Shout! Factory's Scream Factory line resurrects a Blu-ray double feature of 1980s horror-comedies from the MGM vaults with the oddball Nicolas Cage showcase VAMPIRE'S KISS and Neil Jordan's big-budget flop HIGH SPIRITS.
In VAMPIRE'S KISS, pretentious and neurotic literary agent Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage, RAISING ARIZONA) is feeling unfulfilled and conflicted by his relationships with women. At work, he psychologically torments bottom-of-the-rung secretary Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, PREDATOR 2) and after work he engages in a string of one night stands (the latest of which was aborted by the appearance of a vampire bat in his apartment) and never calls them back. His therapist (Elizabeth Ashley, WINDOWS) suggests that he has been taught to expect something unattainable from relationships (her theory is bolstered when Peter admits that he found his scuffle with the bat sexually arousing). When he hooks up with the mysterious Rachael (Jennifer Beals, FLASHDANCE), she gives him a particularly nasty love bite and precedes to magically appear for seconds at awkward moments: i.e. whenever he tries to make a remotely healthy decision like make amends with long-suffering Alva or current fling Jackie (Kasi Lemmons, CANDYMAN). As Peter grows sensitive to light and begins to act more erratically and even more abusive towards Alva, he starts to believe that he is becoming a vampire. The publishing firm's boss (Michael Knowles, THE FLESH AND BLOOD) and management make a joke of Alva's complaints and Alva's mother (Sol Echeverría) dismisses her fears about her boss, but brother Emilio (Bob Lujan, who also appeared with Cage in FIRE BIRDS) not only arms her with a gun but is ready to take more drastic action when Peter starts stalking her. Meanwhile, Peter has turned his apartment into a light-proof lair (sleeping beneath his overturned leather sofa) and rejoins the New York nightlife in search of prey with a pair of dime store plastic fangs.
A Hemdale production, VAMPIRE'S KISS is considerably more stylish and sophisticated than their treatise on werewolves (HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF), balancing eighties chic with a degree of psychological complexity that is often overshadowed by Cage's extreme performance (his increasingly rude and abusive behavior is a cry for help that is interpreted as eccentricity by both his admirers and detractors). A lack of love surely contributes to Peter's mental deterioration, but finding the ideal woman is misconstrued by him as a cure-all for his neuroses (in his delusions, the ideal woman is the female version of him in pretentious tastes but Rachael might also be a female version of him in terms of their shared predatory nature and the way in which they devalue their conquests after the act). There is no buildup from Peter first meeting Rachael to the fangs coming out, but in his paranoid mutterings later on it is suggested that she is or reminds him of a high school crush whose rejection might have embittered him towards women and relationships in the first place (although he fancies himself becoming a vampire, he ends up more of a pathetic toady like Renfield). Peter's descent over the deep end builds to a very public meltdown (shot on location with unsuspecting passersby as extras) but the resolution is rushed with Alonso's Alva dropping into the background for far too long in the third act (disappointing after the middle stretch of wildly unpredictable and . Had director Robert Bierman (A MERRY WAR) and screenwriter Joseph Minion (who also penned AFTER HOURS and the supernatural drama JULIA AND JULIA) played down the comedy in favor of the darker elements, the film might have made a neat companion piece to Abel Ferrara's THE DRILLER KILLER. The cinematography of Stefan Czapsky (BATMAN RETURNS) and production design of Christopher Nowak (THE X-FILES) contrast the gothic and the gritty in the locations and sets while the scoring Colin Towns (HAUNTING OF JULIA, RAWHEAD REX) moves back and forth between the gothic and the sultry. The film's few special make-up effects were the work of Ed French (BREEDERS), but Cage's antics are extraordinary all on their own. The cast also includes brief turns by Cage's older brother Marc Coppola (who was also in brother Christopher Coppola's DRACULA'S WIDOW) and FRASIER's David Hyde-Pierce.
In HIGH SPIRITS, Peter Plunkett's (Peter O'Toole, CALIGULA) ancestral home-turned-hotel Castle Plunkett is in danger of being moved to Malibu and turned into "Irish World" if he cannot pay off a loan for renovations in three weeks. Based on the ramblings of his mother Lavinia (Liz Smith, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER) about the castle's ghosts, Peter hits upon the idea to advertise Castle Plunkett as the most haunted castle in Ireland, promising guests everything but a good night's sleep. The first group of tourists include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, THREE MEN AND A BABY) and pill-popping shrew Sharon (Beverly D'Angelo, THE SENTINEL) on their second honeymoon in her ancestral homeland, parapsychologist Malcolm (Martin Ferrero, JURASSIC PARK's "bloodsucking lawyer"), his wife Marge (Connie Booth, FAWLTY TOWERS), and kids, kooky Miranda (Jennifer Tilly, SEED OF CHUCKY), and Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE) on vacation before taking his vows. The attempts of Peter and his staff to frighten the guests go amusingly awry ("There's a banshee on the luggage rack!") with Malcolm threatening to expose Castle Plunkett as a sham and Peter and company discovering that Sharon is the daughter of their debtor Brogan who wants the endeavor to fail since he grew up in the village and has always hated the Plunketts. Feeling just as betrayed by Sharon, Jack gets drunk and wanders into a disused part of the castle where he witnesses the murder of Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, SPLASH) on her wedding night by her husband Martin (Liam Neeson, DARKMAN) enacted by their ghosts. Confused, Jack intervenes in the stabbing and gives Mary her first night of peace in two hundred years. Jack is soon torn between his growing feelings for ghost Mary and what remains of his feelings for Sharon. Lavinia learns from her departed husband (Ray McAnally, THE SLEEP OF DEATH) that the castle's other ghosts have heard about Castle Plunkett possibly being moved to Malibu ("What self-respecting ghost would live in California?") and have decided to give the American guests what they been wanting on All Hallows' Eve (when ghosts become flesh).
The second genre flick of Neil Jordan (THE COMPANY OF WOLVES), HIGH SPIRITS – a co-production between actor Mark Damon, David Saunders (HELLRAISER), and Peter Guber's Vision Picture Distribution Group and Nik Powell's and Stephen Wooley's Palace Pictures – is more of a charming piece of nostalgia than one of the more memorable supernaturally-themed family-friendly flicks of the eighties. Rumored to have been re-edited in post-production without director Jordan's involvement, the film does have some structural issues with the fake ghosts and Sharon's heritage exposed before the thirty minute mark before Jack has seen Mary's ghost (Mary and Martin enact her murder nightly, but it occurs twice in succession the first night Jack sees it and intervenes). This leads to a draggy middle with the tracking establishing shot across the water towards the castle employed a few too many times in between sequences, and the guests supernaturally prevented from leaving as Jack argues with Sharon and shares tender moments with Mary. The third act is a series of effects set-pieces terrorizing the guests while Jack and Mary try to resist "tupping" and the consequences of it while Martin attempts to court Sharon (the script glosses over the fact that she is his very distant direct descendent) before a happy ending out of TOPPER film (or any other ghostly romantic comedy from vintage Hollywood and Poverty Row).
Guttenberg is easily outmatched by O'Toole – especially in a scene where they get drunk together – while D'Angelo does what she can with a shallowly-scripted role. The then lesser-known Neeson is easily more engaging that Hannah doing a dreadful and inconsistent Irish accent, while the rest of the cast make intermittent impressions with sketchy characterizations. The production design of Anton Furst – who previously contributed the gorgeous stage-bound forests of Jordan's THE COMPANY OF WOLVES – and the photography of Alex Thomason (DEATH LINE) are frequently gorgeous while the scoring of George Fenton (GANDHI) is very broadly Irish (appropriate for an American/British production in which Ireland and its culture are a decorative backdrop). The visual effects were supervised by Derek Meddings, who worked on a number of major British and British-lensed films from Tim Burton's BATMAN to a number of Bond entries, while the make-up effects and animatronics were the work of Christopher Tucker (THE MEANING OF LIFE) and Nick Dudman (whose work spans from THE HUNGER to the HARRY POTTER series). The Castle Plunkett staff includes STEALING BEAUTY's Donal McCann, MY LEFT FOOT's Tom Hickey, and Jordan regular Tony Rohr (THE BUTCHER BOY). Jordan would dabble again in the genre with the middling IN DREAMS, the big screen adaptation of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, and a later superior treatment of the vampire film in BYZANTIUM (all in conjunction with producer Wooley).
Distributed theatrically by Twentieth Century Fox but on video by HBO, VAMPIRE'S KISS became part of the MGM catalogue with other Hemdale productions and was released on DVD by them in 2002. Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer sports eye-popping but undistorted reds and enough detail to highlight the variegations of brown in Cage's hair and the phoniness of the woodwork in his character's office while remaining crisp even in scenes with hazy lighting (there is a little noise in the underexposed shadows in location and studio shots). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the Dolby Stereo is crisp in its rendering of the score and the extreme fluctuations in the volume of Cage's delivery, while optional English SDH subtitles clarify some pointed lyrics in the background music. Ported over from the MGM DVD is a lively audio commentary by Cage and director Bierman. Cage describes how his accent and mannerisms are based on various family members – particularly his literature teacher father who affected a pretentious accent – as well as the deliberate acting choices, the motivations of which he is sometimes hard-pressed to explain. Bierman talks about his concerns over offending the audience and the necessity of pushing certain scenes past the point of good taste (in action or dialogue), as well as contrasting the beauty and ugliness of New York City to convey how the city can feel when you're on top of the world or down in the dumps. They mention that the version on disc restores footage missing from the theatrical release (I don't have a running time for the US theatrical release but the UK 103 minute theatrical timing matches what is here). The film's theatrical trailer (2:07) is also included.
HIGH SPIRITS was released theatrically by Tri-Star and then on VHS by Media Home Entertainment and subsequently on DVD by MGM (via the Epic package that also included Trans World, Hemdale, Atlantic Releasing, Nelson, and other bankrupt companies). Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is not as crisp as VAMPIRE'S KISS but ably conveys the nooks and crannies of the decaying castle location and the massive Shepperton Studio sets as well as the beauty of the Irish countryside (in the film's few picturesque exteriors). The practical effects hold up really well with the increased resolution, as does most of the rotoscoped animation, but the outlines on the bluescreen composites are more apparent. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 encoding of the Dolby Stereo track cleanly renders dialogue and the film's sound design (with the surrounds constantly active with rain and birdsong before the ghosts come), although Fenton's score has always seemed buried in the mix (with the rain of the opening credits exteriors overwhelming the score but for a surge under the title card). Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. There are no extras for HIGH SPIRITS, not even a trailer. The cover reproduces the poster art for both films (with stills from each on the reverse). (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS