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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Bela Lugosi's Dead
by Donald Levit

The vampire -- the most unkillable and prolific of screen and literature horror subsets – currently enjoys a so to speak resurrection. At Venice last year and now crossing the Atlantic, Kiss of the Damned is the latest but not the last in the line.

Coming late to her first fiction feature, director-writer Xan Cassavetes herself comes from royal cinema bloodline and as a child appeared with two older siblings in their father’s films. Here trying to capture the “beauty, formality and atmosphere” of certain classic, often European screen treatments and the “power and loneliness” of the undead, she creates a film of interest mostly to genre fans of a particular bent.

The ninety-seven minutes aim at a sensibility within film and in whatever audience, but do not dare far enough on any concrete path to take hold or linger in the imagination. Much of it is style, blue and Gothgirl purple-black aesthetic in unsharp focus. There is not much splatter gore to satisfy teens, or enough sex flesh for libidos, or dry or parodic humor. Nor is the deco-wealth sufficiently sumptuous and decadent for those thirsty for eye candy, nor stark enough for purists, and no fear or shock even of the things-that-jump-out variety, while the would-be atmospheric score cannot make up its mind between classical strings and chorus or punkish percussion.

That said, the movie’s uncertainty about itself does reflect the self-contradictions and inconsistencies within vampirism filmography and bibliography -- the who, what, when, how and why? Some simply do and some don’t, some will, others won’t, at the mercy of convenience of situation and story.

In the cultured city world of beautiful-people intellectual soirées, likely nearby Gotham, many if not most habitués are LGBT and apparently of the brother-/sisterhood of bloodsuckers. Given blood and this consciously closeted community and its discussions about fear, marginalization, discrimination and domination, there also exists the invitation to take this as metaphor for the modern HIV/AIDS plague.

A “happy” Roman holiday ending, like that in unjustly dismissed The Hunger, would seem, however, to counter reading in anything beyond a promise of truly undying love, and heterosexual at that.

In a Connecticut woods house lent her by celebrated stage actress friend Xenia (Anna Mouglalis) and watched over by loyal-to-the-end Irene Pola (Ching Valdes-Aran), red-haired pale Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) suffers from sun allergy and emerges only in the dark. She watches horror films -- the sparse frames shown from them are not enough to contribute anything and should have been expanded or cut out -- rented from a shop in town, where she is eyed, then pursued and wooed by screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia).


Her canines lengthening with arousal in hunger or sex -- which may be the same -- she avoids consummation. He persists, she gives in, and he is transformed into a novice with heightened perceptions, abilities and desires, and moves into the lakefront mansion.

The scrupulous vampiress’ unscrupulous younger sister Mimi (Roxana Mesquida) unexpectedly moves in, too, on her way to “rehab” at Phoenix. The sisters have an undisguised, longstanding, perhaps eternal, hate-spite relationship. The newcomer’s deliberately destructive behavior, malicious evil for its own sake rather than decorously undercover and for survival, is the exciting-force catalyst that brings things to a head.

There are obliquely seen manhunts among birch trees and a misleading in-house attack on Paolo’s literary agent Ben (Michael Rapaport) before kind fate ties it all up with the aid of a gentle woodland creature and a serene Philippine housekeeper. But Kiss of the Damned does not advance confidently enough in the direction of its nightmares to rise above the fanged pack.

(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “R” for bloody violence, strong sexual content, language and some drugs.)

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