The Irishman (2019)

Despite it earning an ecstatic reception that wasn’t afforded to similar late-career, swing-for-the-fences experiments like Silence or Hugo, I struggled to get excited for Martin Scorsese’s latest picture. Somewhere between the film’s 3.5-hour runtime and my disappointment in seeing my ancient Unkie Marty fall back on his tried & true Gangster Epic template, I couldn’t help but meet the prospect of watching The Irishman with an exhausted shrug. I doubt I ever would have caught up with the film at all if it weren’t for its prominence in the current Oscars Discourse, as I’ve been outright bored by Scorsese’s most recent mobster-violence retreads The Departed & The Wolf of Wall Street in the past. Even as someone who’d count GoodFellas among his favorite films of all time, I struggle to see the need to return to this thematic territory yet again, especially from a filmmaker who has so many other kinds of stories to tell (and, sadly, so little time left to tell them). It turns out that I was both a little right and a little wrong in my skepticism. The Irishman finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.

Scorsese mascot Robert De Niro stars as a low-level mafia hitman who becomes the unlikely, trusted bodyguard of infamous union organizer Jimmy Hoffa – played by the explosively charismatic Al Pacino. Pacino remains a hoot throughout the picture, which almost forgives the endless hours that monotonously detail the behind-the-scenes corruption & violence on the union-mafia border. Classic Scorsese collaborators like Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel are flanked by giddy-to-be-there “youngsters” like Ray Romano & Bobby Cannavale in a GooderFellers redux that serves mostly as a history lesson to a new generation about why Hoffa was important in his time and how his flagrant corruption forever altered public opinion on labor unions in America. Each cast member holds their own in this decades-spanning epic, despite a distracting, much-written-about “de-aging” effect that lands the film near the realm of the “theme park” superhero movies Scorsese has been having fun flippantly dismissing in the press. It’s just that they’re instructed to joylessly go through the motions of reliving Marty’s past Mean Streets/GoodFellas/Casino triumphs, deliberately stripping the onscreen power & violence of any potential misinterpreted cool. No matter how many times Scorsese’s past pictures have been willfully misinterpreted as dorm-poster posturing for Badass Antiheroes, they’ve always had that same grim, hyper-critical eye for this realm of hyperviolent bullies. Those movies were just never this dull or exhausting. Scorsese is essentially repenting here for the sin of being entertaining.

In theory, I appreciate the idea of Scorsese self-examining what a life spent submerged in all this violence is meant to accomplish. In its best moments, The Irishman is exactly that – featuring an ancient De Niro, retired from his Murderer for Hire days, unable to find meaning in the remaining scraps of his life. He self-justifies his “youthful” crimes as a soldier who was just following orders, one with a duty to “protect” his family by remaining well-employed. After three grueling hours of matter-of-fact violence & corruption, the movie finally finds him discovering just how empty all that dutiful brutality truly was. Faced with the idleness of obsoletion & an inability to mend familial bonds that were never really there to begin with (especially with a silently disgusted adult daughter played by an expertly icy Anna Paquin), he actually considers what he’s done with his life for the first time, and is haunted by what he finds. That’s the core of the movie! That’s new, fresh territory worth dwelling on & exploring at length in miserable sequences of domestic drama. Unfortunately, these scenes that get at what the movie is About are only a small blip in a grander picture, a flood of familiar faces & imagery from Scorsese’s past work. I could have fallen in love with The Irishman if it started with that final half-hour and really dug into the themes that distinguish it as a unique work in Scorsese’s catalog. As is, they’re treated more as dashes of seasoning rather than a proper meal.

Ultimately, The Irishman is Fine. It’s also easy to complain about and not entirely worth the effort, so in that sense I suppose it’s a perfect Oscar Movie. Part of me wishes that Scorsese had gotten all these accolades for something more demanding & daring like Silence instead, but I can’t begrudge one of our greatest living cinephiles getting recognized for his contributions to the artform – no matter the context. The only real hurdle here for most audiences is going to be its massive runtime, as everything else goes down relatively smooth (including the confounding “de-aging” tech, thanks to the growing ubiquity of CGI fuckery on the big screen). I’ve got my own personal reservations about the choice in subject matter & thematic emphasis, but no real fervor for shouting them at what appears to be an otherwise appreciative crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Vampire Mafia of Innocent Blood (1992) vs. The Zombie Mafia of Shrunken Heads (1994)

One of the stranger details of our Swampchat discussion of October’s Movie of the Month, John Landis’ 1992 horror comedy Innocent Blood, was that we couldn’t think of a single other film that featured a vampire mafia. You would think that another movie or a TV show or a comic book out there would’ve covered the topic before. The truth is that there very well may be an example out there that we’re over-looking, but it just hasn’t reached one of the four of us yet. Britnee & Erin suggested that there were similarities in the Canadian horror comedy Blood & Donuts‘ formula, but from what I understand that film is about a vampire navigating a world of modern day criminals, not about a world of modern day criminal vampires. After searching my brain for closer points of comparison over the past few weeks, I still couldn’t recall any other instances of a fictional vampire mafia, but I did happen to recall something somewhat similar: a zombie mafia.

It turns out Innocent Blood‘s undead criminals kissing cousin was under our noses all along, depicted in a film Britnee reviewed for this site several months ago: Shrunken Heads. Written/produced by infamous schlock-peddler Charles Band & directed by Danny Elfman’s brother/former bandmate Richard Elfman, Shrunken Heads is a goofy horror comedy featuring an undead ring of organized criminals, but is very much different from Innocent Blood in tone & purpose. While Innocent Blood feels like a perfect marriage of a Scorsese knockoff & a goofy vampire horror comedy, Shrunken Heads feels like a slightly edgy kids’ horror that went straight to VHS, which is pretty much the speciality of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment brand in general.

In the film, a trio of young lads upset the day-to-day business of a teenage crime  boss who acts like a slightly-too-old leftover from Bugsy Malone. Not one to be fucked with, he promptly has the pre-teen offenders murdered in a vicious hail of gunfire. They’re then promptly resurrected by a voodoo priest/newspaper salesman who turns their remains into magical, flying shrunken heads who zip around, avenging their deaths by murdering their mobster hitmen & raising them from the dead to attack the aforementioned teenage crime boss. And there you have it: zombie mobsters.

Of course, there are some glaring differences between Shrunken Heads‘ undead mafia & that of Innocent Blood. The most essential difference is that Innocent Blood‘s vampire mafia remained somewhat organized after their transformation while the zombie mafia in Shrunken Heads disassembles their crime ring in acts of undead mutiny. Still, the films’ basic undead mobster shenanigans & goofy horror comedy mayhem make them prime candidates for a tangentially-related double feature, one backed up by the nearness of their release dates. I don’t think Innocent Blood‘s vampire mafia aesthetic has been matched by any other slice of media, but I do think Shrunken Heads may have come to closest to hitting that benchmark.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this snapshot of the vampire-crowded box office that buried it, and last week’s look at John Landis’ list of works in the horror genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Friday (1940)

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After the last gasp for air in Universal Pictures’ famous monsters brand with the re-release of Frankenstein & Dracula as a double bill that resulted in the creatively bankrupt Son of Frankenstein, there wasn’t much work to go around for actors Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi. The drought that followed for the eternally typecast horror movie heavyweights is perhaps what turned up the heat on their professional rivalry & turned their next collaboration, 1940’s Black Friday, into such a disastrous bore. A bland gangster film with only the slightest hints of horror or sci-fi in its formula, Black Friday is a shameful what-could’ve-been experience, one made dull by Lugosi & Karloff’s refusal to play nice & share the scraps that Hollywood had left for them to fight over.

In Black Friday, Boris Karloff plays a brilliant neurosurgeon who saves his close friend’s life by replacing his brain with that of an infamous mobster. Once a meek college professor, Karloff’s buddy starts to show personality traits of the gangster his surgeon-savior-friend effectively murdered to extend his life. The split-personality professor now has the hots for the deceased gangster’s showgirl girlfriend, drinks & smokes with the same mannerisms, threatens violence in a way far outside his normal character, and (much to Karloff’s surgeon’s piqued interest) talks of a hidden fortune stashed before his death. Rival gangsters & the showgirl dame rush to uncover the fortune before the surgeon can beat them to it, while he’s not fighting off suspicion about what happened to his once genteel friend. It’s even less exciting to watch this all unfold than it sounds, exhausting even for a feature barely more than an hour in length.

If you’re asking where Bela Lugosi fits into all of this, you’re not alone. The original script cast Lugosi as the troubled neurosurgeon & Karloff as the split personality professor-gangster. That formula might’ve actually been interesting. Alas, Karloff insisted on playing the surgeon & instead of taking the role of the professor-gangster Karloff had left vacant, Lugosi was relegated to the much smaller part of a rival gangster. Perhaps the reason they didn’t switch roles outright was that playing the rival gangster allowed Lugosi to avoid ever filming a scene with Karloff. It also allowed him to continue their onscreen meta rivalry that dated all the way back to the actors’ first collaboration, The Black Cat. As a result, although Lugosi is second billed he only has a bit role in the film and does not appear in a single scene with his rival.

There are only a few isolated moments of interest in Black Friday. The film’s opening credits play over a calendar reading Friday the 13th & are followed by an intense death row march that promises a much more horrific vibe than what follow. The film’s sole moments of outright horror are a brutal car crash stunt & an onscreen brain surgery, both motifs echoed from earlier Karloff-Lugosi collabs The Black Cat & The Raven. Watching Lugosi play gangster & Karloff don surgical gear are fantastic images, but aren’t put to much use. The only line of dialogue that really stuck with me was when Karloff’s daughter pesters him about his professor friend’s sudden change in personality & he snaps, “Haven’t you guessed?! The operation I performed was a brain transplantation,” as if that were the most obvious explanation for the change. The rest of Black Friday is a forgettable slog made hopelessly dull by two great actors who were visibly tired of working with each other on occasional projects & fighting over the scraps of the rest.

-Brandon Ledet

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