Tom Jolliffe revisits two gonzo vampire classics from 1988, Vampire’s Kiss and Lair of the White Worm…
In 1987, two of the best vampire films of the decade were released. The Lost Boys was pure 80s, MTV styled pop cinema with instantly quotable dialogue and a great cast of young 80’s upstarts like Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland and the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). Near Dark, propelled by a Tangerine Dream score was more restrained, contemplative and unique. Needless to say, as a vampire double bill, 1987 is hard to top. Still, in 1988 two films came out which left critics either baffled or irked. Both also failed to find any box office traction too (though the same can be said for Near Dark). In fact, Vampire’s Kiss and Lair of the White Worm (loosely based on a Bram Stoker story) eventually got round to gathering a cult following, but nothing like the instantaneous appeal of The Lost Boys, or the popular VHS run of Near Dark.
For Vampire’s Kiss the film marked an early leading role for a certain Nicolas Cage. The film sees Cage as an obnoxious white collar business man who belittles his staff at every turn and revels in his position. He’s also seemingly unbalanced and the film in many ways is not unlike American Psycho, as these sociopathic and affluent 80’s era Wall Street creeps (played by Cage, and by Christian Bale in American Psycho) end up drifting into a sordid tale where the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Patrick Bateman, the American psycho, begins to fantasise (maybe) about murder, whilst Peter Leow is left believing he is turning into a vampire after he’s bitten by Rachel (Jennifer Beals).
The internet happened and memes happened which drew off all manner of pop culture material, both mainstream and obscure. Cage’s long forgotten, schlocky and maligned film was suddenly dug out and carved into memes. Cage’s signature brand of dialled to 11 acting is probably most perfectly exemplified by his turn in Vampire’s Kiss. Every aspect of the dialled up Cage performance is here, from wild bursts of emotion, to comically exaggerated actions, or plain old face pulling. Audiences had been seeing him do these in a little more moderation with his more iconic work through the 90’s such as The Rock, Face Off and Con Air. Reappraisal in cinema is a great thing, as are late discoveries. I hadn’t been aware of Vampire’s Kiss prior to the innumerable memes, or Youtube highlight reels of ‘Cage losing his shit.’ It was upon seeing Cage reciting the alphabet to his beleaguered receptionist that I was first compelled to check out the whole film. Indeed as a huge fan of American Psycho, where Bale likewise was perhaps at his most eccentric, Vampire’s Kiss instantly struck a chord for me. It’s not as good, nor as honed, and it’s certainly more inconsistent as a whole, but regardless, it is hugely entertaining.
The interesting thing about this film is how it continually skips between pulpy schlock, biting satire and so bad it’s good. It’s a merry dance which makes the film quite unlike anything else you’ll see and of course, as is normal for Cage, he’s nothing if not committed. Interestingly, much like the other ‘vampire’ film of the year, it’s not entirely a vampire film. Given the film is in all likelihood a paranoid delusion, the central character isn’t in fact a vampire and there is no vampirism as such in the film. There’s oodles of metaphor of course linked to vampirism and that need to feed, or spread disease. That want to exist in a state of devouring prey and hedonism, but of course, Peter was living like a vampire before his bite. The lucid and meandering narrative might lack a bit of focus, but the surreal journey Peter takes down that vampire rabbit hole is fascinating. In truth much of it boils down to how magnetic Cage is as a performer. He demands attention and rarely lets you avert your gaze. It’s wildly theatrical in it’s emotional unrestraint but also its physical dynamism. Cage will literally stagger and stomp through the set and below wildly. It’s brash, it’s brazen, it’s almost obnoxious but by Jove is it effective.
If Nic Cage represents eccentricity in cinema in front of the camera, then Ken Russell can certainly ‘stake’ a claim to being a deity of cinematic eccentricity behind camera. The oft controversial, but never dull film-maker built a career on cult cinema, occasionally bold and daring, and sometimes downright bizarre. For the latter, Lair of the White Worm almost certainly represents the bizarre side of Russell’s CV. A wild, campy, slightly demented take on an old Bram Stoker tale of the same name. The Ken Russell version (shot by a DP only Russell could hire, named Dick Bush) is a film starring a young Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi. Grant has oft tried to distance himself from the film, its schlocky B movie aesthetics and lurid side (something the post fame Grant seems to regret).
For all Russell’s indulgent tendencies, he’s always been an engaging visual storyteller, even with a penchant for the odd or perverse, whether that be many of the sequences in Crimes of Passion, naked male wrestling in Women in Love, or a cacophony of moments in this film, which includes nightmarishly kaleidoscopic, bonkers dream sequences, attempted ceremonial pegging with a snaked shaped strap-on and penis biting. It’s a film only Russell could have made, and probably one of the few film-makers who could make something this deranged so mesmerising. It’s the very definition of guilty pleasure, with over the top acting, some occasionally poor dubbing, and a plot that barely holds muster from beginning to end. Here, the vampire aspect is a slight variation. A local myth and legend (a giant cave dwelling snake creature) must be appeased by sacrifice. Lady Sylvia Marsh, somewhat reclusive has been infected by a serpentine venom that acts much in the same way as vampire bites do. It spreads and infects all who are bitten, and she lures several unwitting men to their infection or demise, whilst planning to gather a suitable sacrifice for the giant snake monster. It’s fucking daft, but it’s so much fun.
Whilst Grant and Capaldi are as theatrically broad as the rest of the cast, and far from their honed best from their subsequent careers, the film rests a lot on how brilliant Amanda Donohoe is. She saunters around set in eclectic costumes, or in creature form, occasionally head to toe in blue body paint, or sometimes donning aforementioned strap-on. She revels in her villainous role here and that theatrical verve certainly suits the role of baddy more than it does the more ‘human’ support cast. Donohoe gets the best lines, the ability to give a wry grin at the sheer ludicrousness of events, and isn’t shy about striding around naked (though she was well practiced after Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway). Like Cage, it’s this ability to find the fun in her role, and project that to the audience which becomes a key strength of the film. Ultimately, just as Cage is the one who makes Vampire’s Kiss unforgettable, Donohoe likewise does the same for Lair of the White Worm, another gonzo masterpiece.
SEE ALSO: The Essential Vampire Films
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/