Like a lot of the retro-horror films that have popped up on the art-house and festival circuits over the past several years, Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss Of The Damned is more about mood and texture than plot. Milo Ventimiglia plays a screenwriter who becomes captivated by Joséphine de la Baume, and though she says she can’t date him because, “I have a skin condition where I can’t be exposed to sunlight”—hint, hint—he can’t stop thinking about her, or she about him. So after she owns up to being a vampire, he chooses to let her bite him, and get initiated into the rituals and culture of bloodsuckers. And that’s pretty much the entire movie, save for one complication: de la Baume gets a visit from her boorish sister Roxane Mesquida, who crashes at the couple’s elegant mansion and starts interfering with their high-class vampire lives, accusing them of being sellouts who’ve lost touch with their animal nature.
A different filmmaker might’ve played Kiss Of The Damned as a twisted domestic comedy, but here the handful of openly comic moments sputter, because Cassavetes’ mostly foreign-born cast (not to mention the doggedly wooden Ventimiglia) delivers the dialogue flatly. One brief, funny scene with Michael Rapaport as Ventimiglia’s agent is more indicative of what the movie could’ve been, had writer-director Cassavetes leaned more toward the deadpan—and had she hired a capable cast. As it stands, there’s a stiltedness about Kiss Of The Damned that’s hard to ignore, especially when Cassavetes sends her leads to a tony vampire dinner party in which all the would-be wit and deep conversations about what it means to be a monster get steamrolled by actors who sound like they’re reading their lines phonetically.
But again, the pleasures of Kiss Of The Damned aren’t tied to the script or the story—the latter of which is devoid of surprises, save for a would-be twist ending that’s fairly predictable. What distinguishes Kiss Of The Damned is its look, which combines the garish gore and muted tones of ’70s Euro-horror with the subtle glow of modern moviemaking; and its sound design, which frequently mixes in a hellish throb. One of the themes of the film is that snobby, aristocratic vampires are hypocrites who refuse to acknowledge how awesome it is to be evil. Cassavetes underlines this point by making Kiss Of The Damned a celebration of what made old vampire sexploitation movies so thrilling: flashes of flesh, pervasive menace, and dark blood oozing down some fancy lady’s chin.