The vampires in “Kiss of the Damned” don’t sparkle and play baseball in daylight. When the sun hits them, they have the old-school decency to bubble and burn like an overbaked crust of potatoes au gratin. And if the “Twilight” vampires are a long way from scary … well, so are the ones here. But they’re as cheesy as that side dish, and as unhealthy a guilty pleasure.
Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John and Gena Rowlands) wrote and directed this homage to the semi-nudie, semi-sapphic 1970s vampire films of French director Jean Rollin. You know, the auteur responsible for “The Nude Vampire,” “The Rape of the Vampire,” “Schoolgirl Hitchhikers” and oh so many more.
Not a connoisseur of his oeuvre? That’s OK. More generally, Cassavetes is celebrating a 1970s Euro-grindhouse aesthetic that has its own distinct place among film genres. (Ti West’s “House of the Devil,” from 2009, is also a slow-burn film that’s a valentine to the endearingly clunky tropes of ’70s horror, and it’s worth checking out.) Cassavetes made the really good documentary “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” about Los Angeles’ glorious, doomed TV station that championed foreign, indie and underseen cult films. She knows from pastiche, and the result is uneven but often fun.
Milo Ventimiglia (from the good-then-awful series “Heroes”) plays Paolo in “Kiss of the Damned.” He’s a screenwriter who falls under the spell (and teeth) of a beautiful Eurotrash vampire named Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume). She lives languorously in gauzy soft focus in a sprawling Northeastern lake house. In a nice reversal of a central vampire myth, after Paolo first meets her, he pursues her home — and begs for her to let him in.
After writhing for a while, clad in negligee and chained to her bed, Djuna gives in to her urges, lets her fangs fly and chomps on Paolo’s neck. Besides that pesky problem with sunlight, the main adjustment he has to make in joining the undead is having to go with Djuna to “sophisticated” parties. They’re thrown by other exquisitely dressed vampires, who dully debate the necessity of putting up with the puny human race.
Oh, he’s also stuck with an in-law problem: Djuna’s wild-child sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) comes to stay at the lake house for a week, and she seems determined to sloppily slaughter as many people as she can, in between three-ways. And the annoying Michael Rapaport turns up as Paolo’s agent just long enough to be, well, annoying, then happily get what’s coming to him.
“Kiss of the Damned” doesn’t add up to much besides its playful re-creation of genre. The acting is sometimes enjoyably, intentionally flat. At other times, you can’t help but wonder whether we’re just dealing with limited acting skills. While it’s nice that “Kiss” doesn’t lapse into wink-wink self-parody, Cassavetes might have gotten more mileage by letting someone else take a pass at her script.
It’s short on surprises, memorable lines and (save for one genuinely creepy nighttime stalking scene) suspense. But I’d recommend it to film buffs. Then again, I was one of the seven people who actually paid to see the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez drive-in double bill “Grindhouse” back in 2007. Like that double feature, “Kiss of the Damned” is, ahem, an acquired taste.
“Kiss of the Damned.” With Joséphine de La Baume, Milo Ventimiglia, Roxane Mesquida. Written and directed by Xan Cassavetes. Rated R. 97 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
If you’re, um, thirsty for some other movies that take a distinct angle on vampire mythology, consider the ones suggested here.