Xan Cassavetes’ debut feature Kiss of the Damned is billed as an homage to the golden age of 1970s horror -- to Euro shock pioneers such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava. While the presence of these influences on the artist is readily apparent, the movie outstrips its predecessors with more depth than we've come to expect from this genre. Cassavetes’ ability to probe contemplative and multilayered themes within a vampire context, coupled with flashes of an offbeat and bewitching sense of humor and visual panache, make the film a rare treat, especially for those who like to see grindhouse-oriented subject matter done with intelligence and substance.
Josephine de la Baume stars as Djuna, a young woman with an enigmatic history, who temporarily occupies a palatial home in Connecticut owned by her actress friend, Xenia (Anna Mouglalis). Nightmares and an overall restlessness plague Djuna, as well as a serious yen for a male companion. She finds her ideal lover in screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), but Djuna's spasmodic resistance to intimacy initially prevents the two from consummating their affair; the double-minded girl cuts back and forth between sultry erotic come-ons and attempts to physically shove Paolo out of her presence. She cautions him that she suffers from a “rare skin disorder” that forces her to live nocturnally and avoid direct sunlight. Finally, when Paolo initiates a make-out session, Djuna begins to chomp through the horrified fellow's tongue. She is, she tells him, one of the eternal undead. Despite her warnings and his injuries, Paolo is overcome by lust for her and becomes a vampire when she sinks her teeth into him during sex. Later, Djuna's sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) turns up; unbeknownst to the others, she's been seducing and then ripping the throats out of dozens of unsuspecting pick-ups, leaving a trail of bloody, eviscerated corpses in her wake. She soon moves into Xenia's home alongside the said couple, and begins a cunning series of attempts to drive a wedge between sister and boyfriend, and to seduce the young man.
The picture joins a small subset of movies that have attempted to give earnest treatment to supernatural horror tropes. It does for vampires what Mike Nichols’ Wolf did for werewolves and Sebastian Hofmann's Halley did for zombies: Cassavetes asks the question of what would happen -- independently of horror cliches -- if an otherworldly species actually lived and walked among us. Within this context, we get an ambitious first act set-up that explores Djuna’s Freudian motivations for seeking male prey. Cassavetes equates vampiric bloodlust with verboten erotic desire and paints the pre-Paolo Djuna as a junkie crippled by a major case of sexual withdrawal -- her body, in revolt, is torn between her consuming desire to possess a man and a comprehension of her own capacity to potentially ruin a partner’s existence by imparting eternal life to him. Djuna’s imaginings in the expositional segments at the beginning of the film are particularly intriguing: They reveal Cassavetes’ desire to tap into subconscious female fantasies (of rape, domination, and anonymous and violent sexual encounters) and to hint at some fundamental overlaps between this and the vampiric erogenous drives. As a romantic counterpart to the movie’s sexual element, we also get nods to old Hollywood melodramas, as in a telling scene where Djuna watches John Cromwell’s Algiers on television and listens, rapt and with widened eyes, as Hedy Lamarr professes eternal love for Charles Boyer; Cassavetes suggests, none too subtly, that the vampire life promises to fulfill these magnified longings that Djuna possesses. The movie also has a neat insight into vampires that echoes the Nichols film and gives us another reason for the “lure” of vampiric life -- when Paolo morphs into a member of the undead, he suddenly learns that all of his senses are heightened.
In subsequent scenes, the movie grows more ambitious: Cassavetes introduces us to a whole closeted subculture of bloodsuckers who don tuxes and evening dresses, congregate at nighttime soirees, and feast on synthetic plasma to avoid committing homicides and live “acceptably” among homo sapiens. Cassavetes is able to avoid making the “subculture” idea a two-dimensional gimmick by positioning it alongside Mimi’s entrance into the film. The contrast between the two young women gives us our deepest insight into the fabric of the vampire society that has taken center stage: The writer-director implies that in this particular world, vampirism exists independently of our traditional conceptions of morality, and that enough behavioral alternatives exist for a member of the undead to be anything from a gentle, passionate lover to a psychotic serial killer, or something in between. In fact, what emerges is a whole different set of moral standards than what most of us are accustomed to, subject to distinct behaviors and thus unique ethical considerations. Therein lies a great deal of the fascination that the movie generates.
Cassavetes also provides an unusually thoughtful sibling relationship between Djuna and Mimi. Watching them interact, it becomes clear to us that these young women are not nearly so simple as archetypes of good and evil: Mimi personifies Djuna's other side, the physical manifestation of the grisly and destructive desires that she has buried and suppressed -- and that, via Mimi, threaten to cause havoc for nearby mortals.
As mentioned, the movie’s style impresses as well. Tonally, Cassavetes isn’t afraid to segue between humor and terror. She interpolates wry comedic set pieces (such as the previously mentioned cocktail party, which stands alone as a small masterpiece of social satire), and clever visual gags -- such as when Mimi wears a T-shirt that has a picture of a missing child on the front. But the film also packs in its share of truly horrifying moments, as in a subplot with a virgin sweetheart (Riley Keough) who willingly ventures into Xenia’s apartment as an “eager fan” but gets the shock of her young life and meets a grisly fate. To the credit of the writer-director and her special-effects team, the gore shots throughout the movie are suitably credible and repugnant, culminating with an absolutely spellbinding scene where one vampire rots to death in the sun before our eyes.
If the film has a flaw, that simply lies in the breadth of Cassavetes’ ambition. She seems to want to tackle so many themes that the movie’s 97-minute running time can’t possibly do justice to all of them. But a surprising number are beautifully served here. And whatever the movie’s fleeting inadequacies, it feels buoyed throughout by the expanse of its creator’s narrative and visual imagination. leave a comment --Nathan Southern