Kiss of the Damned

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/20/13 23:31:38

"Bare bodies and bad blood."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Sexy vampires are a problematic sort of monster; it's very easy for someone telling a story of these creatures to forget that they are monsters at all, getting lost in the beauty and grandeur of these eternally young men and women from another, perhaps more genteel time. Or they go the route of the movies that clearly inspired Xan Cassavetes's "Kiss of the Damned", leaning far more heavily on the "sexy" than the "vampire". What makes this one perhaps more worth a watch than its skin-flick ancestors is that Cassavetes has her eye on what sort of monsters walk among the living as well as the dead.

Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) may be a vampire, but she strives not to be a monster. Right now, she's living in the Connecticut estate of Xenia (Anna Mouglalis) - a fellow vampire - where the maid (Ching Valdes-Aran) has a rare blood condition that makes her unappetizing, and there is enough wildlife to slake her thirst. Still, one can't stay cooped up all the time, and while making a trip to the video store, she meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter renting a nearby house to work. They connect, she pulls away, he insists. Soon, Djuna's happier than she's been in decades - at least until her sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up, needing a place to stay for a week before heading to vampire rehab in Arizona.

This may be a movie that takes the perspective of the long-lived undead who look at human beings as potentially interesting members of the lower classes, but it's still able to resonate with a living audience because every family or social circle has a Mimi. She's the vampire's vampire, disappearing for long periods and then showing up because she's tapped out, making noises about changing but blazing a path of destruction through the lives of the people who can't or won't turn her away - sometimes because she can't help herself, sometimes with malice aforethought. Cassevetes draws a fairly direct line between Mimi's behavior and alcoholism and other addictions at certain points, though it's less about the simple fact of her desiring something illicit than the patterns of behavior.

So, if that's what Mimi's vampirism is about, what to make of Djuna and Paolo? Are they in control of their appetites and impulses in a way that Mimi is not, or are they just more outwardly functional? Is this true love or mutual enabling? All good questions, and ones Cassevetes gives the audience plenty of room to ponder. Even without the addiction allegories, she allows the vampire material to add spice to a somewhat familiar romantic framework: The path of attraction, passion, the outside world intruding on the pair's perfect chemistry, making mistakes, and having to figure out if this can be something permanent (for an unusual definition of "permanent") is ever-present, but given new twists and occasionally disguised as something else.

All of this material has a chance of working in large part due to a cast that is generally able to get past the remoteness implicit in both the characters' alienness and social class. Many of the vampires Paolo meets come across like moneyed cocktail-party intellectuals only more so, with Anna Mougalis perhaps best exemplifying this sort of separation while still becoming surprisingly easy to relate to toward the end. Milo Ventimiglia gives a kind of nifty little performance here - he's a guy who can seem somewhat flat or inexpressive, but where little pieces of what he's been doing click into place with a line of dialogue or two. Those lines often come from Michael Rappaport as Paolo's agent; he and Riley Keough (as a star-struck teenager) do something neat in creating characters who are interestingly human while also making humanity seem kind of small in comparison to the vampires. Roxane Mesquida hits the beats of the troublemaking sister quite well, and Josephine de La Baume is kind of sneaky-fantastic as Djuna. There's loneliness to her, but also a different kind of guardedness, but above all is the tricky mix of physical youth and actual age, as if the decades or centuries of experience and wisdom she's accumulated are fighting an uphill battle against a body locked in its early twenties with all the hormonally-fed emotions augmented by a vampire's urges.

She gets some help in that department from the hair, makeup, and costume departments, of course; the impression Djuna leaves in each scene is specifically calculated, from the anachronistic-seeming costumes she wears early on to her high-end elegance when rejoining vampire society. Of course, it's not like the movie is all high-class material; far from it. Cassevetes knows what the audience is coming to see, and she fits plenty of sex and blood into the movie, and though there's a tony sort of erotic art-horror vibe to it, it is, certainly, the sort of thing that will keep a viewer's attention during a midnight screening.

Is it primal enough to get someone's motor running if they're not also kind of fascinated by what's going on with the characters? Tough to say. There's certainly plenty of gorier and more explicit movies out there, but there's something to be said for using a throwback to this sort of boutique blood & breasts movie to actually tell a story, rather than just capture the atmosphere.

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