A high society vampire picture that hearkens back to horror films of the past, Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned firstly strikes me as one of the most beautiful films in recent memory. There are some style versus substance questions that need to be pondered when looking at the whole picture, which is light on plot and visually playful, but the one thing that is certain is that the film makes a strong impression.
The story is a simple one - reclusive female vampire falls in love with a human, turns him into a vampire despite her reservations, then risks losing him and her way of life to her returning sister - who is a much more violent and uninhibited member of their vampire clan. You could say what follows is a romantic vampire story, especially if you consider graphic (but not pornographic) sexual encounters and a bit of bloodletting romantic. (And if you do, I'm not judging. More power to ya.)
There's a decidedly European feel to the proceedings, with French actresses Josephine de La Baume and Roxane Mesquida carrying the film as the two vampire sisters. The former is Djuna, who takes in a screenwriter played by Milo Ventimiglia and helps him adapt to the nonviolent code of vampire life, apparently thinking that maintaining a low profile is key to the preservation of the species. Her thoughts are shared by many vampires in power, but are shunned by her flamboyant sister Mimi (played by Mesquida, who genre fans might recognize from Rubber) who just wants to eat and screw people and thinks everyone else - including her sister's new lover - should feel the same way.
The actresses aren't the only European thing about the film, as horror aficionados will see obvious connections to both the work of England's Hammer Films and the oversexualized vampire films that came out of Italy and Spain in the 1970s. Your approach to the film will probably determine which aspect of those '70s films will have an effect on you - optimistic viewers might focus on the visual style and reliance on music to set the tone, while pessimistic viewers might struggle with the somewhat stilted performances of the stars - particularly Mesquida, who might grate on viewers through her performance. I was most interested in the film's style, with scenes that seem straight out of The Brides of Dracula or Daughters of Darkness helping me to accept the film's flaws more easily.
While Mesquida's tone in the film is somewhat obnoxious - I attribute this more to language barriers than the choices made by the actress - it's her interactions with the other vampires that push Kiss of the Damned to its best moments for me. The interactions between her and her sister are intense conflicts of personality, and her few scenes with the matriarch of this vampire culture (played by another French actress named Anna Mouglais) are perhaps the most interesting in the film. There's a neat connection of vampirism and addiction that comes out here and, though it's something that's been done plenty of times before, it makes me more interested in Mimi's attempts to revolutionize and corrupt the vampire system that rules the film.
Kiss of the Damned isn't an example of great storytelling, but it works for me because it takes vampirism back to the basics and manages to create a feud that is full of dangerous tension - both through its violence and its sex. Writer/director Cassavetes (the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands) shows a lot of skill with this debut feature, and has created a film that I will remember as one of the most artistic horror films of the year. If you want to see a truly adult themed vampire tale, you could do a lot worse than Kiss of the Damned.