Friday, October 04, 2013

Damned If You Do

Joséphine de La Baume in Kiss of the Damned

The obvious touchstone for Xan Casavettes's 60s vampire pastiche, Kiss of the Damned (2012) is Jean Rollin, who made vampire movies and other horror movies that straddle the art house and the grindhouse, and most of the writing I've seen about the film makes that connection early and often. What's perhaps under-perceived is the debt this film owes to the surrealists and the symbolists. The roots of the Euro-vampire film, whether lowbrow trash like Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos or upscale trash like Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses are not found in Hammer films or Murnau, but are rather derived from Cocteau (particularly L'enfants Terribles, his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville), Franju, and Alain Resnais, whose Last Year at Marienbad contains the same kind of dream logic and vaguely erotic ennui that permeates its more sanguinary descendants. Marienbad provides the art-vampire film with one of it's signature performers in Delphine Seyrig, who would later star in Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness in a performance that is intended to invoke her work for Resnais. Kiss of the Damned is (self-)aware of this tradition, and isn't coy about cluing the audience into it. In an early scene, for instance, it conflates Viridiana with a vampire movie on late-night television. In another, its heroine meets the object of her desire in a late-night video store that still has VHS tapes on the shelf. It's a funny wink and a nod, though the film is generally deadly serious. This is a film out of its time and it knows it, and its great misfortune is to appear after decades of tragic neurasthenic vampires have crowded the marketplace. But then again, Anne Rice was influenced by Jean Rollin, too.

The story finds elegant vampiress, Djuna, falling for handsome screenwriter, Paulo. She doesn't want to harm him, but she desires him. The feeling is mutual, and Paulo eventually allows Djuna to feed on him and turn him into a vampire. Their romantic idyll is disrupted, though, by the arrival of Mimi, Djuna's wild child vampire sister, who has no use for the upscale vampire set's new-found ethical attitude toward human beings. She's a predator and she revels in it. She thinks Djuna is a hypocrite and finds Djuna and Paulo's romance laughable. She conspires to wreck it. In doing so, Mimi threatens the stability of the whole vampire community...

While Kiss of the Damned's roots may be in the 1960s and 70s, its form is very much of the present moment. It's filmed with saturated digital images and cut faster than anything in the Euro-horror canon. It's a film with a more adventurous approach to its sexuality, too, though that has its drawbacks. It's not so much a recreation as it is a reinvention. What it retains from its source tradition is a feeling of tired decadence, of loneliness and sexual longing, and an obsession with contemporary styles at the most ridiculous leading edge. It's not immune to other traditions of the horror genre, though. When Paulo's coke-snorting agent comes looking for him, it's only a matter of time that he's vampire food. Moral transgressions of a more banal variety are often death sentences in horror movies, even outside the bounds of the slasher movie.

Joséphine de La Baume in Kiss of the Damned

This shares a deficiency with its Euro-horror role models, though. It's not really very scary. That's par for the course for most vampire movies these days and there's no shame in it. This isn't a film that's interested in visceral shocks so much as it's concerned with more esoteric existential states: loneliness, regret, doomed desires. These resonate--particularly if one has experience of any of these moods--but they're not prone to set narrative hooks. Indeed, they can be enervating, sometimes feeling more like calculated poses than organic scenes, which works against the film's watchability. Not too much, though.

I was genuinely surprised at the way the sex scenes in this were filmed. They're more physical than the soft-core couplings in Rollin, and more creatively-filmed than the type of scenes in more mainstream cinema. This uses short lenses to project body parts into interesting angles, and there's a ferocity to the couplings that suggests a genuine sexual gusto. This is refreshing in an American cinema that sometimes treats sex scenes as a chore and invests no creativity in them. It doesn't hurt that the film is stocked with absolutely gorgeous people in stars Joséphine de La Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, and Roxane Mesquida, and the film occasionally deploys them like fashion plates (particularly at gatherings of the vampire elite). A surprising number of the actors here are French, reinforcing the film's overall allusions and making the film seem like it has been dubbed when it hasn't, but also highlighting something that the French have always known about movies: Watching gorgeous people have sex is one of the pleasures for which the cinema was invented, after all...

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 3

First Time Viewings: 3

Around the Web:

Vitus Werdegast has gotten out of the gates fast with posts about The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and The Comeback.

Dr. AC over at Horror 101 takes on Harold's Going Stiff without needing a stiff one himself.

Horrifying Reviews, meanwhile, adds the much-delayed All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes to his October portfolio.

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number is underwhelmed by Terror Tract.

1 comment:

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I think I will have to check this one out. Thanks for the heads up!