Vampires. Immortal, seductive, destructive, the lonely hunters who walk the night. They have been reinvented time and again in the stories of each generation, from Polidori’s The Vampyre through Stoker’s Dracula, a character portrayed by Schreck (as the thinly disguised Count Orlok), Lugosi, Lee, Jourdan, Langella and Oldman through the eighties designer flash of The Lost Boys and Vamp, from the tortured aristocrats of Anne Rice to the family friendly pre-watershed sparkle of Stephanie Meyer.
In her feature directorial debut, Xan Cassavetes does not seek to reinvent the bloody wheel, either in terms of the depiction of vampires, their behaviour, the rules they must obey, or the way they are portrayed existing in the shadows of society.
What she has done is restored them to a place of dignity, intelligent, calculating, passionate, demanding, rewarding, duplicitous, bound to a species which is beneath them yet which they are dependent upon and who would destroy them were they to learn of the existence of their nocturnal cousins.
These are sophisticated creatures out of time, successful alpha predators at the apex of the food chain, but they have accomplished this by going unnoticed; the temptation of humans is great, so they must minimise contact in order maintain their secrecy. When blood is presented, they are overwhelmed by their need for it, losing their detachment, reduced to ravenous animals. The blood is their weakness.
When she first sees Paolo, their eyes meeting across the aisle of a video rental store, Djuna knows it is a mistake to allow him to talk to her, to take him into her home, to reveal herself, but she is desperate to believe that he will be different, that he will understand, and for the most part, she is right. A struggling screenwriter, Paolo is at first captivated by the exotic beauty of the woman who lives alone and watches black and white movies, who insists she be chained to her bed for his protection, but his devotion to her soon becomes total, and when she suggests that she turn him, he readily accepts.
Into this nocturnal domestic bliss comes trouble with the unexpected arrival of Djuna’s sister Mimi, seeking a place to stay until she can establish herself. “She is a disturbed creature,” Djuna warns, and while Paolo can see the antagonism between the sisters and resents the intrusion in their harmonious life, he does his best to negotiate a path between them, but while they attend society parties with the after dark set, artists and performers who discuss the role of the modern vampire over bloody cocktails, Mimi has no intention of obeying the rules set by her sister or the laws set by their people to protect them all.
As Djuna and Mimi, Joséphine de La Baume and Roxane Mesquida form the core of the film around which Milo Ventimiglia’s Paolo orbits. Djuna’s pain reminds of Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre, but there is also much of The Hunger here, the fragility, the misery, the longing, the beautiful homes filled with emptiness, while Mimi is wild, reckless, inevitably dangerous. Under the direction of Cassavetes, daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, the women are confident and mature, undeniably the ones with the power, though on occasions their accents are so thick it might have been preferable if they had spoken their lines in their native French and were subtitled.
Abstract and dreamlike, the film is sombre and beautiful to the eyes, unable to shake the European trappings as in vivid colours it moves through open spaces to the pristine lairs of the undead, lush green trees, pale blue sky, cool grey water, clean white tiles, hot red blood. The fragmented staccato editing speaks of the characters; they are impulsive, driven with jump cut flashbacks, repeated images over a distorted soundtrack, focusing on moments, imbuing them with meaning.
The soundtrack has aspects of European cinema, but also channels the melodic styles of the seventies, classical and pop merging as Djuna recites the precepts of her idealised vampirism as blank verse, and it is this wilful resistance to modernity which sets Kiss of the Damned apart from so much of the current cinema of horror with its obsession with mindless teenage massacres caught on camera. Like the characters; the film is out of time; time moves, they persist.
Kiss of the Damned is now available on DVD and Blu-ray
The Blu-ray has a reversible sleeve featuring the stunning US artwork shown above