A lot of us are suffering from vampire fatigue, with good reason. But Xan Cassavetes' cult film Kiss of the Damned will re-awaken your love for these enigmatic creatures who struggle to understand humans — and to stop eating them.
There's a kind of effortless blend of campy humor and sophistication at work in this story of a lonely vampire who decides to take a human lover after 60 years of solitude. Djuana (Joséphine de La Baume) works as a translator, and spends most nights in her friend's remote country home poring over books or watching old movies she checks out at the local video store. Though she's ethereally beautiful and fond of Victorian-style garb, there's nothing particularly vampiric about Djuana. Until she locks eyes with Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter whose agent has sent him out to the country to complete a new script.
Djuana and Paolo are destined for each other, and they consummate their love in a series of hot, romantic, and often bloody scenes. There are a lot of recent indies that borrow from the color-saturated, trippy horror styles of the 1970s — for example, Ti West's House of the Devil — but Cassavetes' movie stands out from the pack. She doesn't shy away from giving us biting and blood orgies, but there's a light touch here that's less parody than wry amusement. The best part is that it's not amusement directed at the genre itself, but at the foibles of these vampires who are all too human.
Some of the very best moments in the movie are when Djuana brings the newly-turned Paolo out to meet "the vampire community." Most of them are rich artists, theater actors, and sundry creative types who chatter idly about possibly taking over the world as they drink wine after a theater performance. But really, darling, we won't take over because the humans make such delightful theater audiences — unlike vampires, who are "famous for their golf claps." Djuana's friend, an actress, serves them what another vampire calls "the Beluga of politically correct plasma," which is to say something exotic but non-human.
I love the idea that vampires are sort of like the theater community, devoted to an ancient art that is only enjoyed by a minority of people. Plus, they have to stay off the human sauce because eating mortals is considered a bit low class and barbaric these days.
These well-observed, witty scenes make an intriguing counterpoint to the more traditional vampire story that's also unfolding. Tension mounts in Djuana and Paolo's relationship when Djuana's punk sister shows up, wearing all leather and refusing to drink politically correct plasma. Even though Djuana is a bit old-fashioned in her ways, you get the sense that she's a truly modern vampire while her sister is a throwback to the days of Elizabeth Bathory.
There are many ways to be a vampire in Kiss of the Damned, and we see them emerging in the bumpy, strangely realistic relationships between our monster protagonists. This is one of those odd stories whose excellence sneaks up on you. Who thought vampires could be interesting anymore? In this weird little movie, you'll rediscover the dramatic insanity that made you adore vampires in the first place. But there's a lot more than that to relish here, including its humor, and the satisfaction of a love story that's both quirky and seriously erotic at the same time.
Kiss of the Damned opens in select cities today and next week, and is also available on demand.