When done well (ie: subtly), modern homages to previous generations of films can be fun and entertaining little morsels, helping to remind modern audiences of by-gone eras of cinema that may have fallen by the wayside in the present. Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) was a nearly perfect throwback to ’70s-era “Satanic panic” films, while Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) was the single best grindhouse/classic Troma film that never saw the light of day. These films are successful because they’re able to accurately recapture the particular feel of these types of films without slavishly recreating and copying their individual high points: they might not be wholly original but they’re not necessarily stuck in FanServiceLand, either.
On the other hand, homages that end up as mere carbon copies of older films are significantly less interesting, if not necessarily any less fun to watch: Scott Sander’s blaxploitation goof, Black Dynamite (2009), ended up feeling decidedly slight and pandering by the end, despite having a surplus of energy and some genuinely fun setpieces. At times, it almost seemed as if Sanders and crew were trying to recall specific movies rather than an overall vibe, which has always struck me as unnecessarily reductive. The best homages should remind you of a specific era but shouldn’t, as far as I’m concerned, remind you of a specific film: that gets into territory that’s dangerously close to “re-imaginings” and remakes.
Writer-director Xan Cassavetes, daughter of renowned independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, takes a bit of both approaches with her feature-film debut, Kiss of the Damned (2012). For most of its running time, the film does an admirable job of recalling the gauzy era of ’60s-’70s-era Euro-vampire flicks, the kind of films made famous by exploitation auteurs like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. There’s the same attractive, if hazy, cinematography…the emphasis on doomed romance and orgasmic, sweaty, passionate lovemaking…the pulsating electronic score…the emphasis on mood and atmosphere over narrative linearity…the leisurely, almost lazy, pacing. At times, however, Kiss of the Damned feels distinctly light-weight and rather unnecessary: it often seems as if Cassavetes is merely conducting a style experiment, similar to the one that Gus van Sant did with his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998). It also doesn’t help that Kiss of the Damned bears more than a passing similarity to Jim Jarmusch’s extraordinary new vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), right down to the reappearance of a “bad” sister. Had Jarmusch’s film not been so impressive, it’s quite possible that Cassavetes’ film would have hit me a little harder.
The film begins with our two lovers, Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) and Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia, from TV’s Heroes), as the meet for the first time at a video store. Djuna is a vampire, Paolo is broodingly handsome…it’s obviously love at first sight. Paolo rushes after Djuna when she leaves and ends up coming back with her to her massive mansion in the countryside. Things are looking pretty good for ol’ Paolo until the fun stops: just as Djuna seems to really be getting into it, she fearfully tosses a very confused Paolo out on his keister. Smitten, Paolo heads back to Djuna’s place the next night but she won’t even let him in: instead, the pair end up passionately making out through the latched door (they both must be equipped with lips like anteaters), sighing and blushing as if their very hearts will burst from the intensity of it all.
By the third night, Paolo gets Djuna to let him in and she fills him in on the story: she’s actually a vampire and has a tendency to go “full-Drac” when she’s in the mood (shades of the Schrader version of Cat People (1982)): she can’t see Paolo anymore because she loves him too much (already?) and doesn’t want to devour him in the throes of passion. Sensing a bit of a brush-off, Paolo calls foul but Djuna is determined to prove it to him. To that end, she has Paolo chain her to the bed (for his safety) and the two go at it like determined rabbits. Turns out that Djuna isn’t pulling Paolo’s chain, however: as she gets more and more frisky, her fangs grow and her eyes turn a brilliant turquoise. Seeing this, Paolo does the only thing sensible and unchains Djuna, more than willing to give himself to her, completely. Dog will hunt and vamps will bite, of course, so in no time, Djuna is riding Paolo to ecstasy as she bloodily rips open his jugular vein.
From this point, the film becomes a tad familiar: Djuna needs to school Paolo in the ways of his new lifestyle and the two continue to develop and strengthen their relationship. Djuna even takes Paolo to meet her friends, always a bit of a stumbling block in any fledgling romance, especially when your friends are all vampires and your new sweetheart is a blood-sucking newbie. All looks good for our lovers but things are never as simple as they seem and trouble rears its pixieish little head in the form of Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida). Mimi, for lack of a better word, is a real shithead: she’s selfish, immature, violent, sneaky, spiteful and vindictive: in other words, she’s the perfect foil for a pair of wannabe star-crossed lovers like Djuna and Paolo. While our gentle vamps feast on woodland deer for their blood source, Mimi pretty much eats anything that moves, man, woman or child (one of the film’s most impressive setpieces involves Mimi taking home a couple for a threesome and then hunting them in the woods like little animals).
Djuna tries to keep her little sister in check, even going so far as to appeal to her “landlord,” Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), who seems to be some sort of leader for the local vampire community. No one really seems to listen, however, except for Paolo, and Djuna becomes more and more desperate as Mimi’s blood-lust gets stronger and stronger. As Djuna and Paolo fight for their love, Mimi does everything she can to tear apart the couple, setting everyone involved on a crash-course with an unsuspecting human population who are much closer to their eventual extinction than they could possibly imagine.
As mentioned above, Kiss of the Damned is absolutely a case of style over substance, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, the films that Cassavetes references, such as Rollin’s The Shiver of the Vampire (1971) and Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), were also classic examples of style over substance. For most of its running time, Kiss of the Damned is quite lovely to look at, although the image can, on occasion, get a bit too blown out. There are some really nice shots on display here, as well, such as the meticulously framed images looking up from the bottom of Djuna’s baroque staircase. The score is particularly good, easily holding its own with historical scores from that era. The acting, like the filmcraft, is also pretty consistent: while some of the performances can lean towards over-the-top or slightly hammy, this is no different from performances in the original films. Euro-horror films of the ’60s and ’70s were not normally known for their realistic, award-winning acting: if anything, the best of these film featured performances that did their best not to trip up the film, which is sometimes the most that you can hope for.
My biggest issue with the film, despite a few specific criticisms (character motivations often seemed spurious, even for this type of film and the problem of Mimi is resolved in a way that is pretty much the definition of deus ex machina, although it does allow for a pretty great resolution to the film) is that there’s not enough individual personality here. Unlike something like Hobo With a Shotgun or The House of the Devil, I was never able to fully suspend my disbelief with the film: it always felt, at least in the back of my head, as if the filmmakers were simply checking specific beats off a sheet. Due to this, it was often difficult for me to engage the film in anything more than an academic way: it was easy to critique the film’s craft (which is pretty damn good, might I say) but more difficult to pull anything thought-provoking out of the film, itself.
Part of the issue seems to be that Paolo and Djuna’s various relationship travails never really seem to faze either of them that much: he ends up cheating on her (in a very confused bit) but it’s no big deal…she kills his friend but he shrugs it off. Too often, the pair don’t feel like a real couple but more like a fairytale, sitcom couple: we know that they’ll have mild issues for about 22 minutes but everything will be wrapped up with a bow in time for next week’s episode. While Djuna and Paolo do have a few more travails than that, mind you, the film still ends up feeling rather anti-climatic, especially with the script’s tendency to write itself into corners and then just whisk the affected parties away to safety.
Ultimately, Kiss of the Damned is a good, if less than revelatory, film, although it does make a pretty swell double-feature with Only Lovers Alive. I really admired a lot of what Cassavetes was doing here and her heart is definitely in the right place: with a more original story and more faith in her own vision, it’s not hard for me to see the film as nothing more than a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. Xan is, quite obviously, a very talented filmmaker and I can’t wait to really see her cut loose: I’m willing to wager that she’s got a film in her at least as good as Gloria (1980), if not The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Fans of steamy vampire films should definitely find much to enjoy here and even Michael Rapaport fans get a little love, although his performance is pretty much a glorified cameo. When Kiss of the Damned works, it works quite well, weaving an atmospheric, casually beautiful spiderweb that can’t help but ensnare its audience. When the film is just there, however, it feels so slight that one harsh breath might send the whole thing fluttering into the night sky like ashes. Cassavetes’ debut might remind audiences of the glory days of Euro-horror but I’m pretty sure it won’t make them forget any of those classics anytime soon.