deadbeats and high school dropouts who didn’t work hard in life. But he wasn’t a lazy deadbeat or high school dropout. He was an ambitious guy living the American dream, and then he became mentally ill.”
Too bad Judd Nelson (who reportedly was considered to play Peter) wasn’t cast and instead, we got Cage doing yet another one of his ridiculous, over the top performances (complete with an equally ridiculous voice). Too bad director Robert Bierman, when stuck with Cage, didn’t reign him in and force him to portray Peter with more restraint and dignity. Too bad the musical score, with its elements of whimsy, completely missed the mark tonally. The dramatic impact of this scene–as well as its insightful social commentary–was completely lost on the audience.
All of this is why I can’t laugh at Vampire’s Kiss’s ineptitude in the way I normally would any other bad film. Had it been handled competently, it would’ve been one of the most important socially relevant films of its day, and for modern viewers, a time capsule perfectly capturing the 1980s homeless and mental illness crisis when it had just reached its peak. As it stands, Vampire’s Kiss’s is a movie with a brilliant premise and important message that was completely squandered by a tonally off score, an undisciplined actor and an inept director.