The Films: 3/5
For their latest double feature Blu-ray, Shout! Factory has resurrected through their Scream Factory label a pair of lesser-known entries in a hybrid genre that is notoriously difficult to get right, namely horror comedy, that were both released in 1988 to mixed reviews, a nation of shrugged shoulders, and a more promising future in the purgatory of cable television. Now that these titles are the hands of MGM and have cult followings of questionable size an upgrade to high-definition seems warranted. But was it necessary?
Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) is a high-strung literary agent living and working in New York City whose only outlets for emotional release are tormenting his mousy secretary Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso) and partaking of the city's active nightlife. During one of his nightly nocturnal excursions he brings home the sultry Rachel (Jennifer Beals), and while they have sex she bites him on the neck and drains a little of his blood...or so he believes. The next morning she's gone and Peter has a cut on his neck that he could have made while shaving, but he gradually begins to wonder if he is becoming a vampire or simply losing his mind. His growing animosity towards Alva over her inability to locate a rather unimportant contract and a hunger for blood from wherever he can get it would indicate the former. Adding to his confusion is the tendency of the mystery woman Rachel to materialize in his life to satisfy her own bloodlust at any time.
Long after you, myself, and anyone else who might read this review have passed from this plane of existence, Vampire's Kiss will be regarded as one of the watershed films in the career of its star, the one and only Nicolas Cage. Although he had previously proven his mettle in the fields of comedic and dramatic acting while developing a reputation as a difficult and intense actor, Cage had yet to show the world the lunatic heights he could scale on screen when given free reign to follow his performance instincts wherever they might lead. His image would forever be altered by Vampire's Kiss, a gonzo attempt at blending the sexualized horror of Hammer Studios' later years with the nervous energy and screwball pacing of what was regarded as sophisticated comedy in the late 1980's that proves only intermittently effective. Robert Bierman, a British director of short films making his feature debut here, came to this particular party armed with an original screenplay penned by Joseph Minion (After Hours) that might have held great promise had Cage not signed on to play its odious main character, Peter Loew. Once that happened Bierman practically became the actor's accomplice in turning Vampire's Kiss into a virtual one man show where one of the most loathsome and unpleasant characters in the history of cinema is before the camera one hundred percent of the time and we are forced to ride along with this pulsating sack of shit the whole way. Only Cage's apparently infinite bag of actorly tics - chief among them his ever-changing upper crust accent and the ability to bulge his eyes out until his skull appears ready to split apart from his face - saves Vampire's Kiss by making Loew a horrible human being whose descent into madness is so much fun to watch you can't help but wish agonizing tragedy on his pathetic ass.
That doesn't mean that Bierman does little more than turn on the camera and let his star run loose. Prior to making Vampire's Kiss, he had been the original director for 20th Century Fox's remake of The Fly until the death of his daughter compelled him to cede his duties to David Cronenberg. Bierman's far from a slouch in his first movie, bringing the manic energy of New York City life onto the screen in ways that make even the slowest scenes worth sitting through for the random weirdness he might throw at us at any time. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, a future collaborator of Tim Burton, aids the director in capturing the vibrant madness that powers the city at all hours of the day. This is no small town in rural America or an isolated village in Transylvania, but a thriving metropolis that has neither the patience or the time to stop for Peter's waking nightmare that he's becoming a vampire.
The oddball touches such as Loew outfitting his mouth with a pair of cheap joke shop vampire fangs add unexpected humor when the pacing starts to flag, but at least Bierman and Minion are determined to maintain the feeling of ambiguity that his gradual transformation may be the product of a mind crumbling into nothing. Scenes where Loew verbally assails Alonso's terrified Alva provide the film's cruelest and most cathartic humor because after each of his disgusting rants we find ourselves questioning what about them makes us laugh in the first place. What pleasure can possibly be extracted from watching as a decent and caring person is made to suffer under the tyranny of an egomaniacal boss whose arrogant, aristocratic manner may all be part of a shameless display of pageantry? I suppose that's what makes Vampire's Kiss a cult favorite more than a quarter-century after its release. The amount of Internet memes inspired by the scene where Loew treats Alva to the mother of all dictatorial dressing-downs could have supplied the gross domestic product for a small foreign nation had their been any money in that sort of time-wasting activity.
There isn't much to do for Alonso but be alternately intimidated or mortified by Cage's antics, behavior that would get most people arrested regardless of their social standing, and it isn't the best use of her talent. But I can't fault her for kowtowing to the demands of her director and leading man, which is to let Cage dominate and abuse the movie much in the way Peter Loew treats the people in his life. Jennifer Beals invests confident, aggressive sexuality in her scenes with Cage and comes across as the only actor gutsy enough to steal Vampire's Kiss back from him, while future filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) fares well in her brief scenes as the closest Loew gets to a girlfriend. Elizabeth Ashley holds her own and performs marvelously as Loew's therapist. John Michael Higgins (Best in Show), Reggie Rock Bythewood (The Brother from Another Planet), and David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) all appear in bit roles but I don't recall spotting them.
Castle Plunkett has stood for centuries in the Irish countryside, but the years have not been kind to it. Its current owner Peter Plunkett (Peter O'Toole) tried to remedy the problem by turning the castle into a cozy resort. Unfortunately his situation didn't turn out to be a profitable one. The only people ever there are his loyal employees who live in the nearby village. Unless Plunkett can come up with the money needed to make his mortgage payment, an American businessman intends to ship the castle to Malibu and leave everyone without a job or a home. Plunkett comes up with the idea of turning his ancestral home into a haunted resort in order to attract the tourist trade. His first batch of customers from the U.S. arrive in a rickety bus and are treated to some cheap theatrics put on by Plunkett's crew attempting to simulate ghosts and hauntings. All this does is annoy the clients into possibly leaving, but when it's revealed that Castle Plunkett has some real live (for want of a better word) spirits trapped within its ancient confines the tourists must deal with more spectral shenanigans than they had initially expected. Spurred by his frigid wife Sharon (Beverly D'Angelo), optimistic Jack (Steve Guttenberg) falls in love with the ghost of Peter's murdered ancestor Mary (Daryl Hannah), while the ghost of her insanely jealous husband - and killer - Martin (Liam Neeson) sets his sights on Sharon.
The first time we see Peter O'Toole in High Spirits, he's holding a stiff drink and slurring a string of family-friendly profanities as he argues pointlessly with a realtor and then prepares to hang himself. It's quite a way to open a comedy designed to appeal to younger audiences, and I'm not totally convinced director Neil Jordan didn't merely turn the camera on O'Toole while he was on the phone with his agent trying to get the hell off this picture however he could. He's far too good for a movie like High Spirits, and he knows it. More than that, he wants us all to realize that. There are several scenes in this movie where O'Toole's character Peter Plunkett is either drinking or drunk (or both). The legendary actor who is now and forever David Lean's T.E. Lawrence was famous for his ability to drink his body weight in the purest alcohol and still remain on both feet. He also made his share of godwaful movies, and while High Spirits is far from the worse of the lot, it's still pretty much the pits. Jordan directed this feature from his own screenplay, just as he did for his previous films Angel, The Company of Wolves, and Mona Lisa, but I imagine that his original vision for High Spirits was far different than what ultimately made it to celluloid (if the long-standing rumor of a radically altered director's cut is to be trusted).
If you enjoy watching a gaggle of the ugliest ugly Americans being terrorized by some royally pissed Irish ghosts as much as the movie's PG-13 rating will allow, then High Spirits might just be your cup of piss warm, watered-down Guinness. But I have the feeling you're more like I am and you never understood the appeal of Steve Guttenberg as a leading man. As part of an ensemble he can be a great team player; if you doubt me, check out Diner. Here the guy is relegated to playing a one-dimensional drip, a pathetic shell of a bland white man whose constantly complaining wife has more character than he does. High Spirits suffers from the uncomfortable battle it appears to be waging with itself from the first frame to the last. The tone shifts awkwardly from goofball slapstick to bleak chamber drama with the grace of a hobbled ballerina, which could be attributed to Jordan's lack of editorial control over the cut that was released theatrically and on home video.
The supporting cast appears game for whatever their director has in mind, but the end result is a group of talented but hopelessly confused actors who each believe themselves to be in an entirely different film. The standouts are Liam Neeson, hamming it up royally in a performance that he makes his leading turn in Darkman look understated by comparison, and the consummate well-compensated trooper O'Toole, proving every time he's on camera how he came to be a giant of the silver screen. Everone else, from Martin Ferrero as a skeptical expert on the paranormal to Peter Gallagher as a chaste priest and Jennifer Tilly as the squeaky-voiced horndog hot to get under his collar, go about the motions of Jordan's slave-to-the-formulaic screenplay and direction. The filmmaker would leave behind the disastrous High Spirits and find great critical and commercial success with the likes of The Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire, and there are few prominent artists who don't have a failure or two in their background, but that does make the experience of watching Jordan's attempt at an audience-pleasing slapstick comedy with elements of the macabre perhaps too much for its intended demographic any easier to watch.
Both films have been upgraded to 1080p high-definition and presented in their original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratios. The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfers are clean, colorful, and mostly free of debris and damage, but they aren't exactly the most eye-popping pictures you'll find on the market. Grain is kept at a necessary minimum for each title to maintain their filmic authenticity. Both are also granted 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks that do well by their original Dolby sound mixes with audible dialogue, vibrant music and ambient effects, and a pleasing absence of distortion. English subtitles have also provided.
There are no extra features provided for High Spirits, but Vampire's Kiss gets both its original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a commentary track held over from an earlier MGM Region 1 DVD released in 2002 that pairs up Cage with director Bierman. The two engage in a frank and informative discussion of the film that mixes production anecdotes with a dissection of the inspirations for certain creative choices on both sides of the camera. Given that Cage rarely does commentaries and he and Bierman have a friendly rapport and a love for Vampire's Kiss, this track is a real winner that just might add to your enjoyment of the film it accompanies regardless of whether you love it or not.
Two oddball obscurities from the late 80's, one Blu-ray, decent a/v, one great audio commentary, and all for a reasonable price depending on where you shop. Vampire's Kiss and High Spirits might make for an unusual double bill, but you're bound to enjoy at least one of them. Is that a recommendation? You decide.