(This review was originally published on April 24, 2013 at Reel Film News)
If Xan Cassavetes gets one thing absolutely right in her feature debut, it’s the tone of an authentic 1970’s European horror film.
“Kiss of the Damned” harks back to a time when vampires were exclusively nocturnal and decidedly more aristocratic than metrosexual. In fulfilling her homage to this sub-genre, which is known as much for its heavy sexuality as it is for blood and gore, writer/director Cassavetes lays the melodrama on thick, with lascivious characters and an ambient retro-goth score to boot.
Needless to say, your appreciation of this film will depend on your nostalgia for (and/or tolerance of) such things. And one might also observe that it was designed as more of an artistic statement than a cohesive story. In adhering to old genre tropes, Cassavetes proves both her affinity for films of that era and an inherent ability to appeal to a very particular kind of audience, all the while putting her own signature on it. Like a lot of art, only the artist truly understands its purpose; for those folks unfamiliar with this style of horror, which might resemble equal parts Dario Argento and any number of Hammer pictures, you’re about as likely to say “what the hell was that?” as you are to be mesmerized by it.
Deliberately anachronistic, though transpiring during a pretty ambiguous time to begin with, “Kiss of the Damned” gets right to the meaning of its title, which itself sounds like a tribute to an archaic style of filmmaking. Young screenwriter Paulo (Milo Ventimiglia) and reclusive but stunningly beautiful vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) are instantly enamored with one another when locking eyes across a video store. Things get heated back at her rural dwelling (which reminded me of the good old days when vampires resided in giant museum-esque estates), but in order to avoid succumbing to her hunger, she insists that Paulo leave immediately. To a diet-conscious vamp, human plasma is the equivalent of chocolate cheesecake.
As his attraction brings him back to her doorstep the next night and Djuna reveals what she really is to a surprisingly accepting Paulo (“You have got to be kidding me,” seems to be about the extent of his shock), the ugliness of the vampire condition is made immediately evident, both physically and emotionally. Still, the concept of “soul mates” seems to be transcendent here, ironic because it would seem that her soul has already been claimed, but nonetheless it’s the reason that Paulo chooses to be “damned” rather than head for the hills.
Perhaps the only film I’ve seen where someone so seamlessly transitions to the undead and then continues about their business, “Kiss of the Damned” becomes somewhat of a social commentary as Paulo acclimates to his new lifestyle among the supernatural elite. Ostensibly old-school conservatives, this group turns out to be a pretty progressive bunch.
This is one of those films that I hesitate to call a love story, because it could repel you for all the wrong reasons (of the criticisms I have, a “Twilight” comparison is not among them). Make no mistake, this is a horror film. The division between morality and common sense is never made too obvious, whether it’s conscience or fear of being exposed that drives these vampires to hunt in the woods for wild animals rather than pick off human prey (of course, not everyone sticks to the rules). Though the film is never in danger of becoming a fluffy romance, the relationship that develops between the two is pretty idyllic, save the occasional ‘incident’ (I’ll leave the bloody stuff as a surprise), most of which doesn’t seems to have too much of an impact on their commitment to each other.
There are very few human beings to be found in the film, save Paulo’s overzealous, cocaine snorting agent (Michael Rapaport) and a few less-than-fortunate folks who all seem like very easy targets for sexual manipulation. The only true antagonist is Djuna’s mentally unstable younger sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who comes to town with a whole lot of baggage and a vague agenda to disrupt that balance of the vampire community, which collectively looks to matronly socialite and revered stage actress Xenia (a wonderfully conflicted Anna Mouglalis) for guidance in the evolving, increasingly tricky world.
All hell never quite breaks loose, but that’s not really the type of film this is. With a mood that I might describe as a “perpetual dusk”, at once dark and ethereal, “Kiss of the Damned” is an interesting change of pace for the sub-genre. Though sleepy in spells, it’s a welcome direction for contemporary vampire movies if only to resurrect a style thought long dead.