Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.
But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.
An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.
The character’s not-quite-successfully sublimated discontentment manifests itself early in the film, when we become aware of his propensity for dating (or making moves on) women darker than he. Maybe he’s attracted by their exoticism. Maybe he thinks they’re easier than white girls. Maybe he’s indulging a barely suppressed fascination with the marginalized elements of society. Or maybe it’s simply a reassertion of white-male dominance. Peter’s one of the privileged white guys, adventuring with women of other races, but his “perfect match,” Sharon (Jessica Lundy), and the validating female psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) who picks her for him, are both white. The whole thing perfectly encapsulates the Reagan-Bush era tension between politically correct liberalism and the neo-conservatism of post-Wall Street greed (for want of a better word).
Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is Peter’s dark angel, almost certainly a figment of his imagination. Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) seems to be his steady date, though he does more to screw up the relationship than to further it, and it eventually ends, leaving Peter to walk a tightwire between the deadly lure of Rachel and the everyday workplace challenges of his office assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, downplaying her usual sexy glamour in a genuinely affecting portrayal of one of the city’s many faceless lost). Rachel begins appearing to him after a bat flies into the window of his midtown apartment and either does or doesn’t bite him (we can’t really tell, just as we can’t tell a vampire bat from the ordinary, potentially rabid, kind), bringing his date with Jackie to an unexpected climax. Vampire’s Kiss treats Peter’s vampirism as, among other things, a misogynist fantasy—a vain attempt at securing power—while allowing us to recognize what Peter doesn’t: that Alva, object of his office abuse and harassment, is the one he really wants.
The vampire has ever been the emblem of a dying aristocracy: Dracula and his progeny laid claim to titles and estates in Middle Europe, and the nightmares they visited upon towns in Germany, Britain, and—by proxy—the United States were the nightmares that a privileged and decadent upper class visits upon the poor and the working mercantile class. Vampire’s Kiss offers a new economic analysis of vampirism: the decadence of the capitalist system at the time of its worst excesses (now felt in the new millennium and limned with dark comic effect in The Wolf of Wall Street). Granted, Peter is no stockbroker. Rachel calls him, perhaps tauntingly, “my little literary genius,” and there’s no question that his embrace of vampirism reflects his unfulfilled desire to be the kind of literary luminary he can only work for. He doesn’t see himself in the mirror, even though we do—an epitome of Peter’s lack of self-understanding and his propensity for self-delusion.
At the height of his embrace of vampirism, oblivious to the fact that his fangs are plastic, the gun turned on him fires blanks, and his coffin is an overturned cheap armoire, he urges, “I’m a vampire…I can prove it!” He’s desperately seeking acknowledgment, the validation that his world has denied him. And he finally gets it, not from his psychiatrist, but in a climax reminiscent of that of George A. Romero’s Martin, which as early as 1977 treated very differently the exploits of a similar contemporary urban vampire (or vampire wannabe).
I don’t know much about Bierman (a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris might have put it), but he had an eye on him, I’ll give him that. His sense of the city at its emptiest times and the unforgiving loneliness of crowds at its fullest, of the sunrise-sunset bookending essential to the vampire film, of the inattention of the workaday “public” to the urgency of the individual’s needs, culminating in Cage’s Peter literally talking to a post, is heady stuff. Vampire’s Kiss, pretty much never recognized, is even more important today than it was in the summer of 1989.
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. His work that originally appeared on 24 Lies a Second and The House Next Door and in Movietone News is archived on The Parallax View. In addition to teaching and writing about film, he practices and teaches intellectual property law in Seattle.