With Kiss of the Damned, director Xan Cassavetes has crafted the perfect antidote to the modern vampire film malaise. Blood, fucking, feeding and even more fucking are a balm to soothe the decade's worth of neutered and chaste teen-vampire romances we've been force-fed, and damn does it feel good to finally taste something this primal. Drawing heavy inspiration from 60's and 70's European vampsploitation flicks, Cassavetes pays homage to the past while also commenting upon the present, and reminding us all why we ever became fascinated with vampires in the first place.
The film is carnal, raw, passionate; it seats as its premise the balancing act of animal nature vs. human rationality and control. While that concept is inherent to the vampire theme in general, rarely has the execution been so sensual, stylized, and intelligent. This is not a broad sweeping "epic" action-horror film, but rather a return to the personal and intimate, where one's blood is both chilled and warmed by the alternating currents of sinister and erotic.
The film opens with a slow burn, as we are introduced to Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume), a gorgeous young woman with seemingly too much time on her hands. She spends her nights watching old films in a large country manor, surrounded by wilderness. While she doesn't seem particularly bored, she does appear to languish until she encounters Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) on a trip to the nearby town's video store. The attraction between them is sudden and overwhelming, and becomes the linchpin for much of what is to come.
It also introduces one of the film's better qualities, which is that nothing is ever over-explained. I don't need a bunch of dialogue bogging down the moment, I don't need a verbal outline explaining why things are happening, and I don't need my hand held. Kiss of the Damned never insults the audience by doing so. Instead, it offers striking visual cues and performances that are so strong, one need never question the flow of the story. Why are Paolo and Djuna drawn to each other so intensely? Because they are, and the actors portraying them leave no doubt of this in the life they bring to their roles.
And when I tell you that I find this film to be intelligent, that's largely what I'm referring to. Nothing is ever dumbed-down, and in a genre (horror) and particular sub-genre (vampire film) where subtlety is rare to non-existent these days, I can't tell you how refreshing this is. When there are moments of explication, they come naturally and through the filter of a newly created and newly initiated vampire. We learn along with this character, and even then there is a conversational tone and ease with which information is shared that never feels disjointed or ham-fisted.
The vampires themselves are simple and clean in design, varying only from humans in the presence of retractable fangs, a discoloration of the eyes as the spirit of the vampire overtakes them, and in their physical abilities becoming enhanced. While they are shown to be stronger and faster than humans, it's not in a way that feels like a superpower, but rather what you would expect from an apex predator. Their speed does not allow them to move faster than human sight, nobody is bench-pressing trucks, they are not invincible; again the emphasis here is on super-natural not super-powered. This draws the scene in close, with the vampiric moments involving feeding and a handful of one-on-one conflicts. In many ways, it's not the vampire that brings horror to Kiss of the Damned, so much as the moral struggle that becomes the center of the film.
As we see the two main characters experiencing what feels very much like true love, we find their idyllic world interrupted by a third – Mimi (Roxane Mesquida). The country manor that Djuna and Paolo have been lounging in belongs to another vampire, someone a bit higher up the social structure of vampire society, and Mimi has been given permission to crash there in order to detox and get her shit together. We learn immediately that Mimi and Djuna are old friends; they call each other sister, but that they have some fundamental differences that put them at odds.
Mimi is a hedonist of the highest order, whereas Djuna prefers an existence of moderation. This is most evident in their approach to feeding, Djuna has chosen to only draw sustenance from animal blood and to resist the urge to kill another human while Mimi prefers to see humans as lesser beings, to be toyed with and fed upon as the urge takes her. By the time we meet Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the chic and sophisticated scion of the local vamp clan, we discover that the practice of feeding only on animals and eschewing humans as a food supply is a part of a larger movement among the vampires.
This is disclosed in a scene that is equal parts cocktail party and salon-style discussion. Again, conversational tone is key to conveying this information without ever coming across as pretentious or heavy-handed. It's an admirable way to introduce and comment upon two themes that have become rather ubiquitous in modern vampire films. The "vegetarian" lifestyle is explained simply and in unencumbered fashion here. To these vampires it simply seems the better and smarter approach. Though they wax a bit overly-intellectual about this choice it is also unerringly practical.
In a world in which it is increasingly difficult to get away with murder, why draw attention to themselves? They also see it as a point of pride, that they are able to restrain the instinct to feed upon humans. In this sense, it is much less about them choosing to be "good" as it is about being above it all. The other element of cliché engaged in this scene relates to the fact that when we see the vampires gathered, it is not as some vaunted aristocracy or secret council. There is no round table, Legion of Doom-style gathering or overtones of Mafioso, and really not much of a pecking order to speak of. What you see instead are old friends gathered together. Very old friends, perhaps, but it never feels out of touch with the kind of shindig that any of us might participate in, though the setting is a bit posh.
Of course, Mimi finds herself bored by all this. Whether it is because she is young in vampire terms or just a rebel at heart, she shuns this intellectualization of their nature. She sneaks off instead and invites a couple back to the manor for some extremely indulgent sex. Sex is such a vital part of Kiss of the Damned that we should probably take a moment to talk about it. (I
nsert Salt-n-Pepa reference here). Sex is frequent, explicit and gorgeously depicted throughout the film. Between Paolo and Djuna, it is passionate, intense and full of romance. Mimi's encounters are much more decadent, the lusty counterpoint to the love-filled contact of the other two. Things never approach a Jess Franco-level of gratuitousness, but nudity and sexuality are never shied away from.
As we see a triangle form between the three main characters, the lines between love and lust are blurred, as are the boundaries between restraint and indulgence in vampire nature. This all culminates in an ending to the film that is as revelatory of human nature as it is of the current state of vampire film. Dark, wild and unrestrained, Kiss of the Damned quenches a thirst that had gone too long unslaked.
The Blu-Ray transfer is absolutely gorgeous and vibrant, serving the innovative and stylish cinematography well. Though the film's aesthetic is not quite full-on art-house, there are moments leaning that way and being able to see them in such vivid color and so brilliantly lit enhances the experience tremendously. While seeing this grained on a film print or VHS (or digitally altered to appear so) may have a certain nostalgic appeal, this is a film that is quite comfortable coming across as crisp and sumptuous as possible.
For every attention to detail paid to the visual, there is just as heavy an emphasis paid to the audio. The soundtrack is a combo of score and musical tracks interwoven with an often amplified ambient soundscape. This all heavily influences the mood of the film and complements it in a way that is integral. The Blu-Ray is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD so that you don't miss a note.
Audio Commentary with director Xan Cassavetes – as intimate as the film feels, the commentary with Cassavetes is more so. It feels like a conversation with a friend. Her lack of Hollywood pretension lends an affable quality heightened by the fact that as a smaller independent feature, she worked with many people who were already her friends and became friends with many of those she worked with. The director and several cast and crew members lived together in the mansion in which the majority of the film was shot, and Cassavetes shares some stories of this bonding experience, making it all feel that much more personal.
Interviews with Milo Ventimiglia and Roxane Mesquida – I wasn't sold on Ventimiglia as the lead until seeing him on-screen. Too many Heroes hang-ups perhaps, but there was no need for concern. I almost didn't recognize him, as this role is so far from the fresh-faced young man he played on television. It was good to hear his insights into the role, what led him here, and to get a perspective on how all this came together. Mesquida is entrancing, and her description of her process for becoming and performing as Mimi is fascinating.
AXS TV – A Look at Kiss of the Damned – we hear more from Ventimiglia and Mesquida as well as other cast members. It's nothing revelatory, but we get a few more welcome anecdotes. And I could listen to Mesquida and de La Baume talk for days….
It's also worth noting that Magnet Releasing has issued the Blu-Ray with an alternate cover, incorporating the artwork of the original poster (seen above) by Akiko Stehrenberger. I think the retro-influences present in the film are perfectly captured by Stehrenberger's piece, and it complements the film marvelously.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.