Vampires have always kind of been a sexually brooding group. Despite the cultural backlash against the sparkle-vampires, the truth is that vampires have historically been closer to the melancholic, even pouty, camp than that true ravenous monster camp. Dracula himself was just a dude trying to find love in all the wrong places. With that in mind, the thing that the sparkly vampires have missed completely is the sense of darkness and danger. Yes, they are sensual beings but they also are likely to rip open a jugular or two. The best example of these traditional sexy but dangerous vampires was found in a string of films in the 60’s and 70’s, a large portion of which came out of Italy. So can we, as a culture, get back to that heyday of seductively dangerous creatures of the night or are we stuck with these brooding millennial vampires? If Kiss of the Damned, the latest film by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of John Cassavetes, is any indication we can return to our cinematic vampiric roots through a well executed emulation of those classic Italian films.
Written and directed by Cassavetes, Kiss of the Damned drips with the influence of those classic films mentioned above. Think of some amalgamation of Jesus Franco and Dario Argento, with a little Pedro Almodovar melodrama thrown in, and you have the style of Kiss of the Damned pretty well summed up. The colors, the editing, the music, the dialogue, all feel like a recreation of that traditional style of vampire narratives. This sort of cinematic approach could easily slip into some dry, lifeless technical experiment, a reenactment instead of a standalone film. The result, however, is very far from lifeless and dry. Kiss of the Damned is a compelling melodrama in which the stylistic homages add to the texture of the film instead of robbing it of any creativity.
As any good vampire film the underlying theme here is sex. The lust for blood and the manner in which that lust undercuts any sense of ethics and morality, plays pretty strongly as an allegory for our own human sexuality. In the film, our main protagonist Djuna(Josephine de La Baume) is struggling against her own desires and the nagging sense that murder is wrong. This means she’s relegated to hunting and feeding on forest animals and locking herself away from humanity; and temptation. Her challenge comes when Paolo(Milo Ventimiglia) shows up and offers a hunky breed of romance. Add to this, the arrival of her impulsive and worldly sister Mimi(Roxane Mesquida), who has no problem embracing her sexuality and feeding needs, and you get the crux of the film’s conflict.
That conflict is the repression of desire in the face of morality. Djuna has a set of morals that fly in the face of what her naturalistic needs demand. Mimi embraces her needs and revels in tempting her peers to do the same. The arc of each character, then, plays out as a two-pronged allegory. An allegory of that strange world of men and women, and the sexuality that often builds a wall between them. The question that Kiss of the Damned explores is basically this, is that wall a good thing or a bad thing? Which path is the right one, civilized morality or animalistic impulses?
The manner in which Kiss of the Damned plays out doesn’t really offer a clean answer to this thematic question. It does, though, raise some messy, “gray-area” situations that seems to offer that this issue is not really an either/or situation. It also seems to have a bit of a pessimistic view on the eventual outcome of this battle within all of us. This thematic portion of the movie isn’t what props it up however, it is the relatable drama that plays out on screen. That is where Kiss of the Damned really succeeds. Yes it is an interesting thematic film, and yes it is a beautiful technical homage to the vampire films of the past, but Kiss of the Damned is also just a fun and compelling bit of melodrama.
Kiss of the Damned is now available on Netflix streaming.