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Kiss of the Damned

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'Kiss of the Damned' sucks its sources dry
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

If you took English lit courses in college, you may recall a famed essay by scholar Harold Bloom called "The Anxiety of Influence." Watching "Kiss of the Damned," a horror movie written and directed by Xan Cassavetes, I was struck by the lack of anxiety in its influence; by how blithe the movie was in its pastiche, as if a hipster Jean Rollin knockoff was something the filmmaker was entirely entitled to create.

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Rollin, who died in 2010, did not start in the filmmaking business really wanting to make low-budget vampire movies with a strong erotic component. It just so happened that the surrealism-loving artist found his niche there and created some very distinctive works in the genre, including the memorably titled "The Rape of the Vampire."

Making her first dramatic feature, Cassavetes, who previously directed the documentary "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession," breaks out the Rollin hallmarks immediately: a beautiful, mysterious woman (Josephine de La Baume) in a stately, remote house near the water, alone, occupying her time watching a Luis Buñuel movie, her stately solitude interrupted by montages of abstract violence and bloodletting. The woman, named Djuna, is then absorbed in the more quotidian activity of returning videos, and at the store she glimpses bearded, ultra-sultry Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). And because Xan Cassavetes is not just a person of refined hipster taste but also a child of Hollywood, Paolo is also a screenwriter, and because he's a screenwriter he is very dissatisfied. A hookup with a vampire, for that's what Djuna is, whaddya know, might be just the thing to take him out of his doldrums.

The images of violence that haunt Djuna are memories of her woodland hunts. In the rules Cassavetes has adopted for her bloodsuckers, their secret society of refined artistic undead can subsist on animal blood. It's one way they keep the peace with humanity. But soon enough Djuna has "turned" Paolo, who's super into his heightened senses and the ultra-awesome undead sex (although the question of how male potency is achieved in a body without a heartbeat was not explained to this viewer's satisfaction), and not particularly bothered by the fact that he can't go outside in the daytime much anymore. Into this reverse-morality Eden struts Djuna's trampy sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who doesn't mind killing humans to get off. She says she's just stopping by for a week on her way to vampire rehab (no, really), but it soon becomes clear she's not interested in getting better.

Yes, given Cassavetes' lineage and its portrayal of vampire bohemia, one could infer there's a whole lot of metaphor going on, and maybe some of it's autobiographical, if you care. For this viewer the genre tropes were mildly diverting, the nasty sibling rivalry a little more so, a few of the plot twists engaging, but the whole thing had a sour rich-kid in-crowd redolence that would have excited serious resentment in a person less emotionally mature than myself. The only time Cassavetes gets close to delivering a genuine Rollin-style frisson is when Mimi tempts the equivalent of a vampire vegan with virgin bait, and the comeuppance experienced by a character at the climax is pretty juicy. Nevertheless, I continue to hold Cassavetes' source material in higher esteem, as it's, you'll excuse the phrase, purer of heart.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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