It’s not surprising that Xan Cassavetes, like her brother Nick and sister Zoe, is trying to be a filmmaker. After all, her father, the late great John and her mother, the indomitable Gena Rowlands, are indie cinema iconoclasts. Such a lineage makes anything coming from the new Cassavetes clan worthy of attention, even if the collective results so far have been less than stellar. Oh sure, Zoe’s Broken English was interesting, but Nick borders the very thin line between mainstream hitmaker (The Notebook) and hack (My Sister’s Keeper).
Xan is a bit different. Her first film was the marvelous documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, about the influential cable outlet. Now comes her Hammer Horror homage Kiss of the Damned, and while her work is definitely a step up from her siblings, this fledgling auteur still falls into the same traps many macabre revisionists do: to wit, letting style and insularity override character and viewer concerns. While this piece of vampire erotica has enough hipster cred to keep even the most ardent Twilight fan quiet, it treads some of the same lame territory that Stephanie Meyer explored in her tacky teen novels.
Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) is an evocative redhead living in a luxurious lake house outside the city. She spends her nights in various pursuits (especially watching old movies) and her days in the sleep of the undead. When she meets sultry screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) at her favorite video haunt, she’s instantly attracted to him. Such mutual lust leads to a couple of aborted sexual opportunities, though eventually, Djuna lets her new lover into her life — completely.
Now a neckbiter himself, our pair plays house while fraternizing with the Nosferatu riche. When wicked wild child Mimi (Roxane Mequida) walks back into her sister’s life, there is immediate concern. Reckless, wanton, and clearly hoping to usurp her sibling’s place in the eyes of clan Head Mistress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), she is leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake, bringing attention to a group who wants to remain solidly out of the sight of humans.
It’s hard to say if Kiss of the Damned is a complete success. It’s like a mumblecore version of Vampyros Lesbos, complete with navel-gazing conversations and ethereal shots of gloomy, fog-specked countrysides. This is the hipster Hunger, a movie that takes itself a bit too seriously while making sure such gravity leads to an actual atmosphere of dread. For all her backwards glancing, Cassavetes avoids the obviousness of someone like Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie. Her references are all subtle; hints instead of outright lifts. Her approach works, and on many occasions, it works well. Unfortunately, it’s her nearly inert cast and far too familiar storyline that let her down, if only a bit.
For all their well built allure, Ms. de la Baume and Mr. Ventimiglia have about as much chemistry as an art school curriculum. They look smashing together, but never get beyond the pretty portrait stage. Ms. Mouglalis may be a star in France, but her quirky line readings and puzzled looks just don’t work. About the only performer earning her scary movie stripes is Ms. Mequida, and she’s saddled with a typical, manipulative monster role. No real reason why she’s acting out. No real caring about the consequences of her actions.
The result is an evocative experience that’s high on mood and short on shivers. Granted, one rarely comes this kind of movie expecting to be flush with fear. Kiss of the Damned is a nice, nominal start for its creator. Given her last name, we expect something more.