There is a mysterious woman down the street you have a strange attraction to. She is sad, beautiful and darkly ominous in her refusals to even say, “Hi.” Conventional wisdom would suggest she’s just not that into you, but this is the luscious and lurid Xan Cassavetes film, Kiss of the Damned. With a title like that, you can bet that her true motives definitely have a bite.
We at Den of Geek had the chance to sit down with Cassavetes, as well as her two French leading ladies: Joséphine de La Baum, who plays the film’s lovely and demure fanged heroine Djuna; and Roxane Mesquida, Kiss of the Damned’s Mimi, a hellfire seductress with all sorts of ravenous appetites. Together, we discussed all things vampire, sex, vampire sex and everything in-between.
Den of Geek (DoG): You said in the press material that you do not consider yourself “a fanatical vampire person,” but I got the feeling from the movie that you have seen your fair share of vampire flicks from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Can you talk about the ones that influenced you?
Xan Cassavetes: I loved Daughters of Darkness; I loved The Hunger; I loved Trouble Every Day; I loved Nosferatu, both of them! Especially the Herzog one, which is one of the movies I love most in the world.
DoG: I can really say I love the Herzog one as well. The image of the plague and the feast of the rats.
Cassavetes: Oh my God and the dancing! It’s so beautiful. You see that’s a movie I really love. I love images and these strange characters and sound design and music and how it works together. It is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.
DoG: I definitely got a Hammer Horror vibe off of this movie, as well as Jesus Franco. The latter of whom really seemed to connect sexuality to vampirism. How do you see the relationship of vampires to the physical?
Cassavetes: I tried to take a pretty classic form and stick to it [while also] doing things that are unconventional. But it’s still the form of vampires being sexual and that vampires are brutal and that vampires also have regrets and remorse and sorrows like Herzog’s Nosferatu. But I don’t think the sex in this movie is like the sex in those other movies, which I love. I just think in this movie, it is more narrative and more logical and having to do with the backstory of the characters…but sexuality is essential if you are going to address the nature of the vampire.
DoG: It feels that the way that you shoot the female vampires serves more in relation to the characters than the exploitation of Franco.
Cassavetes: I don’t see it. I guess it’s exploitation. I think it’s beautiful. I think Vampyros Lesbos is super, super beautiful and like poetic. To me, those images feel like a poem. Whereas in Kiss of the Damned, it doesn’t feel poetic, it feels like something narrative and literal.
DoG: With this project, were you interested in reinventing the image of the vampire, given how pop culture has treated it, lately?
Cassavetes: I wasn’t really motivated by that. I was motivated by this story and the sort of fascination I had with a lot of the things we have talked about as far as that atmosphere; as far as sort of the mythology of women, as well as the mythology of vampires. Also, the idea of eternity and permanence and those kind of things [that] were available to me in this genre of vampire.
DoG: You said the mythology of women. How do you relate that to your film in parallel to vampires?
Cassavetes: I am more interested or have been since I was a child with those vampire movies that you say were a bit exploitative, but I didn’t really see them that way. I do like a female vampire. I think a female as a vampire is the ultimate seductress and seductive animal. Maybe being a woman myself, I am interested at a deeper level in looking at the experiences of a female vampire. Djuna is a lonely vampire living in this house and she is confronted with an attraction to a man and she shouldn’t be with him, because when she’s sexual she becomes a vampire…She is self-conscious of the ugliness that might reveal. What kind of things that are so unattractive about her soul that he might discover and the fear about that. Here are situations for vampires and they are situations for women…The mythology of women as beautiful, sexual and alluring. There is the same kind of fear of IT, as there is of vampirism itself.
DoG: So, do you view Mimi as somewhat sympathetic or even heroic, given that she does not try to hide from her vampirism, her sexuality? She openly embraces it.
Cassavetes: Sure. Mimi is very honest with herself. They are attacked at the same time. One takes it this way and one takes it that way. Mimi’s is a bit more cynical for sure, but she wants to look at the facts…She is completely right in her criticisms of her sister and her sister’s bourgeois denial attitude and hypocrisy in biting this guy in the name of love, which it may or may not be…Everybody in the movie knows there’s a dark side in this, but only Mimi is comfortable with it. I do love Mimi and I think Mimi is fun, but that is not to say I disdain the other one. Djuna is valiant for trying. She just needs to understand that you cannot hang onto who you want to be; you have to address who you really are.
DoG: Kiss of the Damned is your first feature. Having already directed the wonderful documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, do you see yourself pursuing more narrative or documentarian projects in the future?
Cassavetes: Narrative, probably. In a split second, you can think of something that would be a documentary that would make you really passionate…and you got to do it, because no one else will do it. But that’s not my plan.
DoG: So, any chance for a return to horror? Perhaps, a werewolf film?
Cassavetes: You never know! My next thing is not going to be horror, but it’s sort of sci-fi. But horror is a great genre to work in. I’ve been exposed to so many more movies [since I started working on this film]. It all looks very appealing, but it’s a great genre and I’d love to do more in it.
Den of Geek (DoG): Okay, this question is for the both of you. Prior to Kiss of the Damned, what did you think of vampires?
La Baume: I have always been fascinated with vampires. One of my favorite movies was the Polanski movie, which in French isLe bal des vampires. In English it is The Fearless Vampire Killers. As a kid, I always loved vampires and was always interested in their beauty, the aesthetic, often the soundtrack in vampire movies. There is always this aspect that is very dreamy. They’re almost like a better self; they’re like an enhanced humanity, almost. Their love stories are extremely romantic, very sensual and basically, I was very excited to do a vampire movie, especially this one that was a throwback to the films of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Mesquida: What I like about vampires is that they’re very into the basics of life, which is sex and eating. They only think about two things. How are they going to find something to eat? There is something very sexual about that. It is less like intellectual masturbation.
DoG: Were there any favorites or particular influences from older films or novels that influenced you coming into Kiss of the Damned?
Mesquida: What excited me most was more movies from the ‘20s or films like Vampyr by Carl Dreyer. So something more from the ‘20s. And also paintings like Expressionism and “Kiss of the Vampire.” For Mimi it was this inspiration because her body language has to be very free and pretty big, so I wanted something that could help me with that.
DoG: One of the most interesting aspects of this film for me is the relationship between Djuna and Mimi. Do you think there is any love left between these two nocturnal sisters when the movie starts?
La Baume: It was very important and we’re very happy it came across on screen. You have to feel like there’s love between them. Even if they fight, they really love each other like any sisters. Also, they’re kind of a mirror for each other; they also envy each other. Because I got along so well with Roxanne, there was this feeling behind the fighting that made us look like sisters.
DoG: What do you think Paolo’s role as Djuna’s new beau means for the sisters?
Mesquida: I feel like he almost doesn’t exist anymore when they’re together. In the scene where they come back and Mimi is having sex with this couple, it is so strong between the two sisters fighting that he has no room anymore. It’s like he doesn’t exist anymore for them…they forget about him.
La Baume: He is a tool for both of them to raise their question on [what to do] with their condition as vampires. Also, what one has the other wants. Yes, it is almost like Mimi wishes she was in love with someone. At the same time, Djuna being in love with someone and turning him then becomes a contradiction of who she thought it was. She’s not really a nice vampire, because if she really loved him, she would not change him into a vampire.
DoG: Joséphine, why do you think Djuna decided that Paolo was the one worth turning and giving into? I mean she’s been alone for what seems like decades in that house.
La Baume: I think she’s been hiding herself for so long that she’s ashamed of who she is. She fantasizes about humanity and for the first time, someone talks to her and seduces her and trusts her. She is pushing him away at the beginning, but he insists on coming to the house. So, you know, at first she is touched this man wants her. The guts that guy has even though he knows she’s a vampire…I think it’s sometimes like that in life and it’s cosmic.
DoG: How do you prepare yourself to be vampires, especially for the scenes that involve blood running down your mouths? I mean in one moment Mimi can be very sweet and considerate of her guests and in the other she is filleting them on the side of the road.
La Baume: The challenge of Djuna is she has been around for 250 years, so she has a lot of wisdom. But she is falling in love for the first time like a young girl. So, I just worked a lot on that. I based myself on personal experiences and very much to try and understand what each character meant to her…The whole other part is she is like a monster, an animal. She is almost like a wolf. We all are animals ourselves and we have that in us. We just learn to control it and I had to let it out of control.
Mesquida: It was more about images I tried to get in my head. I don’t think I work on my character that much before. Of course I get inspiration, but it is more in the moment and I try to be as true as possible to her. What’s more interesting is to develop that Mimi is so hurt that she wants to hurt people and it’s not for no reason. We were also going to the gym everyday, because when you are playing a vampire it is very physical. You have to run in the forest and jump on things. We had to be pretty fit and comfortable with our bodies.
DoG: We have all seen vampire movies, including some of Mimi’s finer conquests in this film, where the Nosferatu lures a lover to their doom. But in this project Paolo gets the choice directly presented to him: If a potential lover revealed themselves to be long in the tooth is it a deal breaker or something you can work with?
La Baume: …It depends on the vampire.
Mesquida: It is like in a normal relationship. You would accept things from someone. It depends on the relationship and the person. I think there is a worth for everything.
La Baume: Well said.