Crazy. Kinky. Cool. I’d use these words to describe Kiss of the Damned. Xan Cassavetes’ first feature film since 2004’s documentary The Z Channel is a catapult back into the olden days of vampire cinema, when the only nosferatu on screen were either stagey Universal Horror icons or the string of psychosexual nightmares coming out of Europe. Kiss of the Damned is the latter, although damn it, it’s got a little Twilight in there too.
That sounds like a burn, but Kiss of the Damned neatly encapsulates the dramatic hook of the Twilight franchise, at least from the vampire’s perspective. Joséphine de La Baume stars as Djuna, a vampire of indeterminate age, permanently stuck in her buxom twenties, who finds herself hopelessly attracted to a young, cipher-ish hunk named Paolo, played by Milo Ventimiglia (“Heroes”). Since Djuna really likes this kid, she initially tries to resist her primal urge to mate with and suck on him (blood-wise), and since Paolo really likes Djuna, he’s curious but undeterred by his first look at her fangs. I suspect the fact that Djuna was chained to the bed at the time and mostly naked probably softened the blow. But Kiss of the Damned doesn’t screw around with “will they or won’t they” suspense. It’s about what happens after they do.
Kiss of the Damned is a gothic, romantic film that indulges in horror tropes like murder, melodrama and mythologizing, but only as a last resort. It’s actually a story about resisting primal urges, attempting to compartmentalize and ignore the seedy, self-destructive lust within us all. And to an extent, Kiss of the Damned sees that repression as a very good thing. As one vampire explains, it was only when humanity stopped killing each other to pass the time that meaningful societies could form. Then again, denying our inner natures is also naïve, as both Djuna and Paolo discover when Djuna’s sister comes to visit and ruins everything.
Whereas Joséphine de La Baume has an ethereal beauty, and Milo Ventimiglia boasts a dreamy male persona of his own, relatively free of backstory and baggage, Roxane Mesquida drops into the movie with a Riot Grrrl-meets-French fashion model chic, young and brash and indulging her every whim. As Djuna’s sister Mimi, Mesquida seems happier than the rest of the cast – certainly a lot less uptight – but over time her brazen behavior and seductions take their toll on the entire cast. Everyone succumbs to their darker impulses, no matter how hard they fight Mimi’s influence. The only thing that matters is whether they come to accept indulgence as part of the human (and vampire condition), or whether guilt, jealousy and addiction will tear them apart.
Xan Cassavetes adopts a directorial style that’s both MTV and old school Eurotrash, popping wild sound effects and guitar squeals into painterly frames. It’s initially jarring, but ultimately an inviting, fresh take on a familiar storyline. The plot is simple, and it solves itself too easily at the end, but the point is really the overall experience: wrapping yourself up in the arms of a lover who accepts you, and who happens to have a blood fetish. Cassavetes’ intense editorial style and outré sexual predilections, always welcome in the vampire subgenre, spin a sharp but delicate web of eroticism and, in the end, maturity. We are all bloodthirsty, horny animals. We don’t have to grow out of it. We just have to grow up.
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