In 'Vampire's Kiss / High Spirits', Horror and Comedy Clash but Don't Always Mix

Scream! Factory's horror/comedy "double feature" doesn't truly fit into either genre.

High Spirits

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Nicolas Cage, María Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Kasi Lemmons, David Hyde Pierce, Elizabeth Ashley, Steve Guttenberg, Daryl Hannah, Beverly D'Angelo, Liam Neeson, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher, Martin Ferrero, Peter O'Toole.
Length: 202 minutes
Studio: Hemdale / TriStar
Year: 1989 / 1988
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA Rating: R / PG-13
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2015-02-13

The first thing that jumps out at the viewer of Vampire’s Kiss (1989) is how remarkably bad Nicolas Cage’s “British” accent is in the film. Knowing that this is, of course, Nicolas Cage, the same actor who only agreed to star in his uncle Francis' Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) if he could play the entire part using his Mickey Mouse voice, there must be some intentional or deeper reason that such a dramatic choice might have been made. As Vampire's Kiss unspools, the lead character, Peter Loew (Cage), wavers in and out of this accent and a wide variety of voices, seeming to give every role Cage has ever played (or would ever play, past, present and future) equal vocal time in the film.

The easiest answer as to why this is happening is that Loew is quite insane (as Cage himself may be, though the jury is still out on that one). Loew seems to be something of a prototype of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, the novel of which would be published a few years after this film in 1991. Like Bateman, Loew is an executive with a dark side. As he attempts to tie down his frayed ends of sanity, he may or may not be committing some deeply disturbing deeds.

Unlike Bateman, however, Loew has an excuse. Although already teetering on the edge of losing his mind, the many-voiced Loew really begins to unravel when he has a date with a bitey vampire named Rachel (Jennifer Beals). From this point on, he alternately fights and embraces his transformation all the while torturing his secretary Alva (María Conchita Alonso) and becoming increasingly unstable and erratic.

Of course, the question is whether or not any of this is even happening. Loew is shown to be delusional; he has hallucinations and conversations with people who are not present. Writer/ director Robert Bierman does a good job of keeping much of this ambiguous. After all, just because Loew is completely insane does not automatically mean that he is not turning into a vampire.

The bigger question, however, is whether or not the viewer will care. Loew is a remarkably unsympathetic character who is made even more so by Cage’s oft-ridiculous, wide-eyed, over-the-top performance. To be sure, this is a “black comedy” but whether in doubt or not Cage and Bierman err on the side of the “black” as opposed to the “comical”. On the other hand, actresses Alonso and Beals along with Kasi Lemmons (as Loew’s erstwhile date) and Elizabeth Ashley (as Loew’s psychotherapist) give steady and interesting performances that help make the film more interesting and tragic at the same time. Similarly, American Psycho fans will be interested in seeing just how this one turns out. The similarities are so striking that, although American Psycho is far from a “rip-off” given its tonal and plot differences, I would be surprised if Brett Easton Ellis had not seen this film at least once.

The February 2015 Blu-ray release of Vampire’s Kiss is bundled with another “horror comedy” called High Spirits (1988). Scream! Factory has done better in their parings of movies, as High Spirits is about as similar to Vampire’s Kiss as Darth Vader is to the Tin Man.

High Spirits (1988, dir. Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan has made his name with lavish gothic horror films like The Company of Wolves (1984) and Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), along with deep dramas like The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996) and while he is not exactly a stranger to comedy films (see 1989’s We’re No Angels for a good one), the idea of Jordan writing and directing a campy screwball romantic comedy starring Steve Guttenberg and Daryl Hannah is nothing if not surprising. High Spirits received less-than-generous reviews upon its release and, to be fair, it isn’t a great movie. However, there really are some good laughs, as well as some entertaining special effects in this otherwise lightweight ghost story.

Peter O’Toole gives a gleefully deadpan performance as Peter Plunkett, the forlorn owner of an Irish castle turned hotel that is facing foreclosure. Plunkett’s one-sided telephone call wherein he explains that his first name is, in fact, not “Dick” but “Peter” and his last name is, in fact, not “Face”, but “Plunkett” has to be heard to truly appreciate the sheer mastery of deadpan comedy that O’Toole exudes here.

To attract new guests, Plunkett, along with his family and co-workers, reinvent their hotel as the most haunted attraction in all of Europe. The plan works great at first, attracting a busload of new clients (including Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Peter Gallagher and Jennifer Tilly), but when Halloween night hits and real ghosts from the castle’s past emerge, things go decidedly to hell for the guests and leave Plunkett himself guessing what the hell is going on.

While under the direction and pen of Jordan, one might expect this to be a terrifying haunted house story, it truly is light on the scares (if “scares” would be the right word at all) and leans much more into the type of romantic comedy one would expect to see Hannah and Guttenberg starring in. There are some very good parts, but these parts are not always linked together nearly as well as one would hope, especially from such a talented filmmaker. The ensemble cast is unbalanced and the characters, though well-imagined, are often paper-thin and remain undeveloped to the point that their story arcs have very little narrative flow. Sadly, this is true even for the lead couples. Guttenberg’s wife is played by D’Angelo as a cold and selfish woman who finds the ghostly apparition of Liam Neeson to be much more to her liking than her own husband. Meanwhile Guttenberg’s character himself ironically finds the dead Hannah to be much warmer than his living wife.

To be sure, High Spirits is a good time, and is made even more so by its pairing with the unsettling Vampire’s Kiss. But the film is far from Jordan’s best, and it isn’t quite what one would call “memorable”, even with the fun effects and witty quips from O’Toole.

High Spirits is almost relegated to the position of “Bonus Feature” on the Vampire’s Kiss Blu-ray with no extras of its own of any kind, save for five promotional photos printed on the inside cover of the disc. Vampire’s Kiss, on the other hand, does contain the special features of the theatrical trailer and full-length commentary by director Bierman and star Cage. The latter is more than welcome, and actually worth the time to sit through the film again with subtitles on, just to try to figure out what the hell they were thinking when they made Vampire’s Kiss. Luckily, the commentary does explain quite a bit and enhances the enjoyability and disturbing nature of the film.

While I might not be one to drink the Kool-Aid myself, I can see why Vampire’s Kiss has a cult following surrounding it. The opposite is true for High Spirits, which remains undeservedly forgotten today. While neither is a great film, both have their good and interesting points and deserve to be re-evaluated for what they are and could have been.


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