Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kiss of the Damned

Kiss of the Damned
Directed by: Xan Cassavetes
Horror/Drama, 97min
USA, 2012
Distributed by: NjutaFilms

It’s odd what catches your attention and emotionally attaches you to a movie at times. For me there was something in an early scene after the initial introduction of Djuna [Joséphine de La Baume], as her maid Irene [Ching Valdes-Aran] answers the telephone. Irene writes a note to Djuna reminding her that the videos she has rented are to be returned to the store. A seemingly unimportant scene, but it was one that really hit a chord with me. It hit a chord with me because it made the ordinary world so real. I’ve worked in video stores and calling customers to remind them to return tapes was a daily task. So there was something in that small scene that appealed to me and made me venture into Kiss of the Damned with a smile on my face and a sense of recognition in my head. From that opening hook to Acanthus Angoisse Temporelle from Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson Des Vampires playing over the closing credits, Kiss of the Damned was undoubtedly some of the most entertaining time spent this year.
Djuna is reclusive woman staying in her friend Xenia’s [Anna Mouglalis] house. During a nocturnal trip to the video store she bums into Paolo [Milo Ventimiglia] and the two connect instantly. Djuna takes him home, but sends him away before things get to serious and remorsefully cuts off all contact. She won’t answer the phone, she won’t come to the door; she won't have anything to do with him. Although Djuna keeps Paolo at a distance, he becomes increasingly obsessed with her. Paolo takes a shot at a chance meeting as he forces his way into the house. Their joint passion overcomes the rejection and when he proclaims his love for Djuna, she explains that she’s in fact a vampire. Paola takes his chance and lets Djuna turn him. From here on the couple could live happily ever after for all eternity. But that’s not going to happen as Djuna’s rebellious and manipulative sister Mimi [Roxane Mesquida] unexpectedly turns up…
Kiss of the Damned is a seductive and magic masterpiece. It takes traditional vampire lore and lives according to those rules. It keeps the romanticism, the poetic and smartness of classic vampire mythology, something I’ve been longing to see for quite some time, without becoming a sanitized piece of commercialized bubble-gum. Smart, adult, believable and sticking to the basic rules, instead of teenage angst, adolescent heartbeat and sparkling nightwalkers jumping from tree to tree in broad daylight - all the things that made vampire flicks safe, cutie pie pop-culture instead of dark, complex creatures of the night. All that silliness is replaced with adult lust, stern rules and the dilemmas of responsibility and it makes for a truly appealing movie that brings the Gothic and Romantic elements back to the vampire film, even if it does take place in a contemporary world.
Xan Cassavetes knows storytelling. She knows it well and Kiss of the Damned goes right up on my list with Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog's versions), Tod Browning's Dracula, Terry Fisher's Horror of Dracula, Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos, Tom Holland's Fright Night, Katheryn Bigelow's Near Dark, Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula, Abel Ferrara's The Addiction and both adaptations of John Avjide Lindqvists Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) - not a shabby list for someone who says he doesn't like vampire flicks! But nothing beats a well-told story and believable characters, even if they are vampires. Emotional recognition goes a long way, and that’s what a lot of Kiss of the Damned uses. We may never know what it’s like to be a vampire and all the complications therein, but we can relate to the characters both human and undead, as the basic traits of loyalty, love, heartbreak, pain, remorse and guilt are all the same as we experience in our daily lives.
An important part of Kiss of the Damned is the gentle and delicate approach to the subject matter. It’s a tenderness that flows through the movie generating a strange sternness with characters and mood, and at times becoming almost Lynchian in its style. Characters are almost perversely restrained and calm in all situations. As if showing emotion will expose them (as in the Vampires) to the “real world”, which would be catastrophic for them as a race. Meditative is not the right word, but contemplative is. Everyone is very careful in his or her decisions and actions. Those who are not, become automatic antagonists. And in this world of gentle hand, pensive characters and cautious narrative we find a non-formulaic story much like those told by Xan’s father, John. No other comparisons made, but a possible influence.  Whatever the case, it brings a seductive uniqueness to the story told, and to the way it unfolds.
Early on there’s something about the gentle and reclusive Djuna that appeals to an audience. She’s defying her natural urges, going against vampire convention and eats animals as not to harm humans. She fights her natural urges to bite into Paolo when she’s sexually aroused, and sends him scampering off home after their first encounter. She more or less breaks down and cries when she reveals to Paolo what she is… All of this builds empathy for the character.
Paolo is sceptic when Djuna tells him that she’s a vampire, and this helps us accept the fact of vampires as a reality too, as we have a character that also doubts the existence of vampires. As soon as Djuna has bitten Paolo she starts to tell him the rules (of being a vampire). Now this is where the sceptic character becomes a true believer and the audience is transported from the ordinary world of Paolo into the let us call it ordinary world of the Vampire. The rules together with his scepticism make it believable for us.  Vampires are real, albeit living under new rules.
When it comes to vampire film there’s quite often a problem where to position the audience as they frequently tend to feel empathetic towards the anti-heroic character, that is the vampire, traditionally the antagonist, the monster. So it’s important to create a character that one can relate to, and one that can lay down the rules. Which is what all that first act is about. Creating a believable world, laying out the rules and presenting likeable characters that we will want to invest in.  Because it’s only in the light of how gentile, graceful and honest Djuna is that we can evaluate Mimi. Compared to Djuna, Mimi is the devil, living the life of “old school vampires”, breaking all the rules.
Mimi is a great character. A character much closer to the classic vampire old folklore tells us about. She’s definitely not the kind of vampire the audience will empathize with. We may dig her for her Goth chicness and rough demeanour, but we won’t empathize with her like we do Djuna. She’s manipulative and sinister. She’s deceptive and cunning. She’s a junkie in rehab! Mimi is getting all the characteristics of the bad sister. There’s a subplot concerning vampires that have quit drinking human blood and now only sip animal bloods. Most of the vampires have since long gone “sober” and only feed off non-human blood… according to the “new rules”, possibly part of the staying out of trouble idea, so obviously Mimi is in defiance of those rules too. She want’s human blood, because it’s the drug she’s addicted to!
Although Mimi may be the antagonist of the piece, this doesn’t mean that she lacks dimension. She’s much more than just the “evil vampire”. Cassavetes screenplay gives all characters dimension and backstory, much of which is referred to on occasion during the film. We have two sisters who have been around for a couple of hundred years and obviously don’t share all that many warm feelings for each other. It’s only natural that they will have a lot of bad blood between them.
Such is the case with Mimi and Djuna, and it creates a fascinating dynamic between the two, as there’s something in the backstory that plays a wicked trick on the characters and the audience.  At some time in history, Djuna has accused Mimi of doing wrong… such as turning a human in the name of love. Quite possibly this is what once created the rift between the two sisters. Even if it was in the noblest fashion and everything but against his will, Mimi forces the power of guilt upon Djuna for turning Paolo into a Vampire. The bad sister scolding the good for doing wrong, it’s one of many fantastic moments of character dynamics in Kiss of the Damned!

What makes vampires such interesting beings – not only here, but also generally in folklore - is that they come off as suave, lush, seductive beasts of the night, resistant to pain and set to have fun for all eternity. But there’s a sadness and sorrow behind the lavish façade. There’s a sadness and regret that they, in many ways, are damned to live forever in solitude. This too causes interesting friction between Mimi and Djuna. Mimi scolds Djuna for being selfish enough to turn Paolo, and in such, condemning him to their eternal suffering. At the same time here’s a tone of envy in Mimi’s actions, as somewhere along the backstory it seems that Mimi has lost the love she once had. A love that Djuna in her turn judged Mimi for, just like Mimi now judges Djuna. The tables have turned and the sibling rivalry that one can guess has been going on for decades takes a new destructive twist.
Again as mentioned earlier, characters are restrained; although this does not mean that we never understand the emotions they are experiencing. This is where the emotional recognition comes in. We can relate to them and what they are going through. As the story tells it’s infected tale, gracefully but still with some rather gory moments, the way the movie moves into its climax is done in the exact same fashion. Even though it is a violent climax, it’s told and shown in the same delicate fashion as the rest of the film. Poetic and just, but equally haunting, after al these are complex characters and through the emotional recognition and backstory we can understand their actions. At the end of the day it all becomes about regret, tradition, honouring rules and loyalty.
Totally capturing the magic of low-key independent cinema of the late seventies early eighties, Kiss of the Damned is this years must see art-house indie horror hybrid. An intoxicating combination of old school Vampire lore, classic EuroGoth and contemporary genre film! If Jean Rollin where still alive he would have loved Kiss of the Damned!

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