I’m in a precarious position with writing up my viewing of Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss Of The Damned at the midnighter screening last night for South by Southwest. On the one hand, I really liked it as a movie – it is just so beautifully crafted with washes of lush color, sweeping cinematography, pulsing sound with the music and with effects and three strong leads that carry the simple, quiet story.
On the other hand, the scary/horror aspect is not really the film’s primary focus so a lot of the film doesn’t dive headlong into genre’ territory. That type of approach with this particular story would more than likely bring about many expected cliches’ of the vampire subgenre, good or bad, and make it less of a film. So I think it ends up being a unique chance to see something off the beaten path from most horror films of its type and enjoy a clearly masterful craftsman work her spell.
The story itself is a relatively simple one: screenwriter Paulo (Milos Ventimiglia) moves to a secluded home in a very northeastern, wooded, fancy looking area to focus on writing his next big thing. He happens upon a mysterious woman (Djuna, played by the striking Josephine de La Baume) one night at a video store and almost immediately becomes transfixed with her. After an initial flirtation and a drink and trip back to her home, her clear and immediate fixation with him intermixes with something darker and she must stop herself before going too far. Paulo is equally drawn to her and over subsequent evenings the two of them careen helplessly into an immediate and infatuated love that exposes her ‘condition’ and draws him in for good.
There is a simple charm to this love: it seems childish on some ways, but, both people seem like they are earnest in their desire for calm, quiet love affair and Djuna’s vampirism seems only a bump in the road. For this reason, I bought into it and felt good about this near instant connection between the two of them. Djuna introduces him to the ins and outs of being a vampire and slowly eases him into how vampires like her operate (no people, only animal and synthetic blood). This all seems almost pedestrian until Djuna’s wayward sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) arrives and throws things into upheaval in a series of jarring and nerve wracking events leading to a tense final act.
The dynamic between each actor is wonderful – Djuna and Paulo learning each other and easing into a quiet, modest life they both seem to desire. Mimi weaving her spell over Paulo which plays out in uncomfortable and sad ways. Djuna and Mimi fighting a power struggle between the civilized, calm approach to life that Djuna and her friends strive for and the animalistic, violent and cruel existence that defines Mimi. It all works beautifully. In addition, we also have the matriarchal Xenia (Anna Mouglalis) who seems to have an old school elegance and calm control over her life and influence over others. Also Paulo’s agent (Michael Rapaport) who brings a welcome bit of humanity and levity to the story.
There are some particularly remarkable scenes, early on involving Djuna and Paolo and later tracking the violent predatory behavior of Mimi, that just drip with the style and look of period horror of old. This doesn’t mean it is just all copied over from previous work at all; Cassavetes seems confident in her ability to mix homage with organic sceencrafting to create a steady balance. On the whole, it is not a scary film – the only jump I got was from a sound spike pretty early on and I cannot blame that on the movie as I think it was more the product of confoundedly lousy (at times) sound in the theatre. So while there is blood and violence, it is more a small puzzle piece in the larger vision of the film and not its only reason for being.
If you’re willing to go in with the idea that this isn’t just every other vampire movie and can instead dive headlong into lush, rich visuals and wonderful camera work then definitely seek out Kiss Of The Damned when it’s available.