Love at Stake
Kiss of the Damned was made with the confidence of someone weary of the same old vampire movies. It's not a smug superiority from a person who sees themselves as above cliches, just a desire to see the genre played straight and maybe with a little class. But the "vampires are people, too" approach has become awfully formulaic itself in the past few years, and whether it intended to or not, Kiss of the Damned has absolutely nothing to contribute. The film wants to be taken seriously -- and, more so than not, it succeeds -- but when its big-boy pants call for an interesting plot to fill them, it's regrettably tapped out.
Forever young and forever beautiful, Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) is the envy of a youth-obsessed generation. But being a member of the walking dead who's somewhat ashamed of her chronic bloodlust, Djuna leads a solitary existence, free of any emotional attachments she may or may not sever at the jugular. Then comes the night she returns some videos and ends up in a rendezvous with the tall, dark, and handsome Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). Surprisingly unphased by her vampiric background, Paolo allows himself to be bitten and gladly accepts his new undead status, with Djuna as his mentor and lover. But no sooner does he start getting the hang of hunting than Djuna's sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) bursts in, intent on stirring the pot and provoking the repressed urges of her 'globin-gulping kindred.
Kiss of the Damned isn't a movie as much as a filmed rough draft. There is structure, and it hits all the beats it should, but everything's laid out on the most skeletal of outlines. It's an especially glaring problem with the characters, who are constantly featured doing things and engaging in certain behavior with barely any motivation to do so. Paolo falls in intense love with Djuna out of nowhere, Djuna has sheltered herself for some undefined reason, and Mimi screws around with everyone just because. Nothing is fleshed out, and it stinks, because you know what writer/director Xan Cassavetes (who made the superb Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession) is getting at. Given one scene in which upper-class vamps kvetch about their place in society, you'd expect a great deal of character conflict over whether vampires should live in such secrecy or show us mortals who's boss once and for all. But this exploration extends little beyond the odd butting of heads between Mimi and Djuna, during which the latter's spacious estate earns more exposure than any heated emotions.
Even Kiss of the Damned's style seems rather diluted from what Cassavetes likely had in mind. The credits font alone emulates that of 1970s vampire pictures like Daughters of Darkness and Twins of Evil, with an air of eroticism to match. Cassavetes certainly makes with the blood and bare bodies, but the passionless and unfocused presentation isn't liable to light anyone's fire. The best I can say is that Kiss of the Damned never reaches depths of hilarity, as the cast is talented enough to keep the film's efforts remaining tenderhearted on task. De La Baume projects sadness and invokes sympathy with ease; Ventimiglia is fine as Djuna's lovestruck paramour; and Mesquida relishes in her playfully sinister turn as an out-of-control bloodsucker who's all too happy to get a rise out of those around her. The material doesn't always service the actors, but try they do, and the glimpses we see of the stirring, sensual thriller that could've been are better than nothing.
The fact that Kiss of the Damned doesn't strain itself being clever and trying to stand out in a market flooded with vampire-centric media will be enough for some folks. I certainly enjoyed how it stuck to basics, but its hesistance in diving into what it had to work with is what sinks the proceedings. Playing it old-school can work out great sometimes, but Kiss of the Damned just can't seem to shake the dust from its coffin lid.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “R” for bloody violence, strong sexual content, language and some drugs.)