Movie of the Month: Innocent Blood (1992)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Erin made Britnee , Brandon , and Boomer watch Innocent Blood (1992).

Erin: A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in . . . Pittsburgh.  Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element.  Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob.

There’s something for everybody!  Stunts!  Grotesque special effects!  Gallons of blood!  Strippers!  Don Rickles!

Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.

I really like this movie.  I’ve seen dozens of vampire films and most of them are lacking things like . . . plots.  Direction.  Cinematography.  Scripts.  Innocent Blood was clearly made with a sufficient budget and by a team who knew what they were doing.  It isn’t scary enough to really be a horror movie, although it pays homage to the genre.  There are schlock elements, but all in all it feels too mainstream for me to consider it a camp film.

Vampire films often sit in a strange place between monster movies and mainstream dramas.  John Landis seems to have envisioned a film respectful to the grand history of monster movies, but essentially a gritty, sexy, 90s dramedy.  I’d say that he gets about 95% of the way there.  There’s the preposterous sex scene that feels overlong, some pacing issues around the end of the second act that slow down the movie, and a soundtrack that is all. about. that. jazz.  That said, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a vampire movie while avoiding camp or outright bad movies.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Innocent Blood a pretty good monster movie that’s appropriate for a filmography that includes An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, and Animal House?  Am I blinded by my exposure to truly, truly terrible movies? Does this movie stand out to you as a vampire film?

Brandon: It’s funny, because the near-campless first half of the film really wasn’t doing it for me. It felt like Landis was splitting his time between making both a mediocre vampire movie & a mediocre mob film. There was a little fun to be had in the way Marie talked about her “food” (read: victims) in lines like “How about Italian?” & “Never play with the food” and the dissonance between her glowing-eyes blood feasts & the Sinatra-scored, bargain bin Scorsese mob aesthetics, but it didn’t feel all that special as an example of either genre. Innocent Blood didn’t truly win me over until it devolved into utter chaos, a change that gets kicked off sometime around when mob boss Sallie “The Shark” Macelli is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the back half, but it’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans that make the movie shine. It’s hard for me to read scenes like Don Rickles’ vampire transformation or that never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene as anything but exercises in camp.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s so much implication that Landis knows exactly what he’s doing here. Like Erin said, it’s not an entirely campy affair through & through. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) see to that. It’s just that when Marcelli is running around converting his dopey goons, hissing at lightbulbs, and curling up for a cat nap in a meat freezer, the movie’s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies thankfully start overtaking what was promising to be a too-serious & not-too-special film in the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss.

Landis backs up this silliness with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee. At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to do here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it.

Britnee, how much of that camp/serious divide was segregated between the vampire mafia cast and the scenes featuring the demure vampire Marie & her undercover cop love interest Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, who also played a “Joe” in Empire Records, oddly enough)? Did Joe’s & Marie’s scenes ever approach the fever pitch absurdity of Mercelli’s vampiric mob-building or was their share of the plot more dedicated to the film’s more serious, straight-forward impulses?

Britnee: The relationship between Marie and Joe was interesting, to say the least, but I never found it to be this serious, genuine romance that it tries to be. From the time the two had the cliché meet-cute in the middle of a snowy Pittsburgh street, I sensed that there was a campy romance brewing. And in all honesty, campy romances make for the best cinematic experiences. When comparing Joe and Marie’s scenes to the explosive vampire mafia scenes, I find myself going back and forth deciding whether or not the couple could be taken more seriously than the vampire mobsters. Part of me feels that they do fall a little more on the serious side, but then my head is filled with images of Marie’s fiber optic eyeballs during her memorable lovemaking scene. When reading the film credits, I noticed that a licensed optometrist was credited, so if eyes could magically change color, I guess that’s exactly what it would look like. Anyway, I guess the two contribute to the film’s small amount of seriousness because their romantic element isn’t as outlandish as a bunch of bloodthirsty mobsters covered in meat juice.

During our viewing of the film, there were a couple of times when I almost forgot about Marie and Joe because the insanity that was the budding vampire mafia completely overshadowed their characters.  There were times where I felt as though half an hour went by and the two lovebirds where nowhere to be seen. Of course, I was too enthralled by the vampiric mob madness to care. Landis is an obvious special effects junkie, and the majority of this film focuses on the stunning effects of the monster mobsters. He may have unintentionally drawn attention away from Marie and Joe’s characters, but I can’t blame him for getting carried away because for such an unknown movie, the effects were far from shoddy. They were brilliant! The scene where Manny (Rickles) gets his first dose of sunlight after making the “turn” is pure art. His skin tears open as he’s burning up and turning into pure ash, and it’s one of the greatest examples of exceptional special effects work that I’ve ever seen.

Boomer, do feel as though Marie’s character was not very prominent in the film? Did she make any contribution other than a couple of funny quotes and some sexy moments?

Boomer: It’s funny you should ask, since I was thinking throughout the film how tangential Marie’s role is to the more intriguing and interesting elements of the plot. She acts as a catalyst, as her actions against the first wiseguy she devours onscreen serves to lead LaPaglia’s Joe to out himself as an undercover cop, and her second meal leads to Loggia’s Sallie turning undead and dreaming of an enthralled vampire Pittsburg underground. For a character whose actions set the plot in motion, we know almost nothing about her.

Who is Marie? Is that her real name? When was she turned? Why? Who turned her? How does she feel about her parasitic nature? Nearly all contemporary vampire narratives in which the vampire is not explicitly villainous (and even some where they are) at least pay lip service to the idea that being an undead monster is a bit of an ongoing existential crisis. It’s ironic that the first shot of the film reveals (and revels in) Marie’s entire nude body, as her literal nakedness lies in direct contradiction to the way that she is metaphorically covered and hidden throughout the film. Other than her animal instinct to feed (and breed) and the actions she takes in an attempt to rectify her accidental release of a monster mobster, we have no idea what Marie does with her literally endless spare time. She feels guilt enough over her actions to consider ending her existence by meeting the sun, but her ultimate decision to continue (un)living is less a heartfelt triumph of the spirit than an “Eh, I guess I’ll stick around.” It’s less an issue of Marie not being prominent and more an issue of her being two-dimensional, standing out as a flat character even against shallowly characterized (but endearingly entertaining) scenery-chewers like Rickles and Loggia.

Now that I consider it, none of the main characters are fully fleshed out. Joe is determined to take down the Italian mafia, but any other motivations he may have in his personal or private life are unspoken, if they exist at all. The same can be said of his fellow cops (and a criminally underutilized Angela Bassett as the Pittsburg DA) or of the mobsters from Loggia down. For a prolonged section of the film, the protagonists and antagonists exist in completely different plotlines that only tangentially intersect, and I think that the crime the film is most guilty of is devoting too much focus to Marie and Joe, especially if none of that attention yields any character insight or development; there’s both too much and too little of Marie to be satisfying. A film that focused instead on Luis Guzman, for instance, ineptly bumbling his way through an investigation would have more potential entertainment value, all things considered. LaPaglia’s not a bad actor, he just seems to be under the impression that the ratio of crime thriller to comedy of the film he’s in skews in the opposite direction it actually does.

Perhaps it’s my postmodern eye, but throughout the film I kept attempting to apply some metaphor to the representation of vampirism. In the past thirty years we’ve seen vampirism stand in for disease, sexuality, and corruption, and even vampires themselves as metaphorical minorities and outsiders. From the way that Marie’s particular vampirism operates, at first I was expecting that we would eventually get some correlative relationship with AIDS, but no clear metaphor eventually coalesced, at least not one that I could see.

What do you think, Erin? Is there a metaphor that I’m missing, or one we as an audience could infer regardless of authorial intent?

Erin:  That’s a great question, Boomer.  Innocent Blood has a lot of action, but not a lot of character development, even as characters are doing such intense things as literally transforming into undead monsters.

I’m not sure how to parse the metaphor of Marie’s vampirism in this movie.  I find that usually vampirism is linked to themes of excess, hedonism, and greed.  Marie certainly has some of these elements – her two main interests in life are sex and food.  On the other hand, as you pointed out, we never really learn anything about her past, her other motivations, or how this episode of her life changes her.

The mobsters might be the place to look for metaphor in Innocent Blood.  Sal’s greed for power and his megalomaniacal feelings of invincibility are the things that cause his downfall.  Maybe the metaphor of vampirism here is for both greed and trying to use powers that are not fully understood or appreciated.  Sal tries to convert his whole mob into vampires, but doesn’t seem to make any considerations for the fact that they will no longer be able to work during daylight or that their favorite Italian foods will now cause great distress.

All in all, I’m leaning towards saying that John Landis wasn’t trying to explore the metaphors of vampirism so much as he was trying to produce a mainstream monster movie to appeal to the mass market.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Marie a cipher here, an empty Manic Pixie Dream Girl only in the movie as a plot device?  Is vampirism presented in the same way?  Is that problematic?

Brandon: There’s a near endless list of metaphors that have been attached to vampirism in the past, ranging from as disparate of meanings as the unchecked thirst for power Erin mentioned to the powerlessness of cyclical depression & drug addiction. I’m just not seeing anything explicit in Innocent Blood that suggests a clear metaphor. The mobsters’ thirst for power angle Erin suggests is something I’d buy, with plenty of evidence backing it up in the film, but where exactly does that leave Marie as a character? The more I reflect on the emptiness of Marie’s general presence, I’m left thinking that the movie could’ve been so much better without her. It’s as if she were a starting point that eventually lead Landis & writer Michael Wolk to the much more fleshed out undead mobster concept. If Marie had been left on the editing room floor or at the very least taken a backseat after she got the mobster plot rolling, we might have a much tighter plotted movie. The befuddled law enforcement POV Boomer suggested above in particular could’ve been worth a try. Then again, we wouldn’t have that insanely sleazy sex scene in that scenario, so maybe they made the right choice afterall.

In addition to the absence of a clear vampirism metaphor, Landis’ film also goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism. Marie may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but her reflection appears in mirrors & she kills her fellow vampires with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. Somehow, though, I’m not at all bothered by all of this. As much as I might’ve appreciated a clearer set of rules or a more well-defined metaphor, I believe that the film is perfectly entertaining as is. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before. When his screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Britnee, do you think that Innocent Blood could’ve been more successful if it were more dedicated to the vampire movie as a genre or do its deviations from the format make it all the more memorable/entertaining?

Britnee: This may sound a bit crazy, but I don’t really think of Innocent Blood as being a vampire movie. I know that there are indeed many vampires in the film, but they aren’t the sexy, mysterious vampires that dominate the vamp movie world. They’re a group of grotesque undead dudes that look more like zombies than actual vampires, and as Brandon previously stated, they are killed off like zombies as well. Of course, Marie does fall into the sexy vampire category, but she wasn’t really a big part of the film. Even when she did have her vampire moments, she reminded me more of a werecat from the 80s film Cat People than an actual vampire. Landis was attempting to almost reinvent the vampire, but in 1992, the world just wasn’t ready for something so huge. The general public would have probably better received the film if Landis stuck to more traditional vampire guidelines, but I am ever so grateful that he didn’t. The film’s many deviances make it a cult masterpiece, which is 100 times more valuable than a box office hit.

The idea of a monster mob film is brilliant, but other than Innocent Blood, I don’t recall ever coming across any other films that incorporate the mob with the supernatural. The two elements surprisingly work together in harmony.

Boomer, did you feel as though the monster mob is what mainly contributed to the film’s success? Why didn’t this idea take off and influence other horror films?

Boomer: I can honestly say, with no mental evasion or dishonesty, that the parts of this film which work best are those which relate to and revolve around vampire mafia plot. Loggia’s screen presence, hammy though it may be, is definitely the energetic core of what would otherwise be little more than a late-night Cinemax softcore skin flick that happened to star half the future cast of The Sopranos. I feel like I’ve seen the Underworld (Len Wiseman) meets underworld (mafia) schtick before, but after racking my brain and consulting TV Tropes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be one of those ideas that is so ingenious you only think it must have been done dozens of times. Maybe on Angel? Or Forever Knight? Kindred: The Embraced? But definitely not in a feature, or in any work in which the vampire mob was so central to the story.

As to why this didn’t usher in a new era of similar or copycat bloodsucking mafia flicks, I don’t really think there was room in the world for that genre to flourish. The popularity of film mafiosos waxes and wanes; after scores of films about gangsters in the early days of cinema, features about organized crime largely receded until the 70s and 80s, when pictures like Scarface and the Godfather series created a resurgent interest in “fuggedaboutit” movies that didn’t really survive into the 90s. The last great genre piece from that era was Goodfellas, which came out two years before Innocent Blood, and as far as prestige cinema goes, there’s really no comparison between the two. Landis’ American Werewolf endures because its story blended horror and comedy more successfully than Innocent Blood does, and its striking effects work made it stand out despite being released the same year as both The Howling and Wolfen. Aside from Rickles’ character’s (admittedly well done) death sequence, Innocent Blood doesn’t have American Werewolf‘s tangible viscerality; overall, Innocent Blood is a much cheaper-looking movie. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that it was a Cinemax made-for-TV film, and would never have guessed that Landis was involved.

Innocent Blood also fails to stand out among its vampiric brethren as well, as it lacks the sweeping epicness of, say, Interview With a Vampire, which came out just two years later, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was released the same year (Innocent Blood also doesn’t have the built-in audience that comes from being an adaptation, either). As a result, it failed to gain the prominence or immortality that other movies in the same vein and of the same era did. It just wasn’t gruesome enough, or memorable enough, or gangstery enough. In shooting for a middle ground, it ended up having too many ideas; consequently, it failed to stick in the public consciousness in a meaningful way.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Innocent Blood is an ultimately inconsequential film, the kind of movie that seems destined to be included in one of those ubiquitous Cracked.com lists, like “Six Movies with a More Interesting B-Plot than Premise.” I didn’t care for it as much as some of my fellow reviewers, but I didn’t dislike it either. I guess, on the whole, I’d say that on the range of John Landis’ contributions to the world, where American Werewolf is the limit of the best end and spawning whiny privileged misogynist Max is the limit of the lower end (and no, I didn’t forget the death of two children during the production of the Twilight Zone feature; Max is arguably worse), Innocent Blood falls somewhere in the vicinity of Beverly Hills Cop III.

Britnee: Innocent Blood is an excellent horror-comedy as well as a truly entertaining film with an unforgettable plot and cast (well, except for Marie). The true gem of this film isn’t the vampiric mafia or the vampire/human romance; it’s Lenny (David Proval), Sal’s dopey-eyed assistant.  The only other film that I’ve seen him in is The Brady Bunch Movie, in which he makes a 10 second appearance as an electrician with a bad lisp, and I had no idea that he embodied so much talent and pizazz until I saw him in this film. He only had a handful of lines, but each one was pure gold. I still crack up when I remember his worried face by the bathroom window, screaming “Sal!” while Sal is in a tub of his own blood after Marie’s failed attack.

Brandon: Although we’ve already ragged on Marie & actress Anne Parillaud a good bit here, I will at least admit that she has one interesting quirk to her outside of the glowing eyes & knack for BDSM: lighting. As we’re first introduced to Marie, buck naked in her apartment, she’s revealed to be a bit of a candle hoarder. Because much of what she was doing & saying was less than captivating, our minds were left to wonder about Marie’s endless sea of lit candles in several early scenes. Does she prefer candles to electric light because they remind her of simpler times? Where do they come from? Does she buy them wholesale? Do her vampire powers allow her to light them all at once or does she have to go around the room igniting each one with a match like a chump? Marie talks a lot about her “food” (victims), but I feel she has an equal passion for candles that goes conspicuously uncommented on.

Erin: I think that one of my favorite things about this movie are the more mature actors.  Don Rickles, Robert Loggia, and Elaine Kagan working together in Sal’s transformation at the Bergmans’ house has to be one of the best scenes I’ve had the pleasure of watching.  I really wish that John Landis had focused more on the “monster mobster” side of the plot, especially with the amount of talent he had on tap.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew
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8 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Innocent Blood (1992)

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