Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 16 May 2013
I could begin this review with some snark about Twilight or maybe even a declaration that vampire stories in general are getting awfully familiar. But I’ve found tales of bloodsucking fiends appealing since I was a Bela Lugosi-loving grade schooler, and I’m not sure that the creatures of the night will ever be done scaring, amusing, and seducing movie audiences. For her part, Kiss of the Damned director Xan Cassavetes gives plenty of winks and nods to movie vamps past—especially the fanged women of atmospheric seventies Euro-horror.
The film cheerfully revels in its grindhouse origins, with a delicious seventies-pastiche opening credits sequence and an endearingly retro original score by composer Steven Hufsteter. Its overt eroticism is also rooted in the hedonistic impulses of previous vampire films: when one character ties another to a bed as a safety precaution, one senses Cassavetes’ tongue drifting near her cheek. Yet the film is never smug; instead its meta impulses actually have a sincere quality. They’re there to keep us clued into the film’s project and wickedly smiling right along with it.
Cassavetes is aware that we already know the deal when Djuna, a beautiful and exotically accented young woman played by Joséphine de La Baumes, tells Milo Ventimiglia’s Paolo that she has a rare skin condition that forces her to stay out of the sunlight. So Cassavetes decides that the vampiric Djuna will confess the terrible truth to her human love interest early on, and that he’ll get over it with relative ease. The film’s plot is fairly thin, hanging mostly on the complications that arise when Mimi, Djuna’s troublemaking vampire “sister,” shows up at the lavish, vamp-friendly estate where Djuna and Paolo are staying. While Djuna feeds on animals or a black market blood substitute, Mimi likes to hunt human beings and generally finds satisfaction in upsetting the status quo. She does her best to come between Djuna and Paolo, and eventually tempts Xenia, a stage actress and pillar of the vampire community, to throw caution to the wind and snack on a human. As Mimi, actress Roxane Mesquida doesn’t have much to do other than wear absurdly short outfits and continually scowl, but Kiss of the Damned is more about intoxicating the senses than it is about digging deep into its characters.
Some of the best bits are the comic setpieces, like when screenwriter Paolo’s agent drops by unexpectedly for dinner. Michael Rapaport is hilarious as the coke-addicted agent Ben, who briefly interrupts Paolo and Djuna’s elegant necking. And, in a sequence that overtly references Opening Night (directed by Cassavetes’ father John and starring her mother Gena Rowlands), actress Riley Keough finds exactly the right naïveté for playing a teenage fan smitten with Xenia and wholly unaware of the fact that her idol is a vampire. There’s also an amusingly clueless couple that realize only too late that driving an hour and a half outside the city with a stranger is both stupid and dangerous.
Kiss of the Damned idly bats at a few plot threads that it doesn’t fully take up, including an implied psychic link between Djuna and Mimi, and it foregoes a more conventional third-act conflict in favor of a drily funny twist that excuses Paolo and Djuna from all the mess and strain of a climactic smackdown. But it’s ultimately tough to mind the film’s inconsistencies and quirks. Sumptuously stylish, often funny, and relatively short, Kiss of the Damned is a welcome enough diversion, tailor-made for the type of arthouse dwellers who still read the odd issue of Fangoria.