Indie Snapshot: Kiss of the Damned

Are you fed up with sparkly, sex-adverse vampires? So is Xan Cassavetes apparently, because her enjoyably sleazy new vampire drama Kiss of the Damned embraces the inherent carnality of these monsters (albeit in a primarily heternomative way) with an enthusiasm that thankfully has more in common with Interview with the Vampire than Twilight.

Kiss opens with an act of mutual seduction. While browsing titles in a New York video store, screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) locks eyes with drop-dead gorgeous Euro model type Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) and neither of them can look away. Those meaningful looks lead to an impromptu date, followed by the duo adjourning to the Connecticut estate where Djuna currently spends her days due to the "skin condition" that keeps her from venturing out into the sunlight. The conversation quickly gives way to a make-out session, from which Djuna extricates herself just before she passes a point of no return. She kicks Paolo out, but lust drives him back to her door and -- in a moment that nicely reverses the traditional "let me in" scenario from vampire mythology -- the human begs admittance into the lair of a vampire. Djuna acquiesces, with the proviso that he chain her up before they do the deed for unspecified personal safety reasons. But in the heat of passion, Paolo decides to throw caution to the wind and tosses away the chains. One orgasm-fueled bit of neck biting later and Djuna has a new eternal companion... emphasis on the word "eternal."

Despite the suddenness with which he goes from living to undead, Paolo adjusts to being a part of vampiredom fairly easily all things considered. He and Djuna wile away the daylight hours by sleeping or having sex in a darkened wing of the house, while their nights are spent hunting animals in the forest for blood, as drinking human hemoglobin without cause is a no-no amongst their particular circle of friends, posh vamps all who talk about creating a legitimate "vampire civilization" that can exist parallel to mankind. But their higher ideals are threatened by a snake in the grass in the form of Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), Djuna's wild child sister who doesn't abide by the "no human blood" rule. Moving into the mansion, Mimi promptly sets about trying to upend her roomates' husband-and-wife routine though intimidation, murder and, of course, sex.

The story of Kiss of the Damned is as thinly sketched as the characterizations, unfolding like a loose collection of scenes and ideas just barely sewn together to make a feature. Baume and Mesquida approach their twin roles as the Madonna and Whore of the vampire world respectively as if they're modeling in a gothic fashion show, striking runway-ready poses in a variety of fashionable outfits (or no outfits at all). Meanwhile, Ventimiglia is perfectly typecast as the good-looking male himbo with little personality of his own and whose primary purpose is to be traded back and forth between the battling sisters. (Basically, he's playing the agency-free role the female ingénue is typically stuck with, so hooray for gender equality and all that.)

But the pleasure of the film doesn't lie in the plot; it's all about the sultry, horror-tinged mood that Cassavetes (daughter of John and Gena Rowlands) manufactures. Prior to Kiss her only directing credit was the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, which recounted the story of a famous L.A.-based cable movie channel that operated from 1974-1989 and made a point of showing eccentric and offbeat movies. Now, with her first narrative feature, Cassavetes has made a film that almost certainly would have been in Z Channel's rotation, probably on a double bill with Tony Scott's enjoyably daffy 1983 tale of bloodsucking lust, The Hunger. Kiss is by no means a perfect vampire movie, but it's one the genre needs right now as a necessary response to Twilight and its goopy version of vampirism. Even an ultimately minor film like this reminds us why there's still so much life left in tales of the undead.

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