By: Heather Seebach
Most horror fans have just about given up on the vampire sub-genre thanks to the Twilight franchise. Even True Blood, for all its violence and gore, is plagued by mushy romance and once-badass characters being pussy-whipped by a fairy. But despite what mainstream America is watching, solid vampire cinema is still alive (er, undead) in the foreign and indie markets. Recent examples include Thirst, Stake Land, Midnight Son, Byzantium, and Let the Right One In (and even its "remake" Let Me In). These creatures of the night have always gone hand-in-hand with lust and hunger, which are the central themes of this year's Kiss of the Damned. Although undeniably a beautiful film, director Xan Cassavetes' narrative feature debut does not exactly reinvent the fang. It is a familiar tale, but it is pleasant to look at and punctuated with the occasional cool moment.
Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) is a beautiful vampire living in a quiet Connecticut home, kept secret from the world of the living. She spends her waking hours watching old romance films, tired of spending decades alone. When she meets human screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), they strike up a love affair. Their romantic bliss is soon cut short, however, by the arrival of Djuna's reckless and violent sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who threatens Djuna's happiness and the very co-existence of her kind with the humans.
The film was written and directed by Xan Cassavetes who, as the name probably tells you, comes from a family of filmmakers. Her narrative debut as a director is stunning to look at, particularly the silent, slow-motions shots. Tobias Datum's cinematography is no doubt the film's strongest aspect. Complementing it beautifully is Steven Hufsteter's score. Visually and thematically, Kiss is an obvious homage to the sex-filled vampire films of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco (with a dash of Hammer).
Cassavetes' story, unfortunately, is standard vampire fare - one wants to peacefully co-exist with humans, while another views them as food. Bad things ensue. There are occasional moments that are really cool (including the best bag gag since Audition), but also a few that are pretty silly. The characters too leave something to be desired. Djuna is gorgeous but lacks depth; Paolo is pointless; and together they have no chemistry. Mimi is fun to watch but ultimately two-dimensional. The smaller roles (a maid; an aging actress) are actually the biggest scene-stealers. All the actors do just fine, but their roles give them little to work with.
Kiss of the Damned is full of elegance and eroticism, but it's all-too-familiar territory for some horror fans. Still, the vampires are sexy and bloody, and that's enough to satisfy other horror fans. At this point, we'll take anything that isn't sparkling or crying. This one does not match the other critically-acclaimed vampire films of late, but it is an interesting springboard for Cassavetes' career as a director, and I think she has skills not yet fully on display.
If you'd like to check out Kiss of the Damned, the DVD and Blu-ray are available today, July 23rd from Magnolia Home Entertainment. Bonus features include star interviews, Cassavetes' commentary, and trailers.
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