Xan Cassavetes’s Kiss of the Damned is an admittedly bold cine-embodiment of hipsterism: distinctly modern in its view of sexual agency, though dressed in the garbs of yesteryear’s movies. It’s not flippant, though it may be stating the obvious, to say that the film lands on a sliding tonal scale between The House of the Devil and Amer, both homage to and subversion of the artistry and politics of horror flicks past, seeming to exist nowhere yet everywhere at once. Like The House of the Devil, it’s unmistakably sincere, at times straight-faced, in its realization of retrograde movie artistry, and like Amer, it’s blatant love-lettering to the colors, compositions, and sounds of Kill, Baby…Kill! and Suspiria, and every giallo prior, in between, and since, gives way to some insanely digressive, succulently realized flights of artistic fancy that, at the very least, corroborate Park Chan-wook’s tony Stoker as a poseur’s hackwork.
Trouble is that Kiss of the Damned is itself nothing but a series of mostly dubious poses. When the vampiress Joséphine de La Baume (Joséphine de La Baume) picks up Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) at a fashionably passé video store and brings him back to her manse, either to sex him up or munch on his neck meat, perhaps both, she sets the mood with a viewing of Viridiana, an intriguing but deadeningly on-the-nose reference point. Rather than truly engage with the Luis Buñuel film’s themes of chastity, piousness, and the futility of religious practice, Cassavetes uses the famous moment in the film wherein Fernando Rey’s Don Jaime gawks and manhandles Sylvia Pinal’s somnambulistic Viridiana while she wears a wedding gown to simply fashion an aural suture between the unusual horror-movie moment from the Buñuel film and the haunted-house vibe she crafts for her own. That Paolo is to Don Juame as Joséphine is to Viridiana, men maddened by women who’ve promised their bodies to others, Viridiana to God and Joséphine to the would-be civility of new-age vampirism, is just one of many ways that Cassavetes feebly, transparently recontextualizes rich filmic traditions to modern times.
Cassavetes does sculpt a number of jarring set pieces that are only loosely referential and fascinatingly equate bondage to free will, even if the filmmaker’s tiresomely default mode is the overhead: a blue-balled Paolo returning to Joséphine’s house and making out with her through her chained front door, and later, her protecting him from her carnivorousness by tying herself down during sex, their position during coitus evoking a crucifixion of sorts. The film is never quite as interesting again, as the storylines involving Joséphine’s far less polite sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), and the high-society actress and queen bee, Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), they vow allegiance to feel like regurgitations of five season’s worth of True Blood episodes, only more psychedelically soundtracked: The film’s vampires struggle to live politely among humans, make love to their prey without eating them, and at dinner parties they sip their own version of True Blood, referred to by one vamp-snob as “the beluga of politically correct plasma.”
Yes, Cassavetes’s interest in human relations, as in her sister Zoe’s superior Broken English, can be traced back to the influence of her bloodline. And, yes, the film’s fixation on vampires fighting to suppress their carnivorous innate selves likely reflects a struggle on Xan’s part to assert a sense of individualism on film that’s removed from the cinephiliac tendencies that were forever hard-wired into her by her legendary parents, but no one can claim that Kiss of the Damned exudes the hot-wire confessional petulance of Faces or Husbands. With this film, she crafts only with an acolyte’s sense of conviction, copping to nothing more significant than being more keen on Vampyros Lesbos than anyone else from her clan of famous cinephiles.