I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’m saying it now: when it comes to balancing horror and comedy, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is the goal. I mean, there ones I love just as much that I consider a little heavier on the goofiness, like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and EVIL DEAD 2, but AMERICAN WEREWOLF is that ideal where it’s a perfectly serious horror movie and also it’s funny because of the situations and the way the story is told, and neither quality takes away from the other, in fact they only enhance each other.
Well, what seemed like a million years later, but was actually only eleven, director John Landis did a far lesser known but confidently crafted horror-movie-that-is-funny, this time in the vampire realm. INNOCENT BLOOD tells the story of an out of control couple of nights in Pittsburgh when a well(ish)-intentioned bloodsucker named Marie (Anne Parillaud, LA FEMME NIKITA) decides to feed on the local mafia, and it turns into a big mess.
When we first meet her she’s regretting having killed her lover. It’s a choice that’s left her hungry and horny. But she reads about these mobsters in the newspaper and figures they would be no big loss to society. She’s clearly a pro at this seduction shit – literally bumping into people on the street, standing close to them, giving looks, making it happen. We’ve seen this kind of thing before but then she’s necking with Chazz Palminteri (only two movies after “Hood No. 2” in THE LAST DRAGON) in his car and suddenly her eyes light up (literally, they glow), she roars like a cat and just starts tearing chunks out of him. There’s definitely a hint of Thriller in this one, though sadly there’s no dancing.
The narrative often leaves Marie to follow the gang. It feels like a legit mafia movie, with lots of detail about how their operation works, funny dialogue and tense punishments of alleged traitors or failures. The boss is Sal Macelli (Robert Loggia, PSYCHO II), who gives a little speech about how useful a toaster oven is before beating a guy’s head in with it. Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE) seems most stressed by this sadistic overkill, and it turns out to be because he’s an undercover cop. But he gets outed by the press and his boss (Angela Bassett, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, the year after she did CRITTERS 4). So now he has to try to complete his bust from the outside.
Oh yeah, and also he sees Marie’s glowing eyes and hears her growling and then she leaps nimbly off a building and lands on her feet. So that complicates the case too.
The real trouble comes when Marie bites Sal but gets chased off by a henchman before she can finish him off. So he wakes up in the morgue, pissed that there’s a thermometer stabbed into him and not understanding what the fuck is going on. The real comedy of the movie comes as he walks out of the morgue in front of the press, steals a car and attempts to go back to his normal life, not really grasping what exactly he has become. His minions are shocked by his ghoulish looks and strange behavior, they worry and exchange looks with each other, but just as I imagine you or I would do, they are not about to believe, or at least say out loud, that Sal must be a vampire, and they still try to follow his orders and kiss his ass.
Pretty soon he figures out that he can turn his guys undead and have a much more dangerous gang. After he bites his lawyer Manny (Don Rickles, KELLY’S HEROES, in his movie before CASINO), the (sort of) poor guy seems half dead and winds up in the hospital. When he wakes with new strength and the light-up eyes he sneaks up behind a nurse (Linnea Quigley, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT) just a second too late because she pulls the blinds open and the sun turns his face into embers. The hospital staff run around with exactly the highest level of panic before “too broad.”
It’s also a sexy movie. There’s some real tension when Marie tries to seduce Joe and she genuinely only wants to do him but he thinks she wants to kill him but also he clearly wants to give in if it’s only sex and then when he does he doesn’t notice how tempted she is to bite him. Parillaud nails it. Maybe having her instead of a big name American movie star contributed to the movie’s financial failure, but she finds this great balance of alien and predatory and sympathetic.
And it’s an even better role for Loggia. He’s already darkly funny within the confines of the normal mob boss role at the beginning, then he gets to be more and more outrageous as it goes along, and his flesh looks rotten and he’s laying on a pile of frozen meat and biting guys and all kinds of shit. Just having a grand old time. Rickles too.
The effects are not as elaborate as AMERICAN WEREWOLF, because these monsters are mostly human-looking, but I was really impressed by them. I’m honestly not sure how they did their eyes or the scene where Sal rants while on fire and turning to charcoal. There’s definitely some mix of fire stunt and effects there but it does not have the crude quality I would expect if it was cg in 1992. Steve Johnson (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, DEAD HEAT, SPECIES) gets a credit for special makeup effects, but I don’t know if that stuff is him or not.
In the Landis tradition there are a bunch of director cameos, including Frank Oz as the coroner, Sam Raimi as the head of a mob front meat warehouse, and Dario Argento as a creepo paramedic. I mean the character is just an ordinary medical professional, but he looks like a creep. Tom Savini shows up a couple times too. Also there’s a reoccurring motif of old black and white monster movies showing on TVs, and it’s amusing whenever some criminal pauses to admire a favorite part in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or whatever.
It should also be noted that Prince and the New Power Generation’s “Gett Off” is playing in a strip club in one part. I think that also happened in THE LAST BOY SCOUT.
The story behind Landis making the movie is kind of funny. He told Filmmaker Magazine that he and Harry Shearer had rewritten a script called RED SLEEP by Mick Garris and Richard Christian Matheson. It was about Las Vegas being run by vampires and a character called Duke of the Dark who Landis describes as a cross between Sinatra, Elvis, Wayne Newton, Siegfried & Roy, Liberace and Howard Hughes. “It was sort of a satire on the Rat Pack, if the Rat Pack were in fact vampires, and I liked it a lot – it had musical numbers and a lot of wild stuff in it.” But he says when they turned it in the studio said “What the fuck?” But they had this script INNOCENT BLOOD by Michael Wolk and he liked it so he did it instead.
The Blu-Ray from Warner Archive looks great – probly better than you’ve ever seen it. Apparently it’s the first time it’s been on video in the proper aspect ratio, and the first time ever for Landis’ preferred cut (with 2 minutes that had been cut for the MPAA, but not other stuff added back in by mistake in the European cut).
December 12th, 2018 at 10:36 am
I had the good fortune to see this movie (plus the full version of “Thriller”) at a screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a Landis Q&A afterward. It was a great time. Not only did Landis solidify his position as the world’s greatest living raconteur, seeing the film on the big screen definitely gave me more respect for it (my opinion of “Thriller” was largely unchanged). Everybody in it is going for the gusto at all times, and the effects are really effective in that “How the hell did they do that?” way you just don’t see anymore because the answer is always “Computers.” It’s a film that’s not afraid to go for slapstick AND erotica AND gore AND pathos, sometimes all at the same time. There’s an indefinable quality to Landis’ directing style that allows all of them competing elements room to breathe. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is.
This was the Q&A where Landis told my favorite Vincent Price story. As you all know, Price performed the “rap” in the middle of “Thriller.” What you may not know is that Price was paid a pittance for his work. He did it mostly as a lark, thinking it was some fun little novelty song, not realizing that it would go on to anchor the biggest fucking album of all time. Price never felt he was sufficiently compensated for his contributions to the track and felt betrayed by Michael and the production team.
So Landis tells us how he ran into Price at some kind of event at Tower Records in New York. This was in the early 90s, right around when Michael’s first pedophilia scandal was coming out. Price asks Landis if he thinks the rumors are true. Landis, trying to be diplomatic, says he certainly hopes not. So Price says, in that booming, grandiloquent voice of his, loud enough for the entire store to hear, “WELL HE CERTAINLY FUCKED ME!”
My contribution to the Q&A was asking Landis why a movie shot and set in Pittsburgh had no Romero cameo, and he said he tried but George had the flu that day. So there you go.