Paolo is a moderately successful screenwriter, making a living through arty introspection. Renting a house in the Connecticut countryside to work on his latest script, a late night trip to the local video store (which still appears to carry some actual video cassettes) brings him into contact with the strikingly beautiful Djuna. Unable to resist her red-headed charms, he follows her out of the store and into the rain, where they briefly chat and retire to a bar for shelter and drinks. During their conversation, Djuna reveals that she has a skin condition which prevents her leaving the house during daylight. Unperturbed by this, Paolo remains smitten and the couple go back to her enormous house to get further acquainted. Djuna meanwhile, suffers flashbacks and visions of a bloody kind and tells Paolo he must go and reluctantly, he heads home.
His next day is spent solely thinking of Djuna and in the evening, he ventures up to the house, hoping to meet her again. Unwilling to let him in, the pair share a beautifully shot and edited kiss through the gap in the door, until he reels away, having been bitten on the tongue. The next evening he returns once more and is allowed inside, where Djuna proceeds to explain that she is a vampire and not really the type of girl he wants to be hanging around. The doubting Paolo is persuaded to chain her to the bed, where she proceeds to change into a vampire and tells him to come no closer. Undaunted, he decides that despite the fangs, spooky eyes and slightly veiny face, she still looks smoking hot and succumbs to her vampiric charms, allowing himself to be bitten and them to be together forever.
Now they are one and the same, Djuna educates Paolo in the ways of the vampire and introduces him to her circle of similarly afflicted friends. Everything is going well, until Djuna’s sister, Mimi, arrives back at the house from an extensive tour of Europe’s finest necks and sets in motion a series of events that threaten to drive the lovers apart…
Kiss of the Damned is a low key, understated take on the life of a vampire. It combines the staples of any good bloodsucker story - the immensely good looking people, the shocking brutality, the constant undercurrent of sexuality – yet isn’t afraid to ponder broader themes such as the vampire’s position within humanity and the dilemma of every human you come into contact with being a potential meal. This concept of resisting temptation is a constant theme throughout the film and brings some much needed vulnerability to what would otherwise be a tale of almost invincible creatures making their way in the world.
For her debut feature, Xan Cassavetes has drawn together a skilled cast and crew who have a real eye and ear for what makes a good-looking film. And believe me, this is a very good-looking film. The house and location are the most perfect asset you could have if you were making your first film and lend themselves to some beautiful compositions - on occasion, her desire to hold an image in the frame made me want to just press pause and linger for even longer. The score also perfectly complements what is on screen and a combination of straightforward musical accompaniment and a sound mix that frequently descends into an orchestrated cacophony, add just the right push the viewer needs to become immersed in a scene. The editing deserves a mention too and really gives the scenes of love and death a wild, disorientating feel. The juxtaposition of Paolo and Djuna’s passion at the house, with Mimi’s graphic seduction and slaughter of a victim, is very well done and the almost dreamlike quality the editing and photography bring to an extremely erotic shower scene, perfectly captures the semi-hypnotic state of both participants.
Eureka present the UK blu-ray release of Kiss of the Damned in a fantastic looking 2.35:1 print. The film turns its back on the washed-out, saturated look that many films go for these days and instead goes for bold, rich colours, making what happens on screen seem more real and less fantasy and the blu-ray handles these perfectly. Blacks are solid and the image is crisp and precise, without appearing artificial. Audio is available in a punchy 5.1 track, which handles the wildly varied soundtrack well and really adds something to what we are seeing on screen. Dialogue can be a bit quiet at times, but this is more down to the characters occasional whispering rather than any deficiency in the audio. English subtitles are also available (and were also used by this reviewer during said moments of whispering).
A commentary featuring the director is the other available audio track and sadly, this disappoints. Rather than talk about the process involved in making your first feature film, Cassavetes instead simply discusses what we are seeing on screen and feels the need to intellectualise and explain every scene as we go on. This is simply not necessary, as the plot and characters motivations are plain for all to see. Annoyingly, she fails to elaborate on the beautifully edited love scene where Djuna bites Paolo and misses the chance to comment on the striking combination of sex and violence, with Djuna biting him just at the point of orgasm. Apart from a couple of titbits regarding the inspiration for the story, this commentary instead found me asking her to shut up and let the film do the talking.
37 minutes of interviews are included, featuring the director and all three leads. These are filmed separately and basically amount to everyone saying how wonderful everyone else was to work with. Cassavetes, deservedly, gets a multitude of pats on the back, however the person who assembled the footage for the disc wasn’t paying too much attention, as one actress is featured twice and simply repeats most of what she said in the previous interview, but obviously to a different interviewer. Things are rounded off with a couple of trailers.
The packaging for this release also bears mentioning. Instead of the gorgeous painted artwork of the film poster and US blu-ray, Eureka seem to have gone for very generic sleeve art, which not only is completely unrepresentative of the film, but also fails to make it stand out from any other current horror release. This film is not aimed at the masses and by going with this design, Eureka, who know a thing or two about niche film releases, has missed a chance to target the movie at those who might be looking for something a little different in their vampire films.
If I had to criticise the film, I’d say it can occasionally drift into style over substance. Taken as a whole, the story is slight and very familiar, so needs to be driven along by the well constructed set pieces. The two leads are also straight out of a Mills & Boon novel – she, a long-haired, pale-skinned temptress; he, a muscular, shaven-chested stubble wearer. However, they do fit the material well.
These are petty gripes though; overall Cassavetes has created a ravishing take on an oft-told tale and should be applauded for treating the film and its audience as grown-ups and not pandering to a larger, younger crowd. The target audience for Kiss of the Damned may be considerably smaller than that of Twilight, but those that do make the effort will be richly rewarded.