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Nic Cage’s laboratory bubbles over in the caustic and bizarre “Vampire’s Kiss”

Image: Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) sits on a bed next to Rachel (Jennifer Beals), who looks up at him while smiling menacingly. He wears a white T-shirt, a bandage on the side of his neck, and a vacant facial expression like he is hypnotized.

Author Keith Phipps joins the Wisconsin Film Festival presentation of Robert Bierman’s 1988 horror-tinged black comedy on April 10 at the Chazen Museum Of Art.

Odds are you already know how you feel about Nicolas Cage. He’s one of the most well-known, celebrated, ridiculed, and misunderstood performers currently working. Cage has bridged a gap between popular cinema and the art house, won a best actor Oscar, starred in a Palme d’Or-winning film, played a superhero, as well as a cartoon caveman, a convict with a heart of gold, John Travolta, Charlie Kaufman, and most recently, himself.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988), though, was the biggest key component in developing his distinct technique—Cage has called the film”‘his laboratory,” and scenes from it take up roughly half the run-time of the infamous “Nicholas Cage freakouts” video. It’s screening on 35mm on Sunday, April 10, at 5:15pm at the Chazen Museum Of Art as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Noted film critic Keith Phipps (formerly of The A.V. Club and The Dissolve, currently of The Reveal) will moderate a discussion on the film and promote his new book Age Of Cage: Four Decades Of Hollywood Through One Singular Career, giving some context for Vampire’s Kiss and its place among Cage’s performances.

Vampire’s Kiss came relatively early in Cage’s career, and first-time director Robert Bierman let the actor experiment to a greater degree than some of the more established directors Cage had worked with up to that point (like Cage’s uncle Francis Ford Coppola, the Coen Brothers, and Norman Jewison). Don’t let any context-free clip of Cage chewing the scenery fool you: he’s in on the joke, and it’s a darker joke than most would care to admit.

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Cage plays Peter Loew, a literary agent who seemingly has little actual responsibility, which leaves him free for pursuits such as club-hopping, casual sex, and treating his therapy sessions like forgettable conversation. During a sexual encounter, a bat flies in through his window, scares off his partner Jackie (Kasi Lemmons), and flies out. Some time later, he meets (or imagines) a new woman, Rachel (Jennifer Beals), biting his neck during their sexual encounter, which makes him believe he’s turning into a vampire. Or maybe he really is? The aloof yuppie soon starts to lose his composure, with each new reminder that the world outside of his own mind can drive him further into his delusion.

His secretary Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso) bears the brunt of his psychosis. The only work-related activity we see Peter perform is terrorizing poor Alva for not being able to find an inconsequential piece of paperwork. Peter somewhat ironically has a framed photo of Franz Kafka in his office, and seems to have absorbed an unintended lesson from the writer’s work: how to create suffering out of a minor detail. Alva, then, is our Josef K: persecuted for obscure reasons that can seemingly never be resolved. But director Bierman gives us a story not on her struggle but instead a perspective of the person artificially creating that struggle beneath the notice of anyone else in the office. The most they can muster is saying “he’s so eccentric,” or “what the fuck is going on?” while walking away from Alva trapped in a corner, or merely bringing up some hypothetical punishment for Peter and then having a good maniacal group laugh.

Cage has gone on record more than once citing German Expressionism as an influence on his performance as Peter, and Peter even watches a royalty-free TV screening of recent centenarian Nosferatu (1922) during the run-time. Cage utilizes a bizarrely affected “continental” accent that was apparently derived from his father, a classics professor. (Cage again cites his father as vocal inspiration for his upcoming turn as Dracula in Renfield, currently in production.) Cage’s own read on Peter Loew’s arc is that “lack of love drives him insane.” Any incident that could be read as Peter not being in control, such as justifiably being dumped or seeing the actual woman he’s based his vampire proto-waifu on, pushes him one step further down a path that ends with Peter sprinting and screaming, “I AM A VAMPIRE!”

If seeing one of our era’s premiere out-there actors take one of his biggest reaches in the company of like-minded individuals seems like a productive use of a Sunday evening, you’ll have to join the crowd of those who are all there to lock their eyes on Cage.

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