Horror Film Review: Vampire’s Kiss (dir by Robert Bierman)


Nicolas Cage plays the world’s biggest douchebag in the 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss.

Cage is playing Peter Loew, who is kind of like Patrick Bateman’s less successful cousin.  He’s got a nice apartment in New York City and he wears fairly nice clothes and he has this weird, stuffed-up way of speaking.  By night, Peter spends all of his time at the bars and the clubs, trying to get laid.  During the day, Peter goes to his job as a literary agent, where he sits around in his office and spends most of his time tormenting his secretary, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso).

Peter has recently been tasked with finding the Heatherton Contract.  It’s a contract from 1963, one that was signed long before either Peter or Alva joined the company.  All Peter knows is that the contract is somewhere in a huge stack of files.  Harold Heatherton wants a copy of the contract so that he can frame it.  Peter wants the contract so that he can advance at his job and make even more money.  Alva just wants to be left alone.

“ALVA!” Peter spends his days yelling from the office.

“I hate my boss!” Alva says as she spend the morning crying in bed.

Yes, Peter is a jerk.  He maintains a toxic work environment.  He’s a misogynist.  He’s the type of asshole who screams at Alva to go find the Heatherton Contract and then stares at her backside as she walks back to her desk.  He’s a terrible human being and he’s steadily getting worse.  That’s because Peter is convinced that he’s turning into a vampire.  There’s even a lengthy scene where he stands in front of a bathroom mirror, moaning that he has no reflection.  Of course, we can see that he absolutely does have a reflection.

In his apartment and his office, he is often visited by Rachel (Jennifer Beals).  Rachel has fangs.  Rachel bites him in the neck.  Rachel sucks his blood.  But is Rachel there or is she a figment of his imagination?  Is he truly a vampire or is he like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or the lead character in George Romero’s Martin?  He has become so consumed by his fantasies of being an all-powerful monster that he can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality?

Vampire’s Kiss is understandably best known for Cage’s demented performance.  Cage bulges his eyes, screams his lines, and spends a good deal of the film walking around with his shoulders hunched up.  This is the film for which Cage famously ate a live cockroach.  It’s undeniably watchable, though I think Cage made the mistake of playing Peter as being obviously unhinged even before he decided that he was a vampire.  The scenes where he obsesses over the Heatherton Contract start out as mildly amusing but become more disturbing as the film progresses and Peter grows more and more deranged.  From the moment that he started to chase the terrified Alva through the office, the film became so unpleasant that I just wanted it to hurry up and end.  On the plus side, Alva does get revenge though I think it would have been more effective (or maybe, just for me, more satisfying) if the film’s final action had been carried out by Alva herself.

Vampire’s Kiss is a film that has quite an enthusiastic cult following.  Having watched it, I can say that I’m not a member of that cult, though I can understand why Cage’s unhinged performance has fans.  The film is about 20 minutes too long and it reveals the truth about Cage’s “vampirism” far too early but, if nothing else, Cage really does throw himself into it.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Just The Ticket (dir by Richard Wenk)


(Hi there!  So, as you may know because I’ve been talking about it on this site all year, I have got way too much stuff on my DVR.  Seriously, I currently have 193 things recorded!  I’ve decided that, on January 15th, I am going to erase everything on the DVR, regardless of whether I’ve watched it or not.  So, that means that I’ve now have only have a month to clean out the DVR!  Will I make it?  Keep checking this site to find out!  I recorded the 1999 romantic comedy Just The Ticket off of Epix on October 13th!)

Just The Ticket tells the story of Gary Starke (Andy Garcia).

Gary lives in New York City.  He is a tough, streetwise character, loyal to his friends and quick to anger if he feels that anyone is trying to take advantage of him.  He has no time for pretentious posturing or snobbish social gatherings.  Gary’s a man of the people.  He works with and takes care of an aging former boxer named Benny (Richard Bradford).  He looks after a pregnant, former drug addict named Alice (Laura Harris).  When the slick and dangerous Casino (Andre B. Blake) starts to do business in Gary’s territory, Gary is the only person with the guts to stand up to him.  Having never had a family (he’s never even seen his birth certificate and has no idea who his parents were), Gary has adopted the street people as his surrogate family.

That’s not all.  Gary is also a lapsed Catholic who, when he goes to confession, opens by saying that it’s been 25 years since his last confession and that he’s taken the Lord’s name in vain 20 to 30 times that morning.  Gary needs some help because his girlfriend, an aspiring chef named Linda (Andie McDowell), has left him and Gary wants to win her back.  The priest asks Gary if he can get him tickets to see the Knicks…

Why does he ask that?

You see, Gary is a legendary ticket scalper and…

Okay, I probably just lost you when I used the terms “legendary” and “ticket scalper” in the same sentence.  And I’ll admit that, when I discovered this movie was about ticket scalpers, it nearly lost me as well.  Just The Ticket treats ticket scalping with a dignity and reverence that I’m not quite sure it deserves.  I wasn’t surprised to discover that director/writer Richard Wenk apparently based the character of Gary on an actual ticket scalper that he knew.  A lot of bad movies have been made as the result of a director, writer, or producer coming across some mundane activity and thinking, “Wow, this would make a great movie!”

(That’s one reason why, every few years, we suddenly get a dozen movies about race car drivers.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Just The Ticket is not a terrible movie.  Admittedly, it’s totally predictable and there are a lot of scenes that don’t work.  For instance, there’s a lengthy scene where Gary and Linda destroy a snobbish food critic’s kitchen.  I could imagine Gary doing that because he has nothing to lose.  But Linda is actually hoping to become a chef in New York City.  Would she really run the risk of making a permanent enemy at the New York Times?  There’s nothing about Andie McDowell’s performance that suggests she would.  The scenes between Gary and his aging partner also tend to overplay their hand.  Richard Bradford gives a good performance as Benny but we all know what’s going to end up happening to him as soon as he starts crying after Gary insults him.

With all that in mind, Just The Ticket still has an undeniable charm.  Some of it is due to Andy Garcia’s dedicated performance.  He is frequently better than the material and he and Andie McDowell have enough chemistry that you do want to see Linda and Gary get back together.  Some of it is because Just The Ticket is not afraid to shy away from being sentimental.  It’s hard to think of any other romantic comedy in which the Pope plays such an important supporting role.  It’s a sweet movie.  It has a good heart.

There’s something to be said for that.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #28: The Carpetbaggers (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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The 1960s was apparently a bad time for talented old school Hollywood filmmakers getting sucked into making big budget, excessively lengthy films.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz spent most of his career making movies like All About Eve and then, in 1963, he ended up directing Cleopatra.  Elia Kazan went from A Face In The Crowd to The Arrangement.  John Huston went from Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to directing not only The Bible but Reflections in a Golden Eye as well.

And then there’s Edward Dmytryk.  Dmytryk may not be as highly regarded by modern critics as Mankiewicz and Huston but he still directed some of the best film noirs of the 1940s.  His 1947 film Crossfire was nominated for best picture and probably should have won.  In 1952, he directed one of the first true crime procedural films, The Sniper.  His 1954 best picture nominee, The Caine Mutiny, featured one of Humphrey Bogart’s best and most unusual performances.

And yet, in 1964, he somehow found himself directing The Carpetbaggers.

The Carpetbaggers tells the story of Jonas Cord (George Peppard).  Jonas is the son of the fabulously wealthy Jonas Cord, Sr. (Leif Erickson).  At the start of the film, father and son do not get along.  Senior resents that Junior is more interested in piloting airplanes than in learning the family business.  Junior is angry that Senior has married Jonas’s ex-girlfriend, actress Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker).  In fact, as far as Jonas, Jr. is concerned, Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) is more of a father to him than his actual father.

Nevada Smith is Jonas, Sr.’s best friend and occasional business partner.  He’s a former cowboy who, we are told in a lengthy bit of exposition, is legendary for tracking down and killing the three men who killed his parents.  (As we listen to Jonas, Jr. tell the entire lengthy story, we find ourselves thinking, “Okay, so why not make a movie out of that story?”  Well, they did.  Two years after the release of The Carpetbaggers, Steve McQueen starred in Nevada Smith.)  Nevada’s also a film star whose career is in deep decline.

Speaking of deep decline, Jonas, Sr. ends up having a heart attack and dramatically dropping dead before he can get a chance to disinherit his son.  Jonas, Jr. inherits the Cord fortune and the Cord business and proceed to spend the next two and a half hours abusing everyone who gets close to him.  He even mistreats his loving and neurotic wife, Monica (Elizabeth Ashley, giving the only really memorable performance in the entire film).

Yes, there’s really no reason to have any sympathy at all for Jonas Cord, Jr. but the film insists that we should because he’s the main character and he’s played by the top-billed star.  We’re also told that he’s a brilliant aviation engineer and I guess we’re supposed to admire him for being good at what does.  We also discover that Jonas believes that his mother was insane and that she passed down her insanity to him.  He fears that he’ll pass the crazy gene to any of children that he might have so that’s why he pushes everyone away.  Just in case we don’t understand how big a deal this is to him, the camera zooms in for a closeup whenever Jonas is reminded of his mother.

(In the 60s, all mental instability was represented via zoom lens.)

However, Jonas isn’t just into airplanes!  He also buys a movie studio, specifically because Rina Marlowe is under contract.  Soon, Jonas is directing movies his way.  Jonas also finds himself falling in love with another actress (Martha Hyer) so, of course, he starts treating her badly in an effort to push her away.

What can be done to save the tortured soul of Jonas Cord?  Maybe he just need to get beaten up by Nevada Smith…

The Carpetbaggers was based on a novel by Harold Robbins.  The novel was apparently quite a scandal when it was originally published.  People read it and they wondered, “Who was based on who?”  Well, if you’ve ever seen The Aviator, it’s not that difficult to figure out.  Jonas Cord, eccentric movie mogul and obsessive pilot, was obviously meant to be Howard Hughes.  Rina Marlowe was meant to be Jean Harlow, a fact that can be guessed just by looking at the last names.  And I’m guessing that Nevada Smith was probably based on former President Warren G. Harding because … well, why not?

I suppose that, by the standards of 1964, the film version of The Carpetbaggers would have been considered risqué.  For a modern audience, the main appeal of something like The Carpetbaggers is to see what was once considered to be shocking.  The film is overlong, George Peppard doesn’t exactly figure out how to make Jonas into the compelling  rogue that he needs to be, the clothes and the sets are a lot more interesting than any of the dialogue (but not interesting enough to carry a nearly 3 hour movie), and the film’s pacing is so off that some scenes seem to go on forever while others are way too short.  But, as a cultural and historical artifact, The Carpetbaggers does hold some interest.

The Carpetbaggers was made at a time when Hollywood felt it was under attack from both television and European cinema.  With a film like The Carpetbaggers, the studios were saying, “See!?  Television will never be able to make a film this long and big!  And those Europeans aren’t the only ones who can make a movie about sex!”  Of course, as so often happened during this time, the studios failed to take into account that size and length don’t always equal quality (and ain’t that the truth?).  As for the sex — well, we hear a lot more than we actually see.  The Carpetbaggers is one of those films where everyone talks about sex, largely because showing sex wasn’t really an option.  (And it should be noted that most of the sex talk is delivered in the language of euphemism.)  As a result, The Carpetbaggers feels incredibly tame by today’s standards.  As a result, your main reaction to The Carpetbaggers will probably be to marvel at what was considered daring and shocking 50 years ago.

(And before we get too cocky and quick to dismiss those who came before us, let’s consider how our current films will look to movie audiences five decades from now…)

As far as biopics of Howard Hughes are concerned, The Carpetbaggers in no Aviator.  However, it is an occasionally interesting historical artifact.

Embracing the Melodrama #20: Ship of Fools (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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The 1965 best picture nominee Ship of Fools follows a group of passengers as they take a cruise.  The year is 1933 and the luxury liner, which has just left Mexico, is heading for Nazi Germany.  Both the passengers and the crew represent a microcosm of a world that doesn’t realize it’s on the verge of war.

There’s Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn), a dwarf who has the ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience about all of the fools that have found themselves on this ship.  He alone seems to understand what the future holds.

There’s Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle who spends almost the entire cruise flirting with the crew and other passengers, desperate to recapture her fading youth.  That also seems to be the main goal of Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin), an unsophisticated former baseball player who spends most of the cruise brooding about his failed career.

There’s the Countess (Simone Signoret), a political prisoner who is being transported to an island prison.  She falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner).  The doctor’s dueling scar suggests that he is a member of the old aristocracy and he is literally the film’s only good German.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also in the process of dying from a heart condition.

And then there’s David (George Segal) and his girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley).  David is a frustrated and depressed painter while Jenny is far more determined to enjoy life, which should be pretty easy because the boat is also full of performers and dancers.

Finally, there’s the buffoonish Rieber (Jose Ferrer), a German industrialist whose dinner table talk hints at the horrors that are soon to come.

Ship of Fools is a big, long film in which a large cast of stars deal with big issues in the safest way possible.  In short, it’s a Stanley Kramer film.  As one can tell from watching some of the other films that he directed (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and R.P.M.), Stanley Kramer made films that were often easier to admire than to actually enjoy.  As the critic Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and he retained the sensibility of a producer even after he stared directing.  As such, his films would address issues that were certain to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, he would never run the risk of alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues.  His films would have the type of all-star casts that would, again, bring in an audience but Kramer rarely seemed to give thought as to whether or not an all-star cast would distract from the film’s message.  Finally, unlike the truly great directors, Kramer never really figured out how to tell a story with images.  As a result, his movies were often full of characters whose sole purpose was to explain the film’s themes.

Does that mean that Stanley Kramer never made a good film?  No, not at all.  Judgment at Nuremberg remains powerful and R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Kramer was usually smart enough to work with talented professionals and, as a result, his films were rarely truly bad.  Some of them even have isolated moments of greatness.  It’s just that his films were rarely memorable and truly innovative and, therefore, they are easy for us to dismiss, especially when compared to some of the other films that were being made at the same time.

With all that in mind and for reasons both good and bad, Ship of Fools is perhaps the most Stanley-Kramerish of all the Stanley Kramer films that I’ve seen.  The film was apparently quite acclaimed and popular when it was originally released in 1965 but watched today, it’s an occasionally watchable relic of a bygone age.  How you react to Ship of Fools today will probably depend on whether or not you’re an admirer of any of the actors in large cast.  For the most part, all of them do a good job though you can tell that, as a director, Kramer struggled with how to make their multiple storylines flow naturally into an overall theme.  Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin give the two most entertaining performances and Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderfully hissable villain.  Oddly enough, I find myself most responding to the characters played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley.  I’m not sure why — their storyline is rather predictable.  Maybe it was just because Elizabeth Ashley’s character goes wild and starts dancing at one point.  That’s what I would do if I found myself stuck on a boat with a tortured painted.

(What is especially interesting is that neither Oskar Werner or Simone Signoret are particularly memorable and yet they both received Oscar nominations.  Perhaps 1965 was a weak year for acting.)

In the end, Ship of Fools is a movie that will be best appreciated by those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM and take a special delight in spotting all of the wonderful actors that, though they may no longer be with us, have at least had their talent preserved on film.  Ship of Fools may not be a great film but it does feature Vivien Leigh doing an impromptu and joyful solo dance in a hallway and how can you not appreciate that?

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