Kiss of the Damned [2012]

Kiss of the Damned - PosterThere’s a moment about 15 minutes into Xan Cassavetes’ 2012 vampire film “Kiss of the Damned” that I just can’t shake. The male lead, having encountered a beautiful stranger at his local video store, holds a cassette she’d borrowed beneath his nostrils, inhaling deeply in a desperate effort to catch her scent. It’s a moment of wonderful ridiculousness, the first of a handful of possibly-satirical flashes that are the high points of the movie. It’s mischief desperately needed in a work that suffers from a tone of seriousness and—most depressing of all—moralizing.

Screenwriter Paolo encounters beautiful vampire Djuna at a video rental store and the two begin a torrid affair that escalates when Paolo is bitten by Djuna, turning him into a vampire. The lovers’ idyllic lives are thrown into chaos when Djuna’s sister Mimi arrives to share the stately Connecticut home they’re occupying. Unlike her sibling, Mimi relishes feasting on human blood and wastes no time in engaging in gory couplings.

This is where things get spoilerey—like, real spoilery, so turn back now if you are the sort of person who watches erotic vampire movies to be surprised by the plot twists.

It’s not possible to talk about “Kiss of the Damned” without acknowledging that it draws its inspiration from the erotic vampire films that came out of Europe in the 60s and 70s. These films appeal to those who love them for a number of reasons: the dreamy pace, otherworldly style and sensual nudity that “Kiss” focuses upon being just three elements. The best examples of this type of movie also allow absurdity to co-exist beside fatalism and tragedy, all powered by personal and esoteric symbolism.

Kiss of the Damned
A rare moment of weird, sensual vampirism

The tension between Djuna and Mimi is at the center of the film; it’s the tension between normative vampire society and indulgence in pure vampire id. It’s a moral tension—not one fueled by desire or fate, the key focus of its spiritual/aesthetic antecedents. When Mimi ghosts on a vampire cocktail party where the gorgeous, aristocratic and terminally dull undead are discussing synthetic blood as it relates to the healthcare industry, one simply cannot blame her. Going home to have a threesome with strangers while blasting Black Mountain is the only reasonable reaction to this turn of events.

Kiss of the Damned
So. Many. Cocktail parties.

Apparently the life of a vampire in the 21st Century is an endless series of smarmy, rich-liberal cocktail parties. Truly a fate worse than death.

Untamable Mimi is the only vampire who has any zeal at all. She’s out at night, fucking and tearing the throats out of horny heshers in back alleys, existing moment to moment like a beautiful feral creature. Meanwhile, Djuna and Paolo’s initially fiery sex life dwindles to conversations about vacations in Rome and buying a nice house in the country.

Kiss of the Damned

This is where I return to my theory that the movie only works as satire. There is simply no way that unimaginative materialism and pair-bonding are things to be desired by eternal beings. Hell, human beings go through midlife crises after a decade or two in this situation—existing that way until the end of time is almost inconceivably awful. It’s an endless beige vista of concern over appliance colors and feigned interest in cocktail party conversations.

Vampirism may look glossy and desirable here, but it’s really a commitment to an unending social nightmare. It’s set in Connecticut, for god’s sake—is there a more dire place than fucking Connecticut? They’re vampires; vampires don’t commute and therefore don’t have to live in bedroom communities.

Mimi’s death under the blazing heat of the sun occurs under the watch of Djuna and Paolo’s maid. Reading this as anything other than satire is just soul-killing. Everything about this model-lovely couple is completely passive and utterly incompetent, relying on money (that comes from…?) and that blissful cushion of innate rightness in which people who are part of the mainstream seem to float.

Kiss of the Damned
Endless fucking cocktails. In luxe hotel bathrobes.

Seriously—the maid gets rid of their problems, guys. THE MAID. And then they kiss, get into their expensive car and drive to the airport to fly to Europe.

Let’s compare that with Jean Rollin’s “Lips of Blood,” a film that has some cursory narrative similarities (man falls in love with unknown woman who turns out to be a vampire) and ends with our lovers drifting out to sea together in a coffin, an image of beauty and poetic significance.

By taking its influences from vintage erotic vampire films, “Kiss of the Damned” is either intended to be scathing satire (it’s almost successful, in spite of long periods of dire seriousness) or an update overlaid with liberal American social values, which is a possibility almost too depressing to contemplate.

“Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” [1977]

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats - PosterAs most of you will agree, the 1970s were a great time for weird cinema, but there’s at least one movie that was simply too bizarre to get distribution. Naturally, the idea of “the movie too weird for the 70s” is like catnip to cult cinema fans, due in no small part to the fact that titles like “Zardoz” and “Day of the Dolphin” (tagline: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States”) DID get distribution.

None of these movies can hold a candle to “Death Bed: The Bed that Eats,” though. The only film by writer/director/producer George Barry, “Death Bed” was made on a micro-budget around 1977 and unsuccessfully shopped around. That could have been the end of the story, but pirate prints turned up in Europe in the early 80s and screened in sticky-floor cinemas without the knowledge of the director. The spark of the cult had begun, and by the early 2000s, George Barry stumbled into a comment thread about his movie on the Scarlet Street horror forums. Unbeknownst to him, his never-released movie had developed a following, and Barry was able to secure a limited DVD release for his movie twenty-six years after it was made.

“Death Bed” suffers from what we’ll call Unique Narrative Challenges. Most of the story is told using a voice-over from a character who is trapped inside of a painting*–not exactly the most engaging way to move a story along. It’s also crammed full of jarring tonal shifts that make you unsure of whether you’re watching a black comedy or a sincere work of psychedelia. The backstory of the killer bed’s creation in the wake of a failed demonic seduction is really quite lyrical, but then you remember you’re watching a movie about a piece of furniture that eats people.

*It’s pretty clear that this character is meant to be decadent-era illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose work had a new surge of popularity in the late 60s/early 70s. “Death Bed” is even cooler if you assume that it’s an attempt at a highly-symbolic Aubrey Beardsley biopic.

Possibly the single greatest challenge faced by the movie is that it’s the only body count flick** that features not one but TWO inanimate objects as main characters: the bed and the narrator-painting. The best way to get the flavor of the movie “too weird for the 70s” is to watch a clip–so let’s do that!

**That I know of, anyway. Scholars: feel free to weigh in on this assertion!

4-minute “Death Bed – The Bed That Eats” from Tenebrous Kate on Vimeo.

[Adapted from material originally presented in October 2013 at Kevin Geeks Out: All About Evil]

Mortuary Academy [1988]

Mortuary Academy - PosterMarketers dream of movies that come with built-in audiences. Feature films capitalize on childhood nostalgia (“I, too, played with those robots that turn back-and-forth into cars!”), fleeting zeitgeist (there were two lambada movies in 1990, only one of which featured Sid Haig as a witch doctor) and just plain rote name recognition (fairy tales exist in the public domain, prompting a significantly more recent single-year cinematic double-tap) to put asses in seats. There’s got to be a super-brief “elevator pitch” to catch the ticket-buyer’s attention and part that ticket-buyer from its corresponding cash. And since people are awful, that hook has to be familiar. “Lords of Salem,” for example, delivered on its promise to be “Rosemary’s Baby” meets “The Devils,” but it also met “tedious” and “pulled punches” somewhere along the road and never consummated its date, instead preferring to spend its time eating disco fries in a diner all night while spitting half-baked philosophy.

“Mortuary Academy” is “Police Academy” meets “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” that also met “misanthropy” and “grotesquerie” somewhere along the road and swapped out the Ramones with a band of Satanists who flirted with Nazi imagery. But by the time folks who’d bought their tickets for the kooky, off-color comedy promised in comparison one and two realized all that other stuff it was too late. The deed was done, the VHS rented, the seat effectively filled, hearts were broken and hopes destroyed.

This is a toxic horror of a movie, and I think I’m in love.

Every raunchy 80s comedy has the equivalent of THIS scene.
Every raunchy 80s comedy has the equivalent of THIS scene.

Brothers Max and Sam Grimm are due to inherit their recently-deceased uncle’s mortuary and its attached teaching facility, but only under the condition that they successfully complete the mortuary’s training program. Little do the brothers know that the corrupt Dr. Paul Truscott is embezzling from the business and has no intention of allowing the Grimms to graduate and take away his cash cow. In classic 80s comedy fashion, the academy is filled with wacky characters (Guy who does robotic stuff! Rapping guy! Mass murderer! Dumb lady-person! Foreigner!) and plentiful hijinks ensue.

So far, so predictable, right?

The nature of these hijinks is significantly different from what one might encounter elsewhere. In similar films, a bit of unexpected potty-time, a little “oops ‘er tits are out” and a dollop of stereotype-based humor (of the variety that causes internet circa now to collapse into itself in a social-justice-hashtag-fueled black hole) would suffice. “Mortuary Academy” kindly asks you to go fuck yourself and presents all of that plus a veritable cornucopia of gross-out gags at the expense of dead bodies. “Loved ones” are subjected to a variety of post-mortem indignities, ranging from cremains stuck in the hair to mauled bodies dumped out of their caskets mid-funeral to a central storyline based around the repeated sexual violation of a virginal teenager’s corpse.

Allow me to be frank: I wish I wrote this script. It’s filled with acerbic dialogue (count on the fact that I will be slandering an enemy as a “toxic vagina” at some point soon) and bizarre details (there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for the sex-toy themed car’s inclusion, but by god I’m glad it’s there).

Mortuary Academy

This brings us to an important turning point in our discussion. The mind that penned “Mortuary Academy” is that of Paul Bartel, who plays the role of Dr. Truscott and who also starred in and wrote the 1982 black comedy “Eating Raoul.” Thumbnail plot for those of us who did not plumb the depths of the “Cult” section at their local video stores: sexually repressed couple murder swingers for their money, crimes gets discovered by a con man, uses various methods to try to dispose of con man. Kink, violence, drugs and cannibalism occur; a good time is had by all. Tonally, “Mortuary Academy” is a good companion piece to “Eating Raoul”—there’s a generalized dislike of human beings combined with deliberately provocative, frequently revolting comedy setpieces.

Joining Bartel in the role of academy instructor Mary Purcell is his “Eating Raoul” co-star Mary Woronov. A veteran of scores of exploitation and genre movies, Woronov turns in a solid performance as a sexually voracious teacher who fears she’s losing Dr. Truscott’s affections. With a leggy physique and harsh-bird sexiness, her simmering sexuality is a terrific foil to the chubby, hirsute and somewhat saturnine Bartel. The pair has an undeniable comic chemistry. I’ll also take a moment to note that both Bartel and Woronov appeared in “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” together, bolstering the “x meets y” theory I posited above.

Mortuary Academy

But we’re not done with noteworthy cast members! In the role of hunky Grimm brother Max is Christopher Atkins, star of teen romance “The Blue Lagoon.” That one person who’s been writing “Blue Lagoon”/”Death Race 2000” slashfic can rejoice in knowing that the lead of the former hooks up with Calamity Jane from the latter about midway through “Mortuary Academy.” Reliably weird character actor Tracey Walter (who I shall forever equate with the “plate o’ shrimp” bit from “Repo Man”) and Anthony James (a quintessential “That Guy” villain of the 70s and 80s with stringy, dark hair and sallow, pockmarked complexion) play students in the academy, capitalizing on their respective “geek” and “creep” stock characters.

Mortuary Academy
Only liars don’t love a Wolfman Jack appearance.

In much the same way that the Ramones are referenced throughout “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” so Radio Werewolf is referenced throughout “Mortuary Academy.” With a manager played by Wolfman Jack, the band is spoken about in reverential tones by numerous characters, all of whom are HUGE FANS. Repeated reference is made to the band playing a concert “at the arena,” a highly unlikely event as Radio Werewolf had yet to put out its debut record.

Mortuary Academy
Radio Werewolf circa 1987

Let’s take a moment to chat about Radio Werewolf. Formed in the mid-1980s in LA, the band was part of that city’s burgeoning deathrock scene, dubbing their performances “Radio Werewolf Youth Rallies.” The band sported styles that combined Dracular realness with copious hairspray and Weimar Berlin, and its songs discussed macabre topics including serial killers, vampires, necrophilia and other gothic-flavored horrors. As you might surmise from the aforementioned “Youth Rallies,” the band also embraced Nazi iconography. The band took its name from a Nazi commando group and one of their most controversial tracks is “Triumph of the Will,” a “Producers”-worthy bit of camp about an aging SS officer. Shortly after the filming of “Mortuary Academy,” Anton LaVey’s daughter Zeena joined the group—she would go on to marry frontman Nikolas Schreck. The two participated under the Radio Werewolf name in the 8/8/88 Satanic rally alongside fellow provocateurs Boyd Rice and Adam Parfrey. Shortly thereafter, Schreck was the only remaining of the band seen in “Mortuary Academy,” other members having departed for various reasons that may or may not have had to do with growing embrace of the band’s work by neo-Nazis.

That’s a round-about explanation as to why the final scene, in which Radio Werewolf performs at a Bar Mitzvah, is profoundly uncomfortable and probably also a thing of genius.

Mortuary Academy

By fulfilling its promise of being a zany 80s comedy (complete with “save the rec center” third act) while cramming as much mean-spirited ickiness into its ninety minute run time as possible, “Mortuary Academy” plays like a huge middle finger. It’s a beautifully-executed act of trolling, refreshing in all its wrongness. For the sort of person who will take that as a recommendation, take it upon yourself to seek out this dusty VHS gem.