I wasn’t aware that kissing a relative was an actual, universally shared phobia but here it is, a movie that exploits that fear. In Pen Desham’s 1988 horror film, “The Kiss,” Amy, a young, virginal teenager (played by Meredith Salenger) is uneasy about the presence of her Aunt Felice (Joanna Pacula), a long absent relative who randomly appears after Amy’s mother dies. Felice has a way with Amy’s family, as she charms the recently widowed dad, seems nice to Amy’s friends and quickly moves in to stay indefinitely. Amy gradually discovers that Felice has packed with her an African talisman and has a supernatural ability of making those around her disappear. It seems what Felice really wants is to kiss her niece, in order to pass on an ancient curse.
Playing Amy’s neighbor Brenda is Mimi Kuzyk, who has a good scene with Salenger in which the elder adult gives a surrogate-mother sex talk to the curious teen. It’s a natural, unrushed, well acted scene. During the end of the film, few scenes have a consistent clarity. The motivations of everyone, Felice and her intended victims, become murky. Is Felice hoping to pass down her evil legacy though a super-smooch with Amy? Was there a subplot involving Brenda and Amy’s father having an illicit attraction (it feels like it was there)?
“The Kiss” is outrageous, attractively shot and provides further proof that, even in a movie like this Salenger is a real movie star. Her charm and Pacula’s commitment to a bizarre character carry this much further than it deserves. Its unique as an 80’s horror movie that caters overtly to a female demographic. It has a female protagonist and antagonist, deals with a teen girl’s fears and curiosities regarding sex and being a virgin. There are scenes with obvious phallic symbols and an emphasis on a female teen’s perspective that sometimes (but not often enough) reminded me of “Carrie.”
A more obvious point of reference is Jacques Tournier’s 1942 “Cat People,” which also shares a subtext on the fear of sex, an exotic, accented female lead villain and scenes blending the promise of sex and death. Of course, while “Cat People” is a masterpiece and among the most influential films ever made, “The Kiss” is all but forgotten (though, it must be said, it also has a memorable scene in a swimming pool). Desham’s film skirts the line between actually working and being so-bad-its-good.
“Gorky Park” star Joanna Pacula is very good as Felice, even as the character’s overall goals become hard to place. Felice is bad, to be sure. Far better is her cat, a deadly, wild-eyed, pompadour-sporting feline who shows up, hisses and runs off from time to time. It’s a character created by Chris Walas, the Oscar winning genius who did the make-up effects on “The Fly” and had a hand in creating the “Gremlins.” While the cat from “The Kiss” isn’t among his best work (as ferocious as it is, you can always tell it’s a puppet), these moments are sublime in their unintentional goofiness. Felice may be a sinister figure but her evil, murdering cat (puppet) is hilarious.
Tri-Star Pictures did far better the same year with the witty, down and dirty, Chuck Russell-directed remake of “The Blob.” While Russell’s film also flopped, it has maintained a cult following and has a clear vision, as well as a scene of a man being pulled down a sink. “The Kiss” has yet to fully catch on but I anyone who sits through it will recall Walas’ awesome monster cat. In fact, Monster Cat may have been a better title.
Following a well-produced prolog and establishing the intriguing subtext, “The Kiss” ends as an overblown horror trifle. The aforementioned swimming pool finale is amusingly ridiculous (despite many scenes early on of Amy swimming, she can’t seem to escape her pool).
Other noteworthy film connections include Amy’s friend noting “like something out of ‘Fright Night,'” a far better horror entry. Amy and Brenda attentively watch the Marlene Dietrich/Cary Grant “Blonde Venus,” presumably because of the “Hot Voodoo” sequence (though Felice’s powers aren’t specifically tied to voodoo). Finally, playing “Terry,’ Amy’s very-interested boyfriend, is none other than Shawn Levy. While a young actor in the 80’s, Levy has gone on to direct all three of the “Night in the Museum” movies and “Real Steel.” He likely doesn’t want to be reminded of the time he was in love with the girl whose aunt could suck you dry with her deadly kiss.
A telling detail reveals itself in the resumes of the screenwriters. “The Kiss” was written by Tom Ropelewski and Stephen Volk. The former is repsonsible for the Patrick Dempsey amorous pizza boy farce “Loverboy,” but the former made his screenwriting debut with this and then, two years later, William Friedkin’s “The Guardian.” Much of “The Kiss” feels like a tryout for Friedkin’s film, which is equally campy but much scarier, more atmospheric, better produced horror film. Considering how both films have unresolved plot issues and feel like first drafts, I almost want him to give it one more shot at this story. With “The Guardian,” it’s like he was at least halfway there. “The Kiss,” on the other hand, is enjoyable B-movie junk. See it for Pacula and Salenger, stay for the evil cat.