Nicolas Cage Is A Horror Movie Icon
More than a man and more than a meme, Nic Cage is a horror movie icon.
When talking about the great actors that have helped pioneer the horror genre names like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Barbara Crampton, Robert Englund, and others who have dedicated a substantial amount of their acting careers to conjuring up frights of all sorts tend to come up.
There are tons more to talk of, but there are also many more that do not receive the credit they deserve. These unsung horror heroes are mostly stars of the last few decades, or those that are not committed to a single genre. One of the most criminally undervalued of these names is Nicolas Cage.
Cage’s forays into horror are often discussed, but rarely appreciated. There is a certain heft to his ham that seems to deter as much as it attracts. So, the opinion on Cage as an actor is divisive, at best. Still, the fact remains that Nicolas Cage is capable of bursts of energy that are unmatched by the majority of on-screen talent. His passion for his craft is made clear with every role. That passion is utilized to its fullest potential when he dips his toes in the worlds of horror.
With his latest stretch of high octane horror hits over the last few years, and the upcoming release of Pig (2021), we at Ghoulish found ourselves asking if horror was Nicolas Cage’s new home. After perusing his body of work, we were gleefully reminded that horror was always his home. Join us in taking a look back at the horror history of the legendary Nicolas Cage!
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Vampire’s Kiss (1988) was not only Cage’s first horror project, it was also one of his first starring roles. Directed by Robert Bierman, the film is an off-the-wall horror-comedy that follows Peter Loew (Cage) as he struggles to fight his newfound vampiric urges after being bitten by a woman in a nightclub (Jennifer Beals).
The only problem is that it is entirely unclear whether he is really turning into a vampire, or if the stresses of his life are causing him to create an escapist fantasy. This is the film people think of when they think of Nicolas Cage memes. Some actors crank things up to 11 from time to time, but in Vampire’s Kiss Cage is at a steady 12-to-13 with his energy and commitment. That energy went on to define Cage at his highest highs, for better or worse.
For horror fans, Cage’s performance presents a slew of classic horror nods and homages that should warm your cold, undead hearts. What’s not to love about a grown man trying to bite people with plastic vampire teeth? I rest my case!
Wild At Heart
It would be quite a while before Cage would take on a full-on horror project. However, that does not mean he refrained from dipping his toes in horror-tinged films from time to time.
The next few entries on this list are likely to be contentious, because they are better described as “horror adjacent”. That is to say, these are films that make use of many horror tropes or imagery without ever fully embracing the genre as a whole.
The first of these films was David Lynch’s 1990 sinister crime-romance Wild at Heart. Here Cage portrays young heartthrob Sailor Ripley, who is out on probation and heading to California with his main squeeze, Lula (Laura Dern). Lula’s mother (Diane Ladd) sends hitman (Willem Dafoe) to hunt them down as an act of revenge against Sailor. Then things really start to get strange…
More of a dark comedy than a horror title, Wild at Heart still has the Lynchian flair for disturbing imagery, dream-like/nightmarish sequences, and off kilter performances. It is an important entry in Cage’s role as a horror icon, as it would end up being the origin of the tone that would define the films he would be known for later in his career.
Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted
Another Lynch/Cage collaboration that was released the same year as Wild at Heart was the live music performance Industrial Symphony No.1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (1990).
Cage and Laura Dern reunite as a quarreling couple in a short scene that precedes the ethereal musical performance by Julee Cruise, wherein she performs various pieces from Lynch’s previous works. This is a bit of an oddball inclusion to the mix, but it sees Cage working yet again with Lynch on grounding his haunting audiovisual artistry.
Bringing Out the Dead
After working to ground Lynch’s nightmares, Cage is thrust into the already grounded reality of Martin Scorscese to provide much needed mania. In Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Cage plays Frank Pierce, an overworked and under-rested Manhattan paramedic. We follow Frank on a double graveyard shift. He is exhausted and ridden with guilt. He sees the ghosts of those he has failed to save over the course of his career. Throughout the seemingly never-ending shift, Frank attempts to come to terms with the nature of his work and to allow himself to feel free and happy again.
Here we have Nicolas Cage at his finest. Bringing Out the Dead was released in what is easily Cage’s most prolific run as a leading man. He was still riding the wave of momentum he had built up in a stretch of wildly successful films including Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997), and City of Angels (1998). Perhaps there was a bit of “Nic Cage Fatigue” at the time, as this was not nearly as successful as his previous hits.
Still, Bringing Out the Dead further foreshadowed the types of roles and stories Cage would come to be known for in the future. With its ghosts and Cage’s range between practically flatlined to full on mania, it makes this film a great horror adjacent title to mark within Cage’s horror legacy.
The Wicker Man
We have arrived to the point where most of the backlash against Cage seems to have come from. When you take a movie as beloved and well crafted as The Wicker Man (1973) and decide to remake it, you will always be met with opposition. In the case of 2006’s The Wicker Man things were made more controversial with the inclusion of the over-the-top Nicolas Cage as its lead.
The film looks great, but it does feel as if director and co-writer Neil LaBute struggled to figure out how to translate the original film’s quirks in a satisfying way. Cage gives it his all with his performance as officer Edward Malus, but the energy is misplaced. Perhaps the film suffers from miscasting Cage or from upping the bizarre to an uncomfortable degree. Perhaps it was always going to be nigh impossible to make a satisfying reboot of such a classic.
Whatever the reason for the film’s backlash, it affected Cage’s reputation and set the benchmark for his quality as an actor. This sentiment is ludicrous, as many other performances would prove.
The Wicker Man began a stint of productions featuring Cage that prove that an actor’s skills should not be evaluated based on the quality of the films they are in. It is important to look at the performances given in a vacuum sometimes. In this case, the casting was a poor match for the role, but the performance was as energetic and passionate as any other top notch Nicolas Cage performance.
It is easy to forget that, although this film was not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), technically speaking, Nicolas Cage has played a Marvel hero.
Both Ghost Rider (2007) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011) are far more comic book adventure flicks than horror films, but they feature enough deals with the devil and hellfire to warrant a mention on this list.
Cage’s portrayal as the rough and tumble Johnny Blaze would also foreshadow a key character type Cage would perfect later in his career.
Another horror adjacent title, Knowing (2009) is an interesting take on alien invasion and apocalyptic dramas. Cage plays M.I.T. professor John Koestler, who has discovered a numerical pattern linking dates from the past to various disasters over the course of history.
The next date is in the near future. As Koestler races to figure out what sort of disaster is on the horizon and how to stop it, he is met with strange celestial encounters that reshape the course of human history,
Knowing is a solid, tense thriller that delivers just enough cosmic terror to drift into the realm of horror. Cage gives another grounded performance here, as he carries the weight of most of the film on his back. A trait he would come to be known for as his career continued.
Season of the Witch
The late 2000s and early 2010s had a love for dark medieval fantasy. Just about every year you could count on some evil blight to be taken on by armor-clad heroes in England, Wales, or a fantasy version thereof. 2011’s Season of the Witch took this trend and added some Nicolas Cage charm to the mix.
It is pretty obvious from the premise alone that this film was made as an attempt to capitalize on the critical success of the Sean Bean picture Black Death that was released the year before.
Both follow soldiers escorting an accused witch to be tried, and both feature evil forces that make the journey exceedingly perilous. The main difference between the two is that Black Death plays everything straight and serious, whereas, Season of the Witch adjusts the narrative to fit an action setting.
This film marks further development in Cage’s role as a grounded character whose presence somehow fits the insanity around him. Around this time, Cage’s reputation as both a “wacko” and a quiet, brooding leading man began to work in tandem. This allowed him to insert himself into the oddball pictures he was more fond of while fitting in entirely, even if he barely says a word or raises an eyebrow.
What do you get when you trade Johnny Blaze’s motorcycle for a hot rod and flaming chains for lots of guns? You get Drive Angry (2011), wherein the cheekily named Milton (Nicolas Cage) races against the clock to stop a Satanic cult from sacrificing the baby they stole after murdering his daughter. This is Cage back to his hammy, loveable self. He eats up the screen like it is his lifeforce.
Although Drive Angry relies more on action than scares, it goes for the jugular with sex, violence, and general badassery. As campy as the film might be, it sits great with other modern, campy slashers and horror-action titles of the era. If you are looking for a mix of late 90’s Cage action with early 90’s Cage intensity, this is a must-watch!
Pay the Ghost
Like with most of the horror films Nicolas Cage had appeared in up until this point, Pay the Ghost (2015) blends horror with other genres. What starts as an indie clone of Taken (2008), ends up as a nice homage to early aughts supernatural horror.
Cage plays Mike Lawford, whose son is kidnapped while standing right next to him during a Halloween festival. Lawford does everything in his power to track down whoever has his son, but as he uncovers the truth behind his son’s disappearance, he discovers how sinister the situation truly is.
This might be the first time Nicolas Cage has starred in a run-of-the-mill, jump scare laden picture. It might not be the strongest example of the genre, but every horror icon has at least one of these films under their belt.
Mom and Dad
After the poor reception of The Wicker Man, it seemed as if Cage was doing everything in his power to reestablish his reputation. Most of the films he took on after that featured him as a quiet, gruff action hero amongst high octane stakes or fantasy scenarios. Similar to how he progressed after his tour-de-force performance in Vampire’s Kiss, Cage tried to maintain his status as a soft-spoken and contemplative straight man. Yet, he will always be known for his ability to switch gears at the turn of a dime.
Mom and Dad (2017) saw the Cage of Vampire’s Kiss return, and it proved that for all of its faults, Nicolas Cage’s energetic performance in The Wicker Man was not one of them if utilized correctly.
Mom and Dad has a simple premise. An unknown mass hysteria has caused parents to turn murderous against their children for a period of 24 hours. A premise as simple as its title. The film leans fully on Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as the mania-fueled parents hell bent on their children’s destruction, and Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur as the children trying to survive their parents’ continuous onslaught. As such, Cage’s penchant for wild, on-screen aggression is a harmonious fit to the overall tone and pace.
The film has its detractors, but it is worth checking out to see if the mayhem is palatable for you.
Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) marks a huge turning point for Nicolas Cage’s status as a fixture in horror cinema. Up until this film, he was involved in projects that either had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks or were taking themselves so seriously that it was hard for audiences to do the same. The days of working with David Lynch had been behind Cage for a lengthy amount of time.
So, it came as quite the surprise to see a Nicolas Cage-led art-horror title in the late 2010’s.
Mandy is an excellent, dreamy film that relies heavily on all of the skills Cage has shown in various films. Here he is untethered and given the opportunity to make great use of his ability to go from subdued to wild and back again in the blink of an eye.
The less that is explained about Mandy, the better for new viewers. Let us just say that Cage takes his gruff guy persona and transforms him into a quiet, but passionate soul literally hellbent on holding on to the love in his life. Trippy, dreamy, nightmarish, quiet, and wild, Mandy is not just necessary viewing for Cage enthusiasts, it is vital viewing for all horror fans!
Color Out of Space
Color Out of Space (2020) is impressive for multiple reasons. Not only does it house an incredible cast with Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, and Tommy Chong among other great talents, it also masterfully does the impossible: it brings an H. P. Lovecraft story to life on screen.
Richard Stanely has done an incredible job adapting Lovecraft’s penchant for vagueness and impossible descriptions. The look and sound of the film make it pulse with an unnerving essence that lingers long after the film has ended.
Cage is wonderful in this film as the goofy, alpaca-breeding patriarch of the Gardner family. He drifts seamlessly between Waspy insecurity and otherworldly derangement. He has some of the highlights of the film by showing off his comedic chops to good horror effect.
Willy’s Wonderland (2021) is the latest release in Nicolas Cage’s renewed line of horror roles. As it is still a very new film, time will tell how the reception to it will be. The film pits Cage against demonic animatronic characters in a children’s entertainment studio that looks strikingly similar to a certain cheesy mouse’s domain. The film promises another gruff, silent role for Cage as he dispatches the mechanical monstrosities in brutal fashion.
Thank you for going on this trip down memory lane to explore the various heights and frights of Nicolas Cage’s career. We hope that you would agree that, love him or hate him, Nic Cage is a horror icon.