Innocent Blood

by Dan Sallitt

Originally published in Chemical Imbalance Vol. 2 Issue 3, though written much earlier, upon the film's release in 1994.

There's nothing especially exciting going on in this film, but it  reminds us that John Landis is an interesting case.  No danger of him being corrupted by Hollywood, as he wallows in his original corruption; so we tend to measure his achievements from zero up instead of comparing him to a Platonic ideal.  Innocent Blood belongs to a category of film that usually fares badly in the Hollywood marketing process: the dialectic comedy-drama, in which  the comedy and the drama collide rather than blend.  Landis is drawn to this rather uncommercial format, and his best work--An American Werewolf in London and, especially, Into the Night--was done in this vein.  Whether or not mixed genres are more natural to him than the undiluted, vulgar comedy for which he is best known, one cannot guess from the evidence on screen.  This is a  man who can't be trusted to tell the difference between the angel and the devil whispering in his ears. 

From the first scene of Innocent Blood, you know that the good moments are going to have to be picked dripping out of the swamp of the rest of the film.  Michael Wolk's script gets on our bad side immediately when pretty French vampire Anne Parillaud, emerging from a fast, sees a newspaper photo of a slain Mafioso and makes a lame comment about treating herself to Italian that night.  Still, Landis has already managed to impose himself by shooting the scene as an erotic tableau of Parillaud prowling nude through her candlelit apartment.  The director's well-documented tendency to populate his films with naked women isn't especially worthy of note or praise, but the American cinema has evolved an elaborate code of hypocrisy to govern where and when movies can pander to our prurience, and it's interesting that Landis feels empowered to trash this code and obtrude his lechery on the film at large.  Not that he is a man of principle - Landis will later exercise Hollywood's most familiar ploy to compartmentalize sex when he drags us, leering, through a classy strip joint - but we eventually get the payoff of an incongruously solemn coupling scene, with a curious accent on the male's sexual inhibition and featuring a potent forbidden image of submission.

The plot hook--that vampirism spreads through the Mob and threatens to create a criminal army of the undead--doesn't  emerge until the film is more than half over, and the concept is silly enough to kill any hopes that we might have left at that  point.  Until then, we traipse about with undercover cop Anthony LaPaglia as he pursues a meaningless vendetta against hambone gang leader Robert Loggia and joins forces with good vampire Parillaud.  The horror components are standard issue: the bloodsuckers have Exorcist voices, use lots of funny-colored contact lenses, do superhuman stunts, etc.  Landis gives little details of character and action a weight that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a comedy, but mostly it doesn't help.  Every so often a moment of pure cinema jumps out of context, like the aftermath of Parillaud's first killing: the vampire looks with disgust at her bloody face in a rear-view mirror and rips the mirror off the windshield; Landis fades gently to Parillaud, in the same position, reapplying makeup to her now attractive but still troubled face.  The same thematic idea shows up later, when Parillaud, being pursued after another bloodbath, finds a shower room in a church rectory and pauses to step fully clothed into a stream of water, letting the blood trickle off her face while moonlight filters into the echoey room through a stained glass  window.  Neither the iconography of compromised purity, nor the rhythmic flow of violence into stillness, is ever developed or even acknowledged as the film progresses.  Oh, well.  There's a  pretty good laugh in mid-story as a bewildered Loggia, recently vampirized, comes to consciousness in a morgue and bellows his way past the spooked attendants instead of devouring them, as we expect.  Here as elsewhere, Landis's comedy style often depends on an unaccustomed component of the mundane (but not the naturalistic - Landis films everyday events with schlocky exaggeration) that is everpresent in his most fantastic interludes. Some renegade film scholar may one day make a good case for Landis as comic auteur; I'm more attracted to Landis's weird spasms of gravity than to his uninflected comic style, distinctive though it may be.  Innocent Blood winds up with the flurry of meaningless violence that is the last refuge of so many suspense films.  One is pleased to note in passing that George Romero's tongue-in-cheek, reflexive solution to the movie problem of how to kill the undead--you only win if you get them in the head - has found general  acceptance.  One sees here the great power of the cinema of the fantastic, the power of heightened and clarified contradiction....