Xan Cassavetes, the daughter of John Cassavetes and the director of the wonderful film world documentary “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” wrote and directed “Kiss of the Damned” with a wink and a nod so overt that, from the opening credit sequence, which closely mimics the similarly-titled Hammer horror movie “Lust for the Vampire,” it runs dangerously close to becoming a ninety-minute game of Spot The Reference. Thankfully, the knowingness never becomes too cloying, and what Cassavetes lacks in technical proficiency, she more than makes up for in a kind of heartfelt conviction sorely lacking in the genre.
Story-wise, everything in “Kiss of the Damned” you’ve seen before (in the production notes, Cassavetes states that she was “not a fanatical vampire person”). But its simplicity is never a hindrance, often acting a charming framework for her characters to play (and spill blood) in; for once familiarity works in its favor. Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia from short-lived television phenomena “Heroes“) is a screenwriter working on a new project somewhere in the country, outside of New York (looks a little leafy for Westchester or Fairfield Counties, but it shares a similar aristocratic affluence). It’s here that he falls in love with a mysterious woman with a vague Eastern European allure named Djuna (Josephine de La Baume). She, of course, has a very toothy secret, but their attraction is undeniable, and soon he finds himself under her (very literal) spell; it’s a love that could prove fatal.
Initially Djuna rebuffs Paolo’s advances, but their connection proves too overwhelming and soon they fall deeply in love. She tells him that she’s a vampire, but that she doesn’t kill humans anymore. He makes a simple request: that she turn him into a vampire too. She complies. This is basically the entire dramatic tug-of-war of the five “Twilight” moves condensed into a much more emotionally satisfying, completely adult section of the movie. “Kiss of the Damned” is in no particular hurry to scare you, but these early scenes of supernatural courtship have their own kind of spell – they’re lush and velvety and are filled with moody, fog-laced scenes of nighttime danger.
Eventually conflict presents itself in the form of Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), Djuna’s trouble-making sister. Mimi is the opposite of Djuna – she doesn’t want to live in polite society and has no problem killing lots and lots of people. Not only is she a threat to the tranquil life that Djuna and Paolo have established, but in a larger sense she’s a threat to the greater vampire community, since her reckless ways threaten to expose them to scrutiny from the outside world and unwanted exposure. Most of the tension and horror comes from Mimi’s appearance – she brings out the more demonic side of Djuna, tempts Paolo sexually, and generally wreaks havoc. The suspense set pieces don’t entirely pop but, like the rest of the movie, has a certain amount of charm nonetheless. You can tell that Cassavetes isn’t as interested in the horror as she is in the equally terrifying dynamics of human relationships, and more time is spent on the emotional landscape of jealousy and insecurity than on flying gore and viscera (although there is a little bit of that too).
One of the best scenes in “Kiss of the Damned” happens when Djuna and Paola go and visit her upscale vampire friends in Manhattan. A lot of old moneyed vampires get into a philosophical debate about vampirism and its place in modern society and it’s absolutely hilarious – high end creatures of the night discussing nighttime monsters like it’s a highly engaging Op Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times. “Kiss of the Damned” should have included more moments like this, and an extended sequence when Paolo’s agent (Michael Rapaport) comes to their house for a visit (damningly, we never get any sensation of what he’s actually writing, but we can only assume that it’s a vampire movie). That scene is also alive with a wonderfully weird comic energy, one that the movie could have sorely used more of.
Instead, Cassavetes has a laser-like focus on creating the off-kilter vibe of old-school horror movies, particularly ones that drifted in from Europe. Almost every actor sounds like they have been dubbed, the soundtrack has a weird electronic component reminiscent of ’80s Italian horror movies (things like “Demons” or the stuff Dario Argento was doing with Goblin), it’s less sexy than it is lustily sensual (recent psychosexual thrillers from Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh have more skin) and the blood shots (an unnatural crimson red) have a singularly orgasmic thrust – all spurting fluids and sticky aftermath. If “Kiss of the Damned” has one thing, it’s an identifiable groove, one that is sustained and very, very infectious. It’s this reason that some will find the movie a letdown (particularly the jacked-up SXSW midnight crowd, which is where the film plays this week), since these vampires are more concerned with the existential dread and immortality than the visceral thrill of ripping someone’s throat out. But for those adventurous enough to go along with it, the movie weaves an intoxicating spell, one that is unlike anything at the festival, and rarely seen outside of shopworn VHS tapes of old European horror movies. It’s not perfect (it’s baggy and occasionally the lack of technical proficiency does grate), but is perfectly odd. [B]