It’s clear from the title’s typeface on the movie posters how Xan Cassavetes (John’s daughter— Xan is short for Alexandra) wants to position her debut feature, Kiss of the Damned. It’s giallo in the mode of Dario Argento— a long-lost subsection of horror in today’s age of shaky-cam Blair-Witch-lite. But giallo means more than scares; it means gore, it means sex, it means music (often by prog-rock geniuses Goblin), and, in Argento’s case, it means some of the more beautifully composed images and production design that has to be seen to be believed. One need only watch the first ten minutes of his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria to get the idea.
Cassavetes has a few of those things nailed down. She’s certainly got the sex—near pornographic at times—between Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s become quite a hunk since his days on Gilmore Girls, and various gorgeous French vampires, including his petite amie Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume). Kiss of the Damned is the anti-Twilight; instead of waiting and waiting and waiting for them to finally get it on, they’re fucking within twenty minutes. And he’s a vampire in the next five. Eliminating that will-they-won’t-they tension early on is a bold move, but Cassavetes gets it. Who buys a ticket to watch chaste vampires?
Teenage girls, that’s who. The gore is there, too, and so teenage girls beware. The one thing that’s missing is Argento’s eye for composition and movement (he’s famous for a crane shot, lasting several minutes, of a killer’s viewpoint, coming down from the roof and around the windows of an apartment building). In the course of the film there are fewer two-shots than you can count on two hands. Cinematographer Tobias Datum shoots claustrophobically closely and cuts too frequently, diminishing the visual impact of the film as a whole, though in certain scenes it works well to illustrate visceral movements of “the hunt” (the two lead vampires try to steer clear of human flesh, so they opt instead to chase possums in the woods).
All this territory will be familiar to viewers of True Blood, except this film ditches the down-home aesthetic for a Connecticut country house, and the southern accents for European ones. We all know vampirism is an old-world disease, and it seems like Cassavetes has more than enough worldly and sophisticated French scenester friends to populate a film with.
There’s this insular feeling, though, that Kiss of the Damned is less of a full feature and more of a boarding school project by expat heiresses. But Cassavetes plays it all with a wry aloofness. Paolo is a screenwriter on a retreat until he is transformed into a vampire. Strangely enough, his writing gets better the farther he drifts from humanity. His coke-addled agent shows up, and he’s ecstatic to see that Paolo has given up on “thinking he was Jean-Luc Truffaut.” And then he gets eaten.
Cassavetes doesn’t think she’s a Godard or a Truffaut or even her dad. She has a ways to go before she can even write a narrative that fully congeals. But when Paolo and Djuna share their closing kiss, and that sultry, invigorating score (somewhere between that of Tenebrae and Dead Man) kicks in, it’s clear that, given time and a better cinematographer, she might eventually be a Dario Argento.