Kiss of the Damned

Above all else, Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned is a retro-style feast for the senses. It's a pitch-perfect homage to the Italian horror films of the '60s and '70s; a movie that lands squarely at the halfway point between Mario Bava and Dario Argento. At times, the imitation seems faithful to the point of exasperation, as dazzling visual ideas and delicious musical choices are accompanied by clumsily obvious writing and curiously stilted performances. Still, even the film's flaws play a significant role in giving the movie its own fascinating identity. If you're willing to forgive some narrative weaknesses for the sake of a technically rich cinematic experience (the style/substance ratio here is about 90/10), you're in for a good time.

Djuna (Josephine de la Baume, Listen Up Philip) is a European vampire who resides at a lavish lake house in Connecticut. She begins dating Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia, Heroes), a struggling screenwriter (is there any other kind?) whose artistic impulses tend to conflict with his desire for success. Eventually, Djuna decides to reveal her secret to Paolo, who then asks to Djuna to "turn" him. "I'd do anything to be with you," he declares. "Me too," she sighs, sinking her fangs into his neck.

This isn't a practice Djuna engages in on a regular basis. She's been around for hundreds of years, but she takes her role as a vampire very seriously. The world is an incredibly hostile place for vampires, even if most people don't even know they exist. Djuna and many of her peers are very selective about who they permit to join their ranks, knowing that a person who is turned will be forced to lead a fairly difficult existence for the rest of eternity. She's also a socially conscious vampire; refusing to prey on humans for the sake of a quick fix (her encounter with Paolo aside, she mostly drinks animal blood).

Alas, Djuna's conscientious lifestyle isn't shared by her sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, Rubber), a sexually voracious troublemaker with little interest in the stuffy rules and regulations her fellow vampires seem to hold so dear. Mimi doesn't think twice about luring some unsuspecting young bystander into a dark alley; giving him the thrill of his life before stripping his life away with violent efficiency. As such, when Mimi decides to stay with Djuna and Paolo for a week, a great deal of tension arises. No matter how much Djuna disagrees with it, Mimi's unapologetic bloodlust is contagious: when there's human blood around the house, Djuna struggles to prevent herself from wanting a taste.

Almost every vampire movie is operating on a metaphorical level to at least some degree, and this one largely takes the familiar approach of drawing a line between vampirism and addiction. The philosophical core of the film is found in an extended dinner party sequence, in which a handful of vampires discuss morality, empathy and perspective. "We're the monsters," one vampire says. "Human or vampire, we're all capable of being monsters," another snaps. It isn't exactly subtle, but it effectively underlines the fact that everyone is forced to confront temptation at some point in their lives. There's a bit more subtlety in the fact that most of the vampires in the film are European, while most of the humans are American. It's a tale of mutual distrust; European snobbery clashing with American xenophobia.

Cassavetes is the daughter of the legendary John Cassavetes, but her emphasis on slick, surface-level polish couldn't be further removed from her father's naturalistic aesthetic. Even so, she's quite obviously a promising and distinctive filmmaker - there's more personality in this single feature than in all of her brother Nick's movies combined. This is a low-budget feature, but it consistently looks terrific, offering striking costume design, swoon-inducing cinematography and love scenes that are choreographed with the sort of striking precision that most modern movies seem to reserve for big action sequences.

The performances aren't great (in fact, most of them are remarkably stiff), but Cassavetes somehow finds a way to prevent this from feeling like a serious problem. Many of the actors appear to be delivering their lines phonetically, which prevents them from giving nuanced line readings but which does add a certain otherworldly vibe to the proceedings. It's also amusing to see the way Cassavettes drops a friendly, brash Michael Rapaport (True Romance) into the proceedings for a mid-film cameo, letting his colorful, familiar personality clash sharply with the film's alien tone. The best performance comes from Mesquida, whose lusty enthusiasm consistently brings a dangerous allure to the table. Her carnal delight is infectious, which is precisely the point.

Kiss of the Damned

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2013