By Paige Kiser
In the years following the cultural craze of the “Twilight” films and shows like “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries”, it would be easy to dismiss another story that’s about the struggles of a human falling in love with a vampire. Through “Kiss of the Damned” (2013), writer/director Xan Cassavetes shows that there are still original ideas to bring to the genre, and what a difference it can make when the focus of the story shifts from forbidden romance and manipulation to the desires of the female lead.
The film follows Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), a screenwriter temporarily staying in Connecticut in order to focus entirely on his writing. His plans get pushed to the backburner after a trip to the local video rental store, where he meets Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume), a mysterious woman who explains that she has a rare skin disease that doesn’t allow her to be exposed to the sun. They continue to meet – always at night – and feed into their undeniable chemistry.
Although we can pick up right away that Djuna is a vampire, Paolo requires a little more convincing, which of course occurs in the midst of one of the more erotic scenes of the film, when Djuna instructs him to chain her arms and legs to her bed posts while she fully reveals the extent of her “true form” (i.e. fangs, glowing eyes, and the ravishing hunger for human blood).
Paolo isn’t afraid in the slightest – if anything, Djuna’s secret makes her even more attractive. He is more than willing to receive the “kiss of death”, turning him into a vampire
The conflict of the film is introduced not with the idea of Djuna and Paolo’s relationship, but with the internal tension within the local vampire community, brought on by the arrival of Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), Djuna’s much more wild sister. After killing a man in Amsterdam, Mimi claims she’s only staying with Djuna for a while to lay low, but proceeds to stir up trouble within their community by feeding on humans (which is forbidden), and attempting to seduce Paolo herself.
“It’s rare to see the desires and pleasure of a female character be at the forefront of a film, let alone in the broader horror genre in which women have been historically punished for being sexually liberated.”
From the beginning, there’s a bit of role reversal when it comes to the dynamic between Paolo and Djuna, compared to what we’re used to with films within the vampire and gothic romance subgenres. It’s typically young, impressionable human women who we see fall for brooding, self-loathing men revealed to be vampires. They’re often terrified at first, but end up insisting on the vampire giving them a chance even though it’s dangerous, or succumbing to the persistent seduction attempts by the vampire.
In “Kiss of the Damned”, Paolo is a grown man who is both fully aware of and unphased by the situation he found himself in. Djuna was the hesitant one, understanding the difficulties that would arise from becoming genuinely, romantically involved with a human. But there was little time for worrying about what it would mean for the human and vampire to be together, because Paolo was ready to receive the “kiss of death” and become a vampire soon after learning Djuna’s secret.
In subverting our usual expectations with a more female gaze, Cassavetes creates a viewing experience that is satisfying beyond just the surface level. It’s rare to see the desires and pleasure of a female character be at the forefront of a film, let alone in the broader horror genre in which women have been historically punished for being sexually liberated. The “promiscuous” characters are usually the first to be killed off, or tortured in the most gruesome ways. In “Kiss of the Damned”, Djuna has complete agency over her body. Or, at least, the parts of it that aren’t overpowered by the desire for blood.
“Kiss of the Damned” may not hit every mark, but it’s still an intriguing and uniquely satisfying film.”
At times, it felt like the film was trying to find a balance between being aware of the more ridiculous, “cheesy” aspects, while still maintaining a level of style and sexiness. The result is a heavy amount of melodrama, which is admittedly difficult to avoid when you’re telling a story about vampires.
Where the film thrives in its depictions of sexuality and refreshing gender dynamics, it lacks in other story elements. The narrative is original, but isn’t given enough depth to make it feel completely worthwhile. It could have benefitted strongly from giving us more insight into the community of vampires, and the relationships outside of Djuna and Paolo. Perhaps the stakes would have felt higher if we were given stronger reasons to care about the characters.
Cassavetes’ “Kiss of the Damned” may not hit every mark, but it’s still an intriguing and uniquely satisfying film that offers something new in the realm of gothic romance and vampire films.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars