There’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.