Kiss of the Damned is a 2013 American horror film directed by Xan Cassavetes. The movie stars Josephine de la Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, Roxane Mesquida, Anna Mouglalis, Michael Rapaport and Riley Keough.
Beautiful vampire Djuna (de La Baume) tries to resist the advances of the handsome, human screenwriter Paolo (Ventimiglia) but eventually gives in to their passion.
When her troublemaker sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), unexpectedly comes to visit, Djuna’s love story is threatened, and the whole vampire community becomes endangered…
Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned is a difficult film. There’s a lot to admire in the movie and a lot to explore – but it’s also frequently annoying, self-conscious and frustrating. It both embraces and subverts the 21st-century view of the vampire as a romanticised figure, while lifting, sometimes wholesale, from earlier movies (to her credit, Cassavetes acknowledges the influence of Sixties and Seventies Euro-horror on the film).
Claims that the movie is some sort of original work can be forgiven if expressed by mainstream critics, who are unlikely to have even watched Daughters of Darkness, let alone the Jean Rollin, Jess Franco and Jose Larraz films that this movie lifts from; genre writers, however, should know better. We can debate forever at what stage homage becomes plagiarism –- and for the record, I think Cassavetes manages to stay on the right side in this film -– but let’s not pretend that this movie is offering anything startlingly new.
Of course, if you are going to imitate any sort of vampire film, then those European productions are certainly the ones to choose. In a time when the vampire cinema has been reduced to juvenile romances and domesticated soap operas, any film that captures the doomed romanticism and macabre eroticism of the early Seventies is welcome. Kiss of the Damned looks, unquestionably, gorgeous – every shot is beautifully composed, every image carefully crafted.
Yet, this is the most staggeringly hipsterish film you can imagine – hell, the central characters first meet in a video store that still rents VHS tapes! He’s a bearded screenwriter, she translates obscure texts, they sit watching old black and white European movies – it’s amazing that no one plays a vinyl record or visits a vintage clothing store at some point.
After a ‘love at first sight’ meeting, Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) and Djuna (Josephine de la Baume) engage on an initially awkward relationship. She’s a vampire and so tries to keep him at arm’s length, but Paolo won’t take no for an answer (in the real world, a guy who turns up uninvited at a woman’s house after she has told him she is not interested is hardly a great romantic and more akin to a creepy stalker). Eventually, she tells him what she is, which he is seemingly reluctant to believe – though we know he has already guessed the truth – until a pseudo kinky scene reveals the truth.
The idea of vampirism being unleashed through sexual desire is not exactly new, but this centrepiece scene at least handles it with a sense of eroticism. It’s safe eroticism, daring only by mainstream Hollywood standards, but effective nonetheless. Paolo is a willing sacrifice as he loosens the chains and is transformed, to be at Djuna’s side forever as a sophisticated vampire couple, only drinking animal or synthetic blood and living in a remote mansion in the middle of nowhere.
And so the film sets up the not exactly original idea of the ‘civilised’ or ‘moral’ vampire, forever suppressing their urges to kill. It’s a story we’ve seen all too often and we know where this will go, to a degree – there will be a battle of wills and the veneer of civilisation will be stripped away. The only question is how, and by who?
The catalyst in all this is Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who is a less reconstructed vampire, more feral in all ways. She’s more overtly sexual and hedonistic, and certainly unconcerned about killing humans. When she turns up to stay at the mansion for a week, all manner of tensions are caused. The film then becomes a battle of wills between Djuna, Mimi, Paolo and the rest of the vampire community, which if this film is to be believed, consist mostly of pretentious Eurotrash social climbers, hiding their lack of humanity and baser instincts behind a civilised front.
The film’s representation of the vampire community is interesting. You hope Cassavetes is mocking the pretensions of the elitist chattering classes – a party scene is painfully accurate in its portrayals of the self-importance and smugness of such ultimately vacant, narcissistic people living in denial (and engaging in some clumsy exposition). I’m not entirely sure she is, though.
In the end, though, this is a film about a clash of cultures, the old world versus the new. It didn’t all fall into place until late on, when Mimi selects a seventeen-year-old virgin to use as a sacrifice – a pawn in her play for power and her attempts to corrupt the ‘civilised’ vampires by offering something irresistible.
Then it hit me. The vampires – all old, no matter what their outward appearance, are all European, and they are corrupting youthful America with their decadent ways. America’s innocence and purity are being corrupted by the decadent Europeans in this film – even Paolo, who goes willingly, is transformed from being the sort of guy who hangs in bars and visits supermarkets – you know, normal stuff – into one of them. An overly primped, style-conscious addict (because yes, the film also plays with the well-worn vampire = drug addict idea). It’s a curiously reactionary theme to have running through the movie, but it’s unquestionably there.
Kiss of the Damned is continually frustrating -– every time you start to enjoy it, something happened to irritate; every time you decide it is self-indulgent rubbish, a moment of brilliance makes you think again. It’s a film that is a treat for the eyes and ears (the soundtrack is exceptional, mixing electronica, snippets of Romanian folk music, 1970s Euro-horror soundtrack pastiches, hints of Goblin and dark industrial noise) and one that also engages the brain, even if it often manages to annoy with its mix of ironic pretension and genuine pomposity.
There is, truth be told, nothing new here –- perhaps there is really nothing really new left to explore within the vampire mythology anyway. But the film never irritates in the way that some hipster horror does. It never loses sight of the story or forgets what it ultimately is – a horror movie.
It’s unquestionably a case of style over substance, but that’s not to say that there is no substance here, just that the style is extraordinary. You will probably be better off with the real thing – like the synthetic blood of the film, this is an artificial recreation of something more satisfying – but fans of those stylishly, weirdly erotic Euro vampire films of the past might find this to be an adequate modern-day variation on the theme.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
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