MOVIE REVIEW : 'The Kiss': It's Smart and Sassy but Not for the Faint-Hearted

Times Staff Writer

"The Kiss" (citywide) is the "Cat People" for the late '80s--and a much more effective film than Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 classic. It's smart, fast and sassy, as much fun as it is scary in its shock-cut grisliness--but absolutely not for the faint-of-heart. It's a fine feature debut for British-born Canadian director Pen Densham.

Joanna Pacula was born to play Felice, the film's beautiful but oddly unsettling heroine. The high cheek bones and the slant of her eyes give Pacula an exotic quality that is heightened by her slight Polish accent. Her Felice appears out of nowhere in pleasant suburban Albany, N.Y., in the wake of the terrible death of her long-estranged sister, killed by a runaway van. Her teen-age niece Amy (Meredith Salenger), responding to her instincts, is immediately wary of her calm and seemingly considerate aunt, but her nice-guy father Jack (Nicholas Kilbertus), a struggling architect, is mesmerized by Felice.

Densham and writers Stephen Volk (who wrote "Gothic" for Ken Russell) and Tom Ropelewski let us in on Felice's horrifying secrets. It's enough to say that they have to do with African supernatural mumbo jumbo, not to be taken too seriously. In fact, Felice's rituals would seem downright silly but for Pacula's ability to make them outrageously sexy.

The film makers are adept in playing the most bizarre and grisly happenings against an atmosphere of the utmost normality. Amy and her friends Heather (Sabrina Boudot) and Terry (Shawn Levy) are completely endearing high school kids and the film is solidly anchored to reality by Amy and Jack's next-door neighbor, Brenda (Mimi Kuzyk), a down-to-earth school nurse and mother figure for Amy. All the roles are exceptionally well-written for a horror picture, especially that of Brenda, played with such no-nonsense warmth by Kuzyk, best known for her Det. Patsy Mayo on "Hill Street Blues." Kuzyk is a terrific actress, a Kate Nelligan without the pretensions. Levy and Salenger, who starred in "The Journey of Natty Gann" and "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon," are most promising.

"The Kiss" (rated R for sex and violence) is a potent calling card for Pen Densham, who knows his way around the horror genre, draws the best from his cast and handles action and gore with flair and dispatch.

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