United States. 95 minutes. Directed by Xan Cassavettes, 2012. Starring Joséphine de la Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, Roxane Mesquida, Anna Mouglalis, Michael Rooker.

When screenwriter Paolo meets the lovely, reclusive foreign-literature translator Djuna, he becomes instantly obsessed with her–and his discovery that she’s really a vampire only makes him want her more. Djuna turns Paolo (with some reluctance), with their relationship developing positively–until Djuna’s sociopathic and hedonistic sister (in both the familial and vampiric senses of the word) Mimi turns up on the scene. Mimi’s antics threaten to destroy everything Djuna has built, not to mention the local vampire community in general…

It looks like the next big trend in “throwback” horror cinema might be pastiches of the lush, erotically-charged and vividly violent horrors of the late ’60s and ’70s. Belgian filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have gained some notice with their heavily giallo-styled efforts such as Amer and the ABCs of Death segment “O is for Orgasm”. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio was a psychological thriller which took place behind the scenes of a Fulci-esque Euro-gore flick.

Now there’s Kiss of the Damned, which often feels like a late-period Hammer vampire flick (think The Vampire Lovers or Vampire Circus) as directed by Dario Argento. Director Xan Cassavetes (the daughter of film legends John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, making her feature début) turns Kiss into one of the most beautiful horror films I’ve seen in a long time. She manages the neat trick of being able to wear her influences on her sleeve without copying too obviously, while the design is beautiful and the camera work impeccable. The atmosphere–alternating between sensuality and existential dread–is quite impressive; this is one of the few erotic thrillers I’ve seen that I actually found sexy. Top it all off with an impressive retro soundtrack and score, and what you have is an exemplary exercise in style.

It’s a good thing that the style is so strong, because Cassavetes presents very little of substance. The three leads–high-end lingerie model Joséphine de La Baume as Djuna, Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls, Heroes) as Paolo and Roxane Mesquida (Rubber) as Mimi–are exceptionally attractive, and there’s definite chemistry between Ventimiglia and de La Baume. But their performances are limp and flat, and they’re not able to invest anything their characters do (other than fucking) with the merest fraction of credibility. A couple of supporting players–Anna Mouglalis as Xenia, Djuna and Mimi’s vampiric mother figure, and Michael Rapaport as Paolo’s slightly sleazy agent–do a bit better. But the stilted dialogue doesn’t do anybody any favors.

The story isn’t particularly inspiring on paper–the major theme is a conflict between a staid and conservative vampiric faction and a wildly Dionysian one, with lots of philosophical discussion and vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, so nothing even remotely reminiscent of Anne Rice here–but it’s not one that’s intrinsically a bad idea: the first season of the U.K. version of Being Human does quite well with the same elements. But the characterization doesn’t play to anybody’s strengths: the last thing the audience wants this lot of glorified underwear spokesmodels to do is sit around discussing philosophy and politics. (At the very least, get a cast that can do it convincingly.)

The plotting is also very weak: most of the first act–pretty much anything that happens before Mimi shows up can be dispensed with, as it’s largely not-all-that-necessary exposition, and Cassavetes, Ventimiglia and de La Baume don’t do a very good job of portraying how Paolo and Djuna fall so deeply in love with each other in twenty-five minutes. An in medias res opening would have been much stronger. And the world-building is exceptionally typical: except for a couple of nice touches, this is the same boilerplate vampire society we see in every other lazily-conceived vampire movie or TV show.

While the visuals are memorable throughout and there are are a couple of strong scenes, mostly late in the film (Xenia dealing with her fetish for virgin blood and a powerful scene involving Djuna and Paolo’s sadly underused human caretaker), Kiss of the Damned is unfortunately a prime example of style-over-substance leading to wasted potential. It disappoints in so many ways, but none of those ways cuts so sharply as the fact that it should have been a lot better.

KISS OF THE DAMNED poster

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