Innocent Blood directed by John Landis
It strikes me that your garden-variety vampires, as depicted on the big screen, usually have very few scruples as regards their diet of necessity, and the victims that they utilize to assuage those nutritional needs. Typically, vampires are shown sucking on the necks of any likely victim to come along … especially when that victim might be an especially lovely and, um, toothsome female. Ethical considerations and qualms of remorse hardly ever figure with these conscienceless creatures of the night. Thus, offhand, I cannot recall another vampire in cinema history who has chosen his or her prospective victims utilizing such clearly defined moral guidelines, only to regret one of those resultant food choices later on, as Marie, the French vampiress in John Landis’ hugely entertaining, very sexy and often remarkably gory Innocent Blood.
When we first encounter Marie (played by French actress Anne Parillaud, who had just enjoyed a worldwide success playing a female assassin in La Femme Nikita two years earlier), whose background we sadly never discover, she is living in a beautiful candlelit apartment in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, starved for both love and nourishment after six days of neither. After seeing the newspaper headlines reporting on the Mob hits by brutal gangster Sal “The Shark” Macelli (a wonderful performance here by Robert Loggia, who will always be Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, from 1960s TV’s T.H.E. Cat, to me), she decides that what she craves for dinner tonight is a little Italian! The first likely nosh she encounters on the streets, as it turns out, is Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia, who many will remember from television’s recent Without a Trace), an undercover cop who has infiltrated Sal’s circle. But Marie rejects Joe as a possible dinner source, being both attracted to him and touched by his “sad eyes.” In a voice-over, she tells us her cardinal Rule No. 1: Never play with the food. Fortunately for her, she immediately bumps into a much more likely dinner item, mobster Tony Silva (Chazz Palminteri, here in one of his earliest roles), whom she seduces on the street and rides off with, only to “phlebotomize” during a makeout session. As she casually blows Tony’s head off with a shotgun, she tells us her second basic tenet of feeding, Rule No. 2: Eliminate the food marks, and central nervous system disconnect. Yes, she is a scrupulous vampiress, only killing members of society whom she deems worthless or evil, and disposing of them after she feeds so they do not become vampires themselves.
This MO seems to be going very smoothly for her until she seduces the big guy himself, and allows Sal to bring her back to his luxurious mansion. Sickened and repelled by Sal’s takeout dinner of mussels and garlic, she retreats to the bathroom, only to be intruded on by the gangster, who forcibly tries to have his way with her. Marie successfully drains Sal of his blood, but before she can finish him off properly, is compelled to flee. Long story short, Sal eventually recovers in the local morgue, turns into a vampire himself, and decides that with his newfound powers, he will bite and convert all his underlings, turning them into an invincible army of the vampiric undead and thus take over the city! Ultimately, Joe and Marie must unite to fight them off, in Landis’ terrific thrill ride.
Innocent Blood was reportedly shot on a budget of $20 million and was a box office bomb, returning only $5 million. To this day, almost 30 years later, it does not enjoy a very good reputation, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why. The movie has style to spare; is in turns sexy, funny and scary; features wonderful performances not only from its three leads, but from all the bit players scattered throughout; and boasts a wonderfully witty script from one Michael Wolk (what a pity that he never chose to write another). In that script, humor tends to overwhelm the frights, but pleasingly so. Thus, how funny it is when the Frank Sinatra tunes “That Ol’ Black Magic” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” are heard playing while Marie digs into Tony and Sal, and how amusing it is when the worker who carries Sal’s shrouded body into the morgue declares “Just another Hefty Bag enchilada like all the rest.” Adding to the script’s sly wit are shots of classic horror films of yore that many of the film’s characters are shown watching on TV; films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the Dracula films starring Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and so on. And just when you might be thinking that things could not get any more amusing, we are given 66-year-old Don Rickles, of all people, playing Sal’s attorney Manny Bergman, and the sight of “Mr. Warmth” turned into a vampire is one to savor (his flaming death in a hospital room is surely one of the film’s many highlights).
In addition, Innocent Blood makes wonderful use of its Pittsburgh locales (the city looks just beautiful here; I really need to visit one day!), features many terrific bit parts from players who would later go on to huge success (such as David Proval as Lenny the chauffeur, later to star in TV’s The Sopranos, and Angela Bassett, here in an early role, as a U.S. attorney), and throws in numerous cameos by various horror directors (such as Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and Tom Savini). In his role of mob boss Sal the Shark, Robert Loggia is just wonderful, both before and after turning into a night creature; ironically enough, in 2015, he would portray the father of an Italian mobster who is transformed into a neck nosher, in a film called Sicilian Vampire! John Landis’ direction here is spirited and inventive, bringing to the fore the same zest and flair that had previously graced his horror films An American Werewolf in London (‘81) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (‘83). But best of all, perhaps, are the vampires in the film themselves. As shown, these creatures have the bloodsuckers’ classic strengths (the ability to withstand gunfire, the power to throw people across a room, the ability to turn themselves into some kind of flying critter … presumably bats, the ability to scale walls, power enough to break free of manacles) and weaknesses (garlic and sunlight; crucifixes, strangely enough, do not figure in this picture).
But perhaps best of all, naturally enough, is Marie herself, as played by Anne Parillaud. Confessing as she does that her two abiding interests in life are food and sex, Marie makes for one overwhelmingly attractive creature of the night. Indeed, she must automatically be placed into the pantheon of Sexiest Vampiresses of All Time, a pantheon that includes such irresistible blood sisters as Alexandra Bastedo in The Blood-Spattered Bride (‘69), Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos (’70), Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers (’70), Madeleine Collinson in Twins of Evil (’71), Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness (’71), Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska in Vampyres (’75), and Cristina Ferrare in Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (’75). Is it any wonder that no male in this film seems able to resist her? Parillaud is well cast for this film, her heavy accent (which preview audiences supposedly complained about) giving Marie an exotic cast and otherworldly character. How startling it is to see, thus, while she is feeding, that her eyes begin to glow phosphorescently, and to hear her snarling like a feral animal. Parillaud is also an actress not at all ashamed of revealing her body for the camera, giving us a look at her perfect physique (she had earlier taken training in ballet, and it shows) in several “full-frontal” sequences. The character of Marie is one that the actress reportedly “fell in love with,” and she is ideally suited for the role. Such a shame that Marie’s past could not have been explored, though, so that viewers might have learned something about how she became a vampiress to begin with, and how she wound up in Pittsburgh, of all places; her back story would be a fascinating one, I’m sure, and the character possibly suitable for a whole series of cinematic adventures. Alas, it was never to be.
Innocent Blood, it should be added, is most decidedly not a film for your young innocents at home; certainly for no one younger than, say, 15. What with its blood-soaked sequences (the inside of that morgue room is especially gruesome), frequent use of foul language, occasional nudity (from not just Marie, but a whole bevy of topless dancers in one of Sal’s clubs), and three sex scenes (between Marie and Tony, Marie and Sal, and Marie and Joe), it is surely not a movie to watch with your favorite 8-year-old, despite the humor and lightness of tone. But for all adults, a great good time is practically guaranteed. Thus, I just cannot understand its bombing at the box office back in ’92, and its current middling rep today. It is surely a film that will appeal to most, uh, red-blooded fans of horror, I feel…