‘Kiss of the Damned’ breathes new life into vampire trope

Josephine de la Baume plays a vampire in Xan Cassavetes' "Kiss of the Damned" Credit: Magnet Releasing
Josephine de la Baume plays a vampire in Xan Cassavetes’ “Kiss of the Damned.”
Credit: Magnet Releasing

‘Kiss of the Damned’
Director: Xan Cassavetes
Stars: Josephine de la Baume, Milo Ventimiglia
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

In addition to being one of the daughters of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, among siblings who are also filmmakers, Xan Cassavetes counts among her influences Z Channel, the beloved Los Angeles pay station that in the ‘70s raised a generation on the unsung rarities from the farthest reaches of cinephilia. She paid her respects with the 2004 documentary “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.” And she does it again in her first fiction feature, “Kiss of the Damned.” From the title down, including a lovably retro poster, her addition to the towering, near-collapsing vampire pile pays homage to the trashy, atmospheric Euro-horrors of Roger Vadim and Jean Rollin, but filtered through an eccentric personality that has so far only made itself somewhat public.

Josephine de la Baume plays Djuna, an hotcha immortal first making like Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion”: a beautiful woman with a fear of what her sexuality could do. She nonetheless melts for Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a brooding screenwriter who ignores her vague warnings and winds up in a chain-heavy sex scene right out of Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” remake. She can’t help herself, and neither can he, and soon he allows her to welcome him into the fold, becoming the David Bowie to her Deneuve in another movie to which it’s indebted, “The Hunger.” 

Cassavetes may borrow a lot from European cinema, including having European actors speak in awkward, heavily accented English, even to each other (how many Americans have seen Vadim’s “Blood and Roses” in the original French? Probably not many.) But her film is as written as it’s directed. The screenplay keeps coming up with ideas of how to find fresh angles on vampires, a task that may sound daunting considering how seldom most people come up with genuinely novel twists. Being immortal is a bit boring, and here it involves socializing with other vampires, in regal scenes that recall Luchino Visconti: the wealthy as undead.

Soon comes Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, of Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl”), apparently the only one doing old school random killings. She tears a hellzapoppin’ hole in her sister’s life and in the film, upending their dull routines with unnecessary gougings and doomed threesomes. There’s a fun and genuinely original way this is resolved, one for the books. “Kiss of the Damned” sometimes tries too hard to be original, and could calm down a bit, but there’s no use playing down moments of true freshness.


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