Kiss of the Damned: Venice Review

Kiss of the Damned
Love streams and bloodstreams messily cross in a steamy but clunky plunge into vampire lore, hipster-indie style.

Xan Cassavetes' new film offers a hipster take on the ongoing vampire craze, while paying homage to genre icons of the '60s and '70s.

Never out of fashion for long and perhaps now more in vogue than ever thanks to Twilight and True Blood, sexy vampires are very much to the fore in writer-director Xan Cassavetes' belated fictional debut Kiss of the Damned. Paying slavish homage to culty genre predecessors from the sixties, seventies and eighties, this steamy tale of a hunky screenwriter, his ethereal blood-sucking paramour and her bad-girl sister can't quite decide whether to be seductively stylish or knowingly cheesy.

Stars Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes) and Joséphine de la Baume (Gossip Girl) are better known for their TV work than movies, and this adults-only blend of eroticism and gore, picked up by Magnet Releasing just before its Venice world-premiere, looks best suited to VOD, cable and DVD exposure. The presence of French midnight-movie favorite Roxane Mesquida (Sheitan, Kaboom, Rubber) will meanwhile undoubtedly delight myriad gorehounds at the horror-dedicated events which have become such a vibrant part of the film-festival calendar.

As the daughter of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes, 46-year-old Xan Cassavetes is indie-cinema royalty by birth and made a minor splash with documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession back in 2004. Here she tries to put her own stamp on long-established vampire lore, while retaining fidelity to 'rules' such as the quasi-immortal predators having a fatal aversion to direct sunlight.

This Achilles Heel isn't all bad news, adding to the 'pale and interesting' allure of bookworm and avid cinephile Djuna (de la Baume), first encountered housesitting a magnificent waterfront Connecticut mansion. Returning classic-movie videotapes to the nearest town's rental-store, she encounters successful young scribe Paolo (Ventimiglia) and the pair soon click. Paolo is fascinated rather than repelled or scared by Djuna's feral vampire side, after willingly surrendering to her bite finds he enjoys seeing the world afresh. "Everything just feels so... heightened," he gasps, the improvements evidently extending to his sex-drive.

Complications soon turn up in the swaggeringly sensual form of Djuna's sister Mimi (Mesquida), this attitude-heavy newcomer's flashy black garb making an unsubtly stark contrast to the cream-hued, demure retro fashions preferred by her sibling. Mimi's uninhibited brand of hedonis appals the more 'conventional' Djuna, who appeals to their clan's unofficial leader Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), a successful off-Broadway actress and absentee owner of the Connecticut pad.

Xenia's profession allows Cassavetes to nimbly homage both her parents, one sequence in particular nodding heavily in the direction of the duo's 1977 quietly supernatural Opening Night. But generally speaking Cassavetes jr's touchstones are much more lurid chillers from recent decades, most notably Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness, Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire and the late Tony Scott's The Hunger, each of which featured fabulously sophisticated vampiresses.

And while Mouglalis' exquisitely regal poise enables her to follow in the immaculatedly-clad footsteps of Delphine Seyrig, Celeste Yarnall and Catherine Deneuve, the movie flags when the focus shifts away from her amusingly chi-chi and erudite Manhattan salons, where guests, among them indie auteur Jonathan Caouette as 'Anton', snack on "the beluga of politically-correct plasma."

The bloody, sexy shenanigans in Connecticut among the love-birds have their moments, rendered in widescreen splendor by cinematographer Tobias Datum. And the chestnut-locked de la Baume - wife of Mark Ronson, model, pop-singer and general 'person of interest' among the hipster demi-monde - registers as more than merely a toothsome presence. Overall, however, Cassavetes' clunkily functional approach to well-trodden tropes yields disappointingly bland results: The Velveeta Vampire, perhaps.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production companies: Deerjen Films, Verisimilitude
Cast: Joséphine de la Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, Roxane Mesquida, Michael Rapaport, Anna Mouglalis
Director / Screenwriter: Xan Cassavetes
Producers: Jen Gatien, Alex Orlovsky
Executive producers: Adam S. Bersin, Jacob Pechenik, Riaz Tyab, Jonathan Vinnik
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Chris Trujillo
Music: Steve Hufsteter

Costume designer: Audrey Louise Reynolds
Editor: John Lyons, Taylor Gianotas
Sales agent: Magnet Releasing, New York
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes