Vampire's Kiss (1988)
Somewhere along the way, Nicolas Cage went from one of those actors we were all suppose to hate to an adored cult icon. I attribute this shift in perception to a YouTube compilation of Cage “loosing his shit,” making people realize Cage's style of “mega-acting” was hilarious and highly entertaining. The actor has embraced his newfound cult popularity. In-between appearing in undistinguished junk, he's done actually great acting in genuinely interesting movies. No high-light reel of Cage loosing his shit would be complete with 1988's bizarro horror/comedy, “Vampire's Kiss.” In fact, In fact, “Vampire's Kiss” may be the Cagiest movie ever made.
Paul Loew is a highly successful literary agent but, despite his life style of riches and hook-ups with random beautiful women, he isn't happy. Following a hot date with a young artist, Paul is attacked by a bat in his bedroom, which arouses him. Afterwards, he begins to have phantasmagorical visitations from Rachel. The fanged woman appears in his room every night, reducing him to a whimpering state as she drinks his blood. Paul naturally assumes her to be a vampire, feeling himself becoming one of the undead too. Meanwhile, he focuses his impotent rage on Alva, his secretary who can't locate an unimportant legal document.
A lot of the movie's absurdist humor also arises from its horror content. The idea of a woman dominating Paul strikes him as so impossible, he imagines her as a fantastical creature: A vampire. Thus, Paul's splintering ego turns him into a vampire too. The movie mines humor from comparing the fantastic quality of the vampire myth with the extremely petty concerns of its protagonist. He imagines himself as unseen in a mirror, when he's still very visible... Much to the chagrin of someone sharing the public bathroom with him in that moment. He collapses in the sight of religious symbols. He improvises his fancy sofa into a casket. When unable to grow fangs on his own, he purchases the cheapest, plastic set of chompers he can find. It's a hilarious and oddball subversion of everything we've come to expect from a vampire movie.
eats a live cockroach, and glares in the most unhinged fashion. It's an utterly unforgettable explosion of truly demented acting. Cage will make your mouth hang open in disbelief that someone would be willing to go so far to entertain and fascinate film viewers.
“Vampire's Kiss” is pretty interesting overall. You can read a lot more into what it says about men, women, and power roles. I only just scratched the surface there. Obviously too aggressively weird and mean-spirited to be a box office success, the film ended director Robert Bierman's career before it even really started. (He's mostly done television in the years since.) Bierman's visual sense is strong, the musical score is fittingly spooky, and the supporting cast features strong turns from Maria Conchita Alonso and Jennifer Beals. Yet Cage's ground-shaking, wildman performance overshadows absolutely everything else about this movie, making “Vampire's Kiss” the kind of cult experience that must truly be seen to be believed. [8/10]
This might be hard to imagine but A.I.P. and Roger Corman's cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were so popular, they actually spawned a few copy-cat movies. The films' popularity in Europe prompted a number of gothic horror pictures in Italy and Germany. (One of which, “Castle of Blood,” I've already reviewed this year.) Even the art house crowd got into the game with 1968's “Spirits of the Dead,” a Poe omnibus directed by Fellini, Vadim, and Malle. The most blatant emulation of the Poe Cycle was United Artist's 1963 feature “Twice-Told Tales.” Instead of adapting Poe, the film pulled from that other early American master of literary macabre: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Much like 'Tales of Terror,” it is a three-part omnibus film. And, of course, Vincent Price is here too. The similarities are such that, for years, I just assumed “Twice-Told Tales” was also an A.I.P. production.
Despite the title, only one of the stories is taken from the Hawthorne collection of the same name and all three adaptations are rather loose. In “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment,” the 79 year old Carl Heidegger celebrates his birthday with his closest friend, Alex. Carl is still mourning the death of his wife, thirty years earlier. That night, they discover special water that can restore their youth and soon use it to resurrect Syliva, unearthing horrific secrets. In “Rappaccini's Daughter,” Dr. Rappaccini is so terrified of loosing his daughter, he pumps plant poison into her until her touch is acidic and deadly. This doesn't stop the beautiful maiden form catching the idea of a young man, forcing Rappaccini into even more extreme action. Lastly, “House of the Seven Gables” Gerald Pyncheon returns to his cursed ancestral home with his new wife. He's in search of buried treasure but the ghosts of the past call the new Mrs. Pyncheon in another direction.
Despite his reputation, Hawthorne wasn’t really a horror writer, belonging solidly to the dark romantics movement instead. So “Twice-Told Tales” adds explicit spooky elements, like resurrection and ghosts, and more severe themes, like murder and betrayal. Yet “Twice-Told Tales” also seeks to emulate the dry, literary tone Hawthorne is known for. So the movie’s attempts at scares come off as pretty hokey. This is most evident in “Mr. Heideggar’s Experiment,” which adds the melodramatic plot point of a love affair, poisoning, and back-stabbing. It also throws in a big, goofy skeleton. In fact, “Twice-Told Tales” seems to think the mere presence of skeletons is the pinnacle of horror, as they also appear in the wrap-around and the final segment. “Mr. Heideggar’s Experiment” does have pretty fun performances from Price and Sebastian Cabot in its favor, at least until the bullshit plot twist spoils their friendship.
The second segment, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” probably has the film’s best balance of horror and these literary aspirations. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the most faithful of the film’s segments, though it adds a more overt mad scientist element and a more tragic ending. The idea of a poisonous girl, whose mere touch kills anything, is fairly novel. The dramatic center of the story, a daughter struggling against an obsessively over-protective father, is fairly compelling. The story utilizes Price’s strength for sinister intonations well, though he also manages to make Rappaccini somewhat sympathetic too. Though the ending is a bit melodramatic, it also features the film’s most striking imagery.
Instead of adapting one of Hawthorne’s other short stories for its final segment — “Young Goodman Brown” would’ve been a good fit for this film’s tone — the filmmakers shove in an adaptation of a whole novel, “The House of Seven Gables.” (Price had previously starred in a more faithful film of the story back in 1940, which I previously reviewed.) It’s an extremely loose adaptation, adding more ghosts, more murder, and more spookiness to the House. Some of this stuff, like a bleeding painting or a handless corpse discovered under a stone, are kind of cool. Though the house collapsing finale is a pretty blatant attempt to emulate Corman’s “House of Usher.” However, abandoning most of Hawthorne’s heavier ideas in favor of goofier horror antics makes the segment pretty thin soup, thematically speaking. Trying to force an entire novel into the space of an anthology film makes this one of the more heavily plotted tales, dragging down the film’s already laborious pacing in its last third.
Speaking of which! While all of the Corman Poe movies had the good sense to get in and out in under 90 minutes, “Twice-Told Tales” drags on for two hours. I have no idea how successful “Twice-Told Tales” was at the box office, though it’s notable United Artist made no further Hawthorne films. The film could be seen as something of a follow-up to the same year’s “Diary of a Madman,” another spooky classic literature adaptation Price made for UA. Despite the best efforts of Price, Cabot, Richard Dennings, Beverly Garland, and Jacquline deWit, “Twice-Told Tales” is ultimately something of a snore. Its scares are hokey and its tone ponderous. [5/10]
Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Uncle Harry's Horrible House of Horrors
With “Uncle Harry's Horrible House of Horrors,” “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” touches upon a more amusingly benign moral than usual. Grouchy Uncle Harry takes his six year old nephew to the carnival for his birthday. While the kid is excited by each ride and sight he sees, his uncle cynically dismisses all the attractions. He refuses to let the kid enjoy any of them, seeing each of them as scams or death traps. Eventually, the boy convinces his uncle to let him board the haunted house attraction. This is no ordinary dark ride, however, and Uncle Harry is soon expose to a series of actual monsters.
If you hadn't guessed already, by the end of this half-hour, Uncle Harry learns to loosen up some, not be such a spoil sport, and let the kid have some fun. The idea of a kid's cartoon largely devoted to a stodgy old adult being terrified by a succession of different monsters is a fun one. Watching Uncle Harry be menaced by vampire bats, carnivorous plants, giant bugs, actual zombies, and eventually a giant swinging pendulum is exactly the kind of spooky but kid-friendly horror I expect from “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” That the kid is so excited by all of this is an amusing counterpoint. Sadly, the episode's denouncement takes it too far and lays the moral – of not loosing your childlike imagination and sense of fun – on too thick. And the host segments sees the Vaultkeeper and the Old Witch return, at their most irritating and obnoxious level yet. So this one was almost really good, is what I'm saying. [6/10]
Forever Knight: Father's Day
Another plot point “Forever Knight” was going to eventually touch upon was the mafia. The grandson of Toronto's biggest mob boss, Don Constantine, has made the decision to flee the family for the safety of his own son. This incenses the old man, who envisioned his grandson taking over the family business. The cops, Nick especially, are soon involved with protecting the guy. This is personal for Nick, as Don Constantine helped him travel to America decades before. (Apparently, the mafia has a side business giving vampire's safe passage to the new world.) Soon, the mob boss is calling in the favor owed to him by LaCroix.
“Father's Day” is a pretty solid episode largely because it directly links the typical crime-story-of-the-week and the vampire lore revolving around Nick and his old friends. LaCroix is blatantly painted as a father figure to Nick, explicitly mirroring the mobster's familial connection to his grandson. In both cases, the wannabe dad feels his offspring owes him a certain fidelity while the quasi-son demands freedom from his obsessive, controlling father figure. Building a lot of scenes around Nigel Bennet's hammy vamping as LaCroix makes this episode a delight. (LaCroix is back to his old DJ job, much to the viewer's delight.) There's a decent action sequence, of Nick fighting off some mob enforcers. The episode's tension keeps ramping up, until it looks like Nick and LaCroix are going to fight again... And then the episode just sort of ends in a disappointingly conversational anticlimax. Kind of a bum note to conclude a strong episode on. [7/10]