Vampire movies have been around since almost the beginning of cinema, and it's rare to see anything really original in them. On the other hand, if you do the standard thing well enough, there's no need for a radical transformation of the genre. That's the case with Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned. There are only minor variations from the normal vampire tropes, but it's all pulled off with such style and competence that it rises above the common herd.
Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) is a centuries old vampire who lives alone in a big house in Connecticut, which she doesn't even own, hunting wild animals for sustenance and translating manuscripts to pass the time. (In Kiss of the Damned, it's consider deviant behavior to kill humans and drink their blood for food, sort of akin to alcoholism. Refined vampires kill animals or drink blood substitutes.) Djuna continues plodding forward in her pedestrian life, until a chance meeting with attractive young screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) at a video store. They feel an instant connection, but Djuna is reluctant to pursue a relationship, afraid to condemn Paolo to the accursed undead life.
Paolo persists, however, and after some through a cracked door making out, and some chained up lovemaking, she relents, and turns him. They prepare to live out their essentially immortal lives together, content with themselves and the future. Until, Djuna's unstable sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up. She's been invited to stay for a while at the house by its owner, vampire actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), as a stopping off point until she can get to vampire rehab to kick her human killing habit.
The addition of Mimi to the mix throws Djuna and Paolo's nearly perfect undead life into disarray, and things get progressively worse the longer she stays around. Mimi's manipulations seem to have no end, with nothing regulating them other than her base desire for gratification.
Cassavetes sets up the characters, situates them in an environment that the viewer can comprehend, and then lets their personalities smash into each other and bounce around in a totally organic way. This isn't really a horror film, in that it isn't trying to develop a sense of fear, though there are a couple of harrowing moments. It's more a domestic drama, with all of the contrasts and tensions heightened by the injection of vampirism and its implications. While the gore and blood effects are very good, they aren't really the point, but rather the underlining of the point. At a basic level, this really is a film about the resentment of two sisters who don't understand each other, and the havoc that this wreaks. In this way, it's a very European film, and Cassavetes admits in the commentary that Kiss of the Damned is very much influenced by the European horror films of the sixties and seventies, though it certainly isn't an homage to them.
While Kiss of the Damned is technically very accomplished in almost every aspect (performance, design, special effects, etc.), it probably won't appeal to everyone, especially those who are turned off by explicit sexuality in films, nor is it totally without flaw. The pace can charitably be described as languid. There are a few moments when it's unclear why a particular character is acting in the way that they are. And the climax, which mostly resolves the myriad conflicts that have been building up, seems to come out of nowhere. But the overall experience of the film is a thoughtful and satisfying one. If that doesn't sound like the description of a vampire film you'd like to see, then avoid it. For everyone else, it's recommended.
The video is 2.40:1 widescreen, and is very crisp and clear. There are some moments of grain, especially in heavy shadow or night scenes, and some very mild posterization from time to time, but otherwise the image looks great. The colors are muted but rich. The contrast is good. Details are easily distinguished, but it doesn't have a too sharp look. Very nice.
Audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 channel and 2 channel. Both sound quite good. This is a movie that relies a lot on sound design, with soft sighs, distant thunder, rain, thumping club music, as well as the score, having a lot to do with the mood and texture of the experience. All of these elements are well represented. English and Spanish subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
There are a number of extras included. They are:
Interview with Josephine de La Baume as Djuna
At just under ten minutes, this features Josephine de La Baume discussing her role, character development, and relationship with Xan Cassavetes.
Interview with Roxane Mesquida as Mimi
At seven minutes, this is a very similar interview with Mesquida.
AXS TV Interview
This features interviews, done for AXS TV, with Milo Ventimiglia, who played Paolo, and Roxane Mesquida.
Two pretty cool trailers for Kiss of the Damned are included here.
Also From Magnolia Home Entertainment
Trailers are included for To the Wonder, Shadow Dancer, Hammer of the Gods and V/H/S 2.
Commentary with Writer / Director Xan Cassavetes
Xan Cassavetes, daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, is a very engaging personality, and though she isn't extraordinarily lively, she does deliver an informative and interesting commentary. She discusses the influences of the film (sixties and seventies French and Italian films), how she cast it (lots of friends in small parts) and how she got the idea (a tour of the house which serves as the main set). She shares a lot of set anecdotes and details, and what it was like working with the cast. The commentary adds significant value to the film experience.
Kiss of the Damned isn't trying anything very new as far as vampire films go. But it executes with a lot of talent, reflection and grace. This is a very purposeful film, with every detail we see on screen placed there with intent and forethought. It isn't your typical horror film, but is very satisfying nonetheless.