Although more recently it’s been turned into a sort of supernatural chastity belt protecting teenage girls from the hunky guys they love, vampirism always served as a deeply erotic foundation for horror stories. Movies capitalizing on this are too numerous to count, but from Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation to, Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned, the standouts among them have always infused the curse of becoming an immortal bloodsucker with a humanity and a romanticism that makes it resonate, even if it’s ultimately only in audiences’ loins.
Although it’s destined to draw comparisons to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, Cassavetes’ film is a significantly more mature – and sexy – take on vampire romance, approaching its subject with sophistication and sensuality even as it indulges in gore and terror that’s as metaphorical as it is visceral.
Josephine de la Baume (One Day) plays Djuna, a reclusive vampire who lives in a remote mansion and ventures into the human world only to rent classic movies at a nearby video store. After a chance encounter with Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), Djuna finds herself tempted by the possibility of romance, but fears the harm she’ll eventually do to her mortal companion. Before she can either reject or kill Paolo, he willingly submits to being “converted,” and the pair quickly fall into a monogamous relationship: she introduces him to her nocturnal lifestyle, and he rekindles her long-thought-lost ability to love.
But when Djuna’s estranged sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) turns up needing a place to stay, the couple finds not only their relationship tested, but their very existence. Leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, Mimi preys indiscriminantly on humans and vampires alike in order to satisfy her sinister desires, causing problems which threaten to expose their community’s secrets to the larger world.
Arthouse horror’s often existential approach to genre conventions can be a tedious viewing experience – especially when, for example, a film focuses more on the ennui of immortality than the inextricable sexuality of vampirism. Cassavetes dresses up her introspection in just enough sleaze – the great, Franco-esque 1970s European kind – that Kiss of the Damned never falls prey to its own self-seriousness. de la Baume and Mesquida are sizzling beauties who frequently wear provocative outfits, and even more frequently find themselves in various states of undress. Moreover, the conversion (or just consumption) process is almost always visually synonymous with sex; Paolo’s consummation scene with Djuna achieves a level of erotica that few in recent memory have succeeded.
That said, its narrative complexity is nominal at best. The exploration of a romance, interrupted by a misbehaving sibling (or friend or colleague, et al) is nothing new, and Mimi’s character is far too conspicuously mischievous for anyone to give her as much freedom as she indulges in – especially in a community whose priority is secrecy. And while there’s something genuinely beautiful about Paolo’s unwavering commitment to Djuna, a climactic story choice not only undercuts the fidelity of their relationship, but makes almost no sense except as a catalyst for the final events in the film. That I kept hoping for an explanation was a testament to the careful and compelling rendering of the characters by de la Baume and Ventimiglia, but that one never came seemed to underscore Cassavetes’ prioritization of atmosphere over plotting or consistent characterization.
Further, Cassavetes’ conception of the vampires’ secret society as a cadre of privileged intellectuals and artists offers an interesting opportunity for a discussion about the ongoing relationship between humans and their immortal counterparts, but the actual conversation occurs too literally and too on-the-nose to be anything but an explicit acknowledgment of the film’s ideas. Her characterization of some of the main figures within that world – particularly Xenia, the actress whose success affords her companions their luxurious lifestyles — is so specific that it eventually becomes reductive. It seems unlikely that after centuries of careful discretion, Xenia’s narcissism would be so overpowering that she would endanger herself and her world when a known troublemaker like Mimi introduced her to someone she claimed was the actress’ “Number One fan.”
Ultimately, however, there’s plenty to enjoy in the film, from its succession of nubile, scantily-clad women to a love story which is actually quite poignant. While Mesquida’s performance is uneven (and Riley Keough’s cameo as Xenia’s fan is outright awful), Ventimiglia contributes a stillness and confidence that evidences the maturation of his leading man bona fides, and de la Baume is a real discovery whose talents deserve nurturing. Straddling the line between arthouse perversion and populist sleaze, actorly vamping and earnest romanticism, Cassavetes’ film accomplishes just enough with its sweep that it almost covers what’s missing. As an elevated genre piece or prurient arthouse tableau, Kiss of the Damned offers a sexy and yet sobering portrait of how to survive eternity, while keeping audiences intrigued about what its director does, if not for forever, then at least for a few more years.