We all know how this plays out. A would-be lover finds himself seduced by a mysterious woman with an ominous secret. She seems both sad and alluring in her shroud of darkness. This object of lust slowly, but surely beckons the young man to his doom and faster than you can say “fang bang,” he’s dinner.
This story of temptation and seduction extends further than vampire cinema. Back when vampires were still ugly, rotting corpses in folklore, far more sensual tales of “demon lovers” and “succubi” feeding off unsuspecting males cautioned young fellows about the dangers of promiscuity. Further still, there is just something kinky about the song of the Sirens in The Odyssey, isn’t there? Today, such hedonic horror has primarily reverted to the more secular image of sexy, female vampires bringing men to ruin. And it is a trope that director Xan Cassavetes, daughter of famed Nick, both pays homage to and subverts in her first feature length effort, Kiss of the Damned.
Enter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). Early in the film, he has finally forced his way into the bedroom of Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume). The French beauty is clearly older than her petite face suggests. After all, the two met at video store where she is RENTING movies. She’s obviously ancient.
It turns out that Djuna is a vampire loner of the Louis de Pointe du Lac School of Vampirism (Anne Rice fans should get it). She is a tragically cursed, lonely creature who fears her own, dark gift. But that dread is subsumed by a burning passion for this handsomely strange screenwriter named Paolo. Within the first fifteen minutes, she has chained herself to a bed and reveals that when aroused, the fangs come out.Conflict does not really appear for Djuna and the newly turned Paolo until Djuna’s sister blasts like a geyser of blood on the scene. Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) is a darker vampire in every sense of the word. The raven-haired French seductress is the only one who has any damn fun among all the titularly condemned characters we meet over the course of the film. Like Djuna, a ballet teacher turned Mimi some 250 years ago at their school. It is all fairly vague. The only important thing to take away from it is that while Djuna became a recluse from society, choosing to feed on the animals of the forest, Mimi has embraced the vampire’s life with a blood-drenched smile. Nary a night goes by in the film where she is not luring a man or two into a back alley liaison of death. She even snares a married couple to her home where the ménage a trois is just foreplay. All of these lurid images are served well by an entrancing soundscape of electronic music overseen by composer Steven Hufsteter and music editor Taylor Gianotas. They are also in service to a parable about the societal parts women can play…I think. They either must sequester themselves away from society and sexuality in their own homes, lest they be condemned as ravenous monsters or they can vamp it up every night at the clubs like disgraced harlots.
In the best moment of the movie, Paolo is faced with a fascinating choice not dealth with by most slabs of meat in these kind of flicks. He knows that his potential lover is truly a member of the Undead and to join her under the sheets is to join her in the grave. He takes the chains off, anyway. Talk about unprotected sex.
Cassavetes’ oft-hypnotic and always lusty film, which opens Friday and is already on iTunes, is an orgy of forbidden temptation. In an interview, the director told me she grew up on the lecherous, but poetic vampire films of 1970s Europe. The influences of exploitation savants like Jess Franco permeate Kiss of the Damned with its always-yearning gaze at the female vampire form. However, Cassavetes attempts to anchor it all in a story about the roles for feminism in the 21st century world.
Through Paolo’s eyes, we are introduced to a lot of vampire blue bloods who go to fine dining clubs and have galas after Broadway openings. Anna Mouglalis as a nosferatu matriarch and musical star named Xenia is particularly amusing in these segments. However, the only real drama for the film remains rooted firmly in the rivalry between Mimi and Djuna. Djuna does not like having her little sister home, considering she plays with her food in the living room (and tries to make Paolo dessert). Mimi resents Djuna’s constant whining and bourgeois morality. In all honesty, their squabbling gets a little grating. Especially because audiences will always gravitate to the Lestats over the Louises in these stories. Why watch Djuna and Paolo mope about eternal life when we can witness Mimi owning it?
Kiss of the Damned is a movie full of lascivious energy and a nice message about women accepting their darker selves, but it is also clearly a first-time effort. Cassavetes, who wrote the screenplay, comes up with some exciting imagery, but unfortunately buries it under some very clunky dialogue. Exposition and cues can sometimes be so glaring that they blind like the first rays of a sunrise. Also, the conflict of the story does not so much come to a head as literally wrap itself up with a freak act of nature.
Kiss of the Damned has style to spare, as it creates a number of kinky set pieces that celebrate the female vampire in a way that few others have in recent memory. These are neither the painfully homogenized commercial vampires of current pop culture infamy, nor their dark and dank underground counterpoints. They are the libidinous, angelic types that steamed up European cinema from an era of horror long gone. However, this return is marked with very little story to tether it to the screen with and some questionable performances in the margins to boot. For those looking for an Undead experience just as much about the carnal as the carnage, this rough-around-the-edges indie will likely not disappoint. But there is not much to please here beyond the physical.