Full disclosure: I’ve known Ronnie Khalil, writer and director of With a Kiss I Die, since middle school. I ran into him a few months ago while he was knee deep in post-production on With a Kiss, a dark romance with a vampiric twist, and he shared the film’s logline with me: the story follows the relationship between a woman and an age-old vampire named Juliet, as in “Romeo and…” Ronnie’s always had a sense of humor, and he does stand-up comedy professionally, so I assumed he was making a broad comedy. “Oh, and it’s a drama,” he said. My eyes narrowed. Really? But, impressively, he pulled it off. Kind of.
The ending of Shakespeare’s famous play is altered here. Juliet Capulet (Ella Kweku) does not die by her lover’s side of a self-inflicted knife wound. Instead, she’s found in the catacombs by the mysterious Father (George Kavgalakis), an uber-vampire, who bites and turns her before she dies. Indicative of the film’s low-budget roots, this all happens off-screen, and is related to us via text instead.
800 years later, Juliet still walks the earth, living in Greece, still pining for her lost love. She rejects her vampiric nature, living a solitary existence, feeding only when necessary on her loyal friend Amaltheo (George Kopsidas, a fascinating actor. Once you see his face, you can’t quite forget it), and then only enough to survive.
Her sad existence is interrupted by a chance meeting with an American tourist, Farryn (Paige Emerson). The two share an immediate attraction. As they get to know each other, romance begins to bloom, but the life she’s tried to leave behind looms on the horizon‑‑Father doesn’t like Juliet denying the “gift” he’s given her‑‑threatening their nascent relationship.
With a Kiss I Die: Guerilla filmmaking rarely looks this good
You have to admire the director’s chutzpa. He took an unseasoned, young crew to Greece and shot the movie on a micro-budget. The fact that he corralled these young women and men (when I was in Europe for the summer at that age, drinking and partying was the order of the day. Making a movie was the farthest thing from my mind) and made a professional looking film is nothing short of amazing.
The movie doesn’t just look professional, it looks good. True, filming in Santorini does about half the work for you, but there’s more to it than that. Most of the movie takes place during golden hour, those times right before sunrise and sunset, leaving the movie with a glow about it, a warm sheen that isn’t just pleasing to the eye but that also helps push the film’s romantic angle.
The acting is on an amateur level. That’s not an insult. It’s amateur the way a college athlete or an Olympian is an amateur. The actors are skilled, but they aren’t quite on the level of seasoned professionals; there’s a certain comfort in front of the camera, a willingness “to go there” with the emotions, but there’s a roughness to the performances, the seams still show. It helps, though, that both leads, Ella Kweku especially, have a strong screen presence; they grab and hold your attention.
With A Kiss I Die: Exploitation or something deeper?
A lesbian vampire romance sounds like it’s going to be exploitative, but the relationship at the heart of the film is handled tenderly and honestly, a straightforward, natural extension of two people fascinated with each other. And there is chemistry between the two leads; you buy into their flirtations, their attraction to one another.
But aye, there’s a rub: While I buy into their mutual attraction, when the film posits that they have a deeper connection, one that rivals the torch Juliet has been carrying for Romeo for hundreds of years, a love so strong she poisons herself, out of guilt, every night with the same poison that killed Romeo long ago, I just don’t buy that she has those same feelings for this person, whom she just met.
But where’s the excitement?
And while the romance isn’t exploitative, I wish other aspects of the film had been. The vampire action here isn’t just minimal, it’s non-existent. A special-effects heavy movie this is not. Which is fine, as the focus here clearly is on the romance. Still, the movie could have used a little something, a few action beats maybe? A little craziness, some gore to spice it up a little? What we do get is growling and bearing of teeth that once in a while reminds us that, yes, these are vampires we’re dealing with. And while some nice details are dropped here and there that deepen our understanding of what being a vampire might be like (they’re colorblind, who knew?), the movie doesn’t deliver the genre thrills that the term “vampire movie” might bring to mind. True, if the resources aren’t there to do it well, it’s probably best to leave it off the table all together. But the table here is a little empty.
I found a lot to admire in With a Kiss I Die. I enjoyed the warm and natural central relationship, and on a technical level, I was impressed with what the crew pulled off with such meager means. However, the movie never quite breaks out of its shell; that “this is good for what it is” shell. But it’s a movie hampered by budget, not ambition or talent. And if Ronnie Khalil could pull off this much with so little, I’m very curious to see what he’s going to do next.
With a Kiss I Die releases Aug 28th both domestically and internationally on DVD/BluRay and VOD services, including iTunes and Amazon.