Of all the shots in Kiss of the Damned, one recurs. An overhead view of a winding staircase, in Djuna’s (Josephine de La Baume) stately half-mansion is seen twice: the first time, we find nothing but empty space at the floor beneath it; the second time it appears, we find Djuna and Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) looking up toward the ceiling as they fill the space. Djuna is a vampire, Paolo a screenwriter and human. The first glance shared between them is enough to seal their fate as lovers; it doesn’t once occur to Paolo that a life of vampirism is the price to pay for his devotion to a lover. And so it seems the first shot of the winding staircase explains the empty descent of being a vampire alone, while the second denotes the fulfilling ascension had when locked in eternal love.
Like many horror protagonists in the business of writing, Paolo finds himself juggling his efforts to create fictitious violence (much to his chagrin, and his agent’s satisfaction) with the violence of real life – in this case, the human-hunting essential to Djuna’s existence that seduces him without fail. Though Djuna and Paolo’s knowledge of one another extends little beyond shared mesmeric glances, a couple of drinks and a revelation from Djuna about her “skin condition” (“I can’t be exposed to the sunlight,” she says), both of them fall under an impossibly romantic daze, causing Paolo to willfully abandon his mortality and allow Djuna to “turn” him as they make love. Much of their story underscores the notion that impulsive people must pay long-term consequences for acting upon their desires; taken to outlandish extremes, the film plays out as a honeymoon phase that literally never ends.
Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John) wrote and directed Kiss of the Damned, and it feels something like if her father’s thoughtful look at interpersonal relationships met the lush eroticism of Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness and had a baby. Frequent Robert Rodriguez collaborator Steven Hufsteter’s sensuous giallo-influenced grooves, overlaid with the spoken word of Djuna and Paolo’s passionate conversations, facilitates a 70s-inflected mood that swirls through the film’s sophisticated narrative to give it a welcome dash of pulp. In keeping with that nostalgia for the composition of Euro-horror classics of old, Kiss of the Damned’s color is used meticulously to compliment the objects within frame, be it Djuna’s blue eyes piercing through the blackness of her bedroom, or a deep purple bowl holding bright yellow fruits on a blue table, next to Djuna’s maid’s black, yellow and blue shirt/skirt ensemble.
Cassavetes’s aesthetic is designed to convince us of the utter rapture that vampirism brings Djuna and Paolo, and on that account, it succeeds. Their European names and physical features alone serve as indicators of an exotic otherness, nudging to audiences that their choice to remain lovers after mortal death renders them capable of doing things no layman could dare to try. After all, consider the endless possibilities that come with being a vampire – the lessons that could be learned, the books that could be written – when privileged with the construct of time being a non-object. When we meet Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), we begin to learn that such carefree liberty, to live aimlessly without consequence, is too much to bear for even her. That Mimi distrusts Djuna’s ability to lead a life of civility and monogamy with Paolo attests to her cynicism about the nature of their condition.
That cynicism, about being a vampire in a human’s world, is another aspect explored by Cassavetes in Kiss of the Damned, albeit with less effectiveness than the glimpses of Djuna and Paolo’s courtship she initially offers. One scene, at a bourgeois dinner party, finds Djuna and Paolo’s undead friends speculating about society’s potential to become accepting of vampires if synthetic blood were to be introduced for public consumption. Some romanticize the idea; others scoff at it, and are unimpressed by the suggestion of drinking something that’s not “the real thing” altogether. While this sequence is ambitious in its undertaking, it fails to follow through with some of the pertinent questions it raises – namely, about the marginalization of groups of people (or in this case, former people) who have yet to be properly understood. Perhaps the fact that this sequence leaves viewers with nothing more than dinner table discussion in this regard is the point – to help us empathize with the futility of hoping for redeeming humanity in Djuna and Paolo’s circumstances. Still, its fleeting nature leaves something to be desired.
Shortcomings in the subtext department aside, ultimately, Kiss of the Damned is about what it’s like to fall for a man, or a woman, and what it’s like to commit to that man or woman, no matter what the cost. What’s admirable about Cassavetes’s film is that it reminds us that just because it shows that hopeless romance, that doesn’t mean it advocates we engage in it too. Is a trail of blood justified as a means to an end, if that end is a kiss and a fade to black?
– By Max Weinstein