“Kiss of the Damned,” a vampire romance, comes as close as it can possibly get to softcore pornography within the confines of an R rating. It wouldn’t surprise me if audiences walked out discussing the sex scenes more than the plot – what little of it there is, at any rate – or the ways in which writer/director Xan Cassavetes (John’s daughter) tinkers with many of the conventions of mainstream vampirism. Although the film is not without redeeming qualities, it plays more like erotic fan fiction than an actual movie, which may account for why it isn’t really about anything other than craft. It has characters, it has conflict, and it even has something resembling a climax; what it doesn’t have is a unifying thread, something that makes the whole thing seem like more than a collection of scenes edited together.
Audiences are by now intimately familiar with the rules under which vampires can and cannot exist, and Cassavetes follows a few of them. The most obvious, of course, is that they must feed on blood. They also cannot be exposed to sunlight, lest they slowly and painfully be charred and blistered to death; to avoid any potential exposure, they either sleep during the day or spend their time safely within shaded areas. The other rules have been jettisoned. They sleep, for example, in regular beds rather than coffins. There’s also no mention of crucifixes, wooden stakes, or garlic, and it seems that both animal and synthetic blood can sate a vampire as well as human blood. They can even eat regular food and drink wine. I couldn’t help but find the latter funny, given Bela Lugosi’s immortal line; if you don’t know it, you’re tragically unevolved as a movie watcher.
Gothic convention dictates that transforming into a vampire requires being bitten by one. Such is the fate of Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter sent from the city to a small mountain town to work on his latest script; he enters the life of a French vampire named Djuna (Josephine de La Baume), who initially fights the urge to bite him but soon gives in to temptation. Romantic conviction dictates that the two must instantaneously fall in love. I really do mean instantaneously; it’s almost as if Djuna cast a spell on Paolo when they first locked eyes at a local video store, because he refuses to never see her again. Despite having sworn off human blood, relying on forest animals for nourishment, she reveals her true self after a romantic night with Paolo. It ends with her chained to the bed, her eyes changing color, her teeth sprouting fangs. Paolo unshackles her regardless of her pleas for him to stop, they make love, and at the point of orgasm, she bites him on the neck.
The transition is seamless for Milo, and he too begins feeding on animal blood. When he and Djuna aren’t going at it like dogs in heat, they will periodically attend vampire parties held by a French stage actress named Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), who owns the isolated luxury house Djuna is currently staying in. You wouldn’t think any real vampires were in attendance, or even that the parties had anything to do with vampirism. If anything, they look more like fashion-show afterparties; the environments are swanky, everyone wears designer clothing, and when they’re not greeting each other with pecks on each cheek, they have existential discussions that reek of intellectual snobbery. Perhaps there’s something to be said for this stylistic approach. After all, since humans outnumber vampires, there is something innately elitist about that lifestyle.
Djuna is thrown for a loop when she’s paid a visit by her sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who proves incredibly difficult to get along with. Indeed, Mimi is promiscuous, vulgar, and defiant of authority, which is to say she repeatedly risks exposing her kind to the rest of the world. She makes it a point to seduce people, both men and women, before draining them of their blood and killing them. This creates some confusion. How is it that some people, like Paolo, are transformed into vampires after being bitten while others, like all of Mimi’s victims, die? Be that as it may, there comes a point when Mimi intentionally tempts Xenia by introducing her to a seventeen-year-old fan of her stage work; Xenia has resisted drinking human blood for over forty years, but this may be too great a temptation, especially since this fan, who does some homoerotic lipsmacking, is a virgin.
In defense of the film’s eroticism, it’s obvious that Cassavetes is more interested in sexiness than gratuitousness; there’s a sense of passion in every sex scene, a feeling that the character’s emotions are just as intense as their physical sensations. Nevertheless, they cannot compensate for the film’s more inexplicable ideas, like the sudden appearance of Paolo’s cocaine-addicted agent, Ben (Michael Rapaport), or Paolo’s spur-of-the-moment decision to move with Djuna to Rome. Everything he does is spur of the moment, which I guess makes him the ideal subject for a genre as one-tracked as erotica. I suppose, then, that “Kiss of the Damned” does exactly what it set out to do. Nevertheless, specific scenes suggest that Cassavetes was aiming for something a little more substantive. She might have hit her target had she not has sex on the brain.