‘Innocent Blood’: Exploring One of John Landis’ Most Underrated Films
Author note: I know John Landis is a controversial figure. Considering his possibly culpability on The Twilight Zone accident, there’s ample reason for that. I had made references about The Twilight Zone Accident in an earlier draft of my discussion of Innocent Blood, but it didn’t feel right. This tragic event has cost the lives of three people, two children as well, and it shouldn’t be casually mentioned and then promptly ignored. So I decided for the purpose of this article, in order to keep the focus on the central subject, to omit any references of the The Twilight Zone accident.
But then it didn’t feel right pretending it never happened either. No matter what you do, it’s always there in the background, haunting the specter of John Landis.
In order to compromise on this moral quandary, I wrote this little banner. Hopefully I made the right decision.
The infamous transformation scene in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is a harrowing and unforgettable sight. It’s one of those scenes that truly cements the power of practical effects. Compare this to any CGI werewolf-transformations we would see in the twenty-first century and then tell me, in all seriousness, that it can even come close to the effectiveness of practical effects.
But An American Werewolf in London offers more than just the greatest werewolf transformation of all time. For the sentimental types, there’s also a tragic love-story. There are nightmarish dream sequences involving ghoulish Nazis. There’s also a walking, talking, decomposing zombie who seems surprisingly upbeat considering that he’s doomed to roam the earth forever until a certain werewolf curse is lifted. Later on this same zombie is sitting in a seedy porn theater enjoying a British adult film in which every character is stereotypically polite. Ohh, and besides that, it also ends with a rabid werewolf chowing down on some Londoners in the Piccadilly Circus. He also bites some guy’s head off. What more could someone possibly want? It’s hilarious, it’s gross, it’s awesome.
But it’s not just the quintessential werewolf film, it’s also the hallmark horror-comedy. It’s the perfect blend between the silly, the tragic, the gross-out and the downright freaky. The success of An American Werewolf in London paved the way for such hilarious gross-out classics as Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator.
An American Werewolf in London is one of the many classics directed by John Landis during the eighties. He has given us the unlawful and pious antics of The Blues Brothers, the greatest food-fight ever portrayed on-screen in National Lampoon’s Animal House, one of the greatest jabs at eighties excess in Trading Places and lest we forget, Chevy Chase accidentally shooting an invisible swordsman in Three Amigos.
He also directed gems like the cold-war farce Spies Like Us (which should have kept its original bleak ending) and the deeply underrated Jeff Goldblum vehicle Into the Night— which I might write about in the near future.
But there’s one film in his career that is criminally forgotten about. One film which blends both the horror and comedy genre almost just as well as An American Werewolf in London did. As if you couldn’t guess already, I’m talking about the ominously titled Innocent Blood — or known in some regions as A French Vampire in America, an obvious reference to Landis’ classic but, unfortunately, it doesn’t have the same nice ring to it.
Innocent Blood received mixed reviews from critics, they predictably compared it to Landis’ werewolf classic, citing that it paled in comparison. While I wouldn’t say it’s better or exactly equal to the quality of An American Werewolf in London, I do think Landis succeeded it concocting that perfect tone, one that veers between terror and silliness. It’s a labor of love for old-school cinema. It doesn’t have that shiny tone to it, it feels raw and wild. It’s got what everyone would desire from a classic eighties horror-comedy (even though it was made in 1992): great make-up effects, gore (though not nearly enough) and one ingenious instance of practical effects involving vampire Manny (played by the late great classic comedian Don Rickles) burning into a cinder. It might not have the memorable climax of An American Werewolf in London— it could have used a little more ballsy madness at the end. But as a genre fan, I was more than satisfied.
Innocent Blood deserves more attention. At the moment of writing this, there are only 22 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, most of them are mixed to lukewarm. There’s also a measly unworthy one-page Wikipedia article on the film. It hasn’t even reached the necessary cult status, while so many other unworthy horror films have.
Like any great John Landis film, Innocent Blood is just so much fun from beginning to end. Filled with amusing cameos, callbacks to the great horror-masters and hilarious moments.
It’s, in my opinion, the last great John Landis film. All the others like Susan’s Plan and Burke and Hare have their moments, but they just pale in comparison.
So as a devout genre fan, I felt it was my duty to remind the world of this little gem. If you have never seen it, then I must remind you that this article will explore the film’s themes and thus spoil most of the events of the film. If you have already seen it and didn’t think much of it, hopefully I will have inspired you to give it another chance.
The Question of What Makes Someone a Monster
Innocent Blood is about Marie (Anne Parillaud), a vampire who chooses her victims on the basis of their criminal affiliations. She refuses to feast on the innocent, her ‘food’ must consist of the sinful. She’s a responsible vampire however: after she’s done feeding on them, she blows up their heads with a shotgun, making sure they can never turn into a vampire — in this universe, vampires can only be killed by either sunlight or by severing their nervous system, which means either breaking their necks or destroying their brains.
Things take a turn however when she fails to properly annihilate infamous mob-boss Salvatore ”Sal the Shark” Macelli (Robert Loggia) who then wakes up from the dead just when a pathologist (played by Frank Oz) was about to do an autopsy on him. It takes a while before Macelli realizes he’s a creature of the night who needs blood to survive, but when he does, he plans to empowering his criminal empire with vampirism. Marie has no choice but to work together with undercover agent Joseph Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia) to stop Macelli before he succeeds.
The viewer witnesses two brutal murders early in the film, one by Marie, who meticulously seduces mob-associate Tony (Chaz Palminteri) and makes him drive towards a secluded area where she promptly bites his neck and gulps down his blood and the other by Macelli (Robert Loggia) who beats a fallen criminal associate Gilly (Rocco Sisto) in the head with a toaster before promptly shooting him in the head. The difference between these two murders, besides the supernatural element, is Marie’s reaction at the end. When she sees her blood-splattered face in the rear-view mirror, she’s disgusted by herself. We never get such a moment from Macelli, who throughout his bloody reign only complains about how all the gore ruins his expensive suit.
This brings us the question about what makes someone a monster. Throughout the film, we see characters become fascinated by cinematic monsters. We see Tony stopping everyone in his track just so he can watch the dinosaur from The Beast from 20,000 Fathom chomp down some innocent pedestrian whole; we see Detective Dave Finton (Leo Burmester) being mesmerized by the climax of classic Hammer horror film Horror of Dracula; we see a guard being distracted by the rabid gorilla from 1950’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue; we see Jacko (Tony Sirico) watching Bela Lugosi as he does his infamous ”children of the night” line from Dracula; we even see Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Strangers on a Train, though this film is merely playing in the background before a rather gruesomely funny scene. Landis is obviously homaging the classic genre filmmakers that inspired him, hence we have several cameos from horror icons like Sam Raimi, Tom Savini and Dario Argento — note: if you’re on your way to the hospital and an emergency nurse who looks like Dario Argento caresses your head and says ”you’re going to be fine,” be afraid, be very afraid…
But besides homaging the masters, it’s also reinforcing the film’s theme about what makes someone a monster. All the cinematic monsters who the supporting characters of the film seem fascinated by are archetypal. They are the classic monsters, the ones you can’t reason with. Driven by primordial instinct or a perpetual lust for blood. They need to be destroyed. It’s the classic battle between good and evil, it’s simple black and white stuff.
But there’s nothing more monstrous than the evil of the human animal. Marie, when she’s in her vampiric monster form, looks like a monster but her moral code, her refusal to spill innocent blood makes her redeemable.
Marie is a predator, a vampire who doesn’t enjoy taking lives but needs to in order to survive. She kills with blank proficiency, quick and mostly painless — there’s quite a few quick neck snaps in this film. Macelli is a sociopath, who uses murder as a necessary tool to instill fear and order in his criminal organization. In quite a few instances, he relishes in the violence because it makes him feel powerful. He feeds on the fear of his victims, it’s his predatory need. In the end, Marie considers her own annihilation, not wanting to accidentally instill anymore carnage on the innocent. The fact that she considers this, the fact that she has this moral code even though her power gives her the freedom to lead a nihilistic lifestyle, where the only pursuit is self-gratification, shows there’s a good soul within her.
So What Makes Someone a Real Monster?
The answer lies in having a choice. A wild animal doesn’t have a choice because they only respond to instinctual stimuli. A wild animal must hunt in order to survive. Civilized humans do have a choice, which is both a curse and a privilege. The philosophical reader might object to this, but let’s just assume for the sake of the argument so that we don’t venture into the eternal discourse of free-will versus determinism, that we do have a choice.
Civilized humans don’t need to hunt or even eat meat. They can choose a different diet to survive. A vampire doesn’t have that option. A vampire in Innocent Blood has more human traits than a wild animal, because a vampire, if we are going to take this fantastic scenario seriously, has consciousness and with that, if their biological code allows them to, a conscience.
A vampire is immensely powerful; the vampire has otherworldly strength, can move with incredible speed, can jump from incredible heights without breaking their bones, can heal and regenerate mortal damage so long as their nervous system remains intact. With this comes a choice: if you decide to live, how do you conduct yourself? Are you going to feed on whoever is available or are you going to feed on the more criminal element of your neighborhood? This would still be murder, but if you’re killing murderers, this would be from a utilitarian perspective, a better option for society than killing the innocent or those who just randomly come across your path.
If you choose to target the criminals for your feeding, you also have to make sure you don’t accidentally turn them into a vampire. Thus after you’re done feeding on them, you have to sever their nervous system so that they stay dead. This is what Marie does. She adheres to a moral code, making the world, following the twisted logic of this film, safer.
But besides her refusal to feed on innocent blood, she even goes a step further. When she does fail to prevent Macelli from turning into a vampire, making him into an even greater menace to society than what he already was, she decides to make amends by stopping him. Remember, she doesn’t have to do this. She can easily go on with her life, hide out somewhere for a while, move out to a different city and continue her feeding there. But feeding responsibly, she risks her life to stop Macelli and in turn, saving all his potential victims.
This is what she does with her incredible power. She also understands that this power comes at a great price: becoming a murderer. She rightfully then treats vampirism as a curse. This is in contrast to Macelli who considers it a blessing. When Macelli gains this power, he wants to raise an undead mafia organization, who with their newfound powers, could easily wipe out any criminal competition.
This is why Macelli is the real monster because he chooses to be one. He was one before he was bitten, he just didn’t have the same amount of power — though from what we can see, he already had too much to go around. He never had any redeeming qualities, no moral code that could offer him salvation. With more power, he will only become worse.
We have seen monsters like that throughout history and as we should know by now, they need to be stopped at all costs.
A Sweet (Yet Twisted) Love Story
While I did genuinely care about David (David Naughton) and Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) in An American Werewolf in London, their romance was admittedly little overblown. It’s not that it came out of nowhere, but it felt sped up just so the film could have some more emotional stakes. It all goes too quick. After he’s released from the hospital, Nurse Alex invites him to sleep over in her ridiculously affluent London apartment. When they finally get there, she confesses to be attracted to him and inevitably things get a little intimate. Then close to the end of the film, before the violent madness that ends the film, they supposedly love each other. Granted, she supposedly tends to him in the hospital for a few months. In that time they could have grew closer to each other, but it still feels unnatural.
This is why the romance between Marie and Gennaro in Innocent Blood works better. There’s more pathos to their eventual kinship. It helps that actors Parillaud and LaPaglia have genuine chemistry together.
They meet each other accidentally first, with Gennaro bumping into Marie on the street. In this cute little scene, he apologizes profusely, holding her so that she won’t fall on the slippery pavement. He gets on his knees to grab the high-heeled shoe that slipped off her feet.
At this seemingly innocuous moment, both Gennaro and Marie have murder on their mind. Gennaro had just been a witness to a brutal mob-slaying while Marie is on the prowl for some ‘food.’ He’s a little shaken up and she’s quite hungry. As he gently puts the high-heeled shoe onto her feet, she notes that he looks ‘promising’, as he seems to have the appearance of a mobster — which fits since she’s undercover.
As he gets up to face her, offering her a ride somewhere, she is tempted. He’s given her an opening — this would be the perfect opportunity. But she’s dissuaded after noticing a poignant sadness in his eyes. She can see that he’s a good man, someone who doesn’t deserve the gruesome fate of her victims. When she later bumps into Frank Sinatra loving Tony, who curses at her and has a mean streak about him, she knows for sure that she has found the perfect source of nourishment.
The next day, after Marie’s failed attempt to properly finish Macelli after her feeding, Gennaro tracks her down, at first thinking she killed Macelli because she’s an assassin working for a rival mob family. When he encounters Marie, whose wounded after being shot by Macelli, she jumps at him, growling monstrously with those colorful, evil eyes. Her goal was not to hurt him but to merely scare him off so she can escape. Gennaro doesn’t give up though and keeps tracking her down. She could have easily killed Gennaro several times but, as mentioned before, that would be against her code.
When Marie overhears that Macelli has apparently risen from the dead, she seeks an unlikely alliance with Gennaro, at first due because he knows his way around the city. Gennaro agrees though he doesn’t trust her at first. He knows she’s some supernatural creature but he doesn’t know exactly what — note: the word ‘vampire’ is never spoken in the film.
During their chase of Macelli, Gennaro and Marie have an argument. She implores Gennaro that she’s nothing like Macelli, that he’s a ”cold-blooded killer.” ”Yeah and what are you?” replies Gennaro coldly, which silences Marie.
When they are first forced to spend an afternoon in a motel because Marie can’t chase Macelli in the sun (plus she notes that he’s sleeping too), Gennaro is afraid to sleep in the same room with her. He fears that she will feed on him. She insists in turn that he’s not her ”type” — at least not in that way.
Gennaro sits awkwardly on the bed while Marie undresses and sleeps on the double bed. It’s increasingly clear that Marie desires Gennaro but he’s not giving in. Attraction between the two was already there in their first random meeting. Naturally, after discovering that the object of your affection is a bloodsucking vampire, the allure kind of diminishes, but soon enough, Gennaro can’t resist her and gives into her affections. After that special afternoon, trust has been built.
The final scene of the film, and the most touching one, comes after they’ve finally dispatched of Macelli and his vampire goons. She wants to watch the sunlight, an act of suicide for her kind. He runs up to her and chases her mind, in the cheesiest but most effective way, by telling her that he loves her. Stunned by his admission, he walks her over to a motel. She reminds him that she ”takes life”, her bloodied hand affectionately holding his cheek. He looks down at her with loving eyes, telling her nonchalantly: ”well if you were perfect, you wouldn’t be single.”
As he walks to the front office of the motel to check themselves in, she narrates to the audience that he made her feel alive. Her final words is an affirmation of her continuing will to live: ”so I thought, why not?”
It’s a sweet, perfect way for this film to end. Even though the argument could easily be made that they don’t know each other long enough to feel this way, there’s just something about the star-crossed way they look at each other that makes it feel believable. You can see there’s a special connection between the two. Something deep, something that needs to live and breath, that makes them need each other.
We don’t know what Marie will do after this film. All we know is that she decides to live a little longer, having won the affections of a good man. I’m sure they will find a way somehow. I don’t think she’ll turn him into a vampire, it’s not something he would allow her to do and it’s not something she would force upon him. Maybe he will find a cure for her instead — perhaps the universe of Innocent Blood follows the same dumb logic as in Near Dark where a complete blood transfusion seems to cure vampirism.
Or maybe he will help her find ‘the right food.” So far, it seems there’s enough Italian food to go around.
The Sopranos Connection
As a devoted fan of The Sopranos, I just had to mention the slight connection between Innocent Blood and the titular show. The supporting cast of Innocent Blood contains quite a few familiar faces that will have fans of the show rejoicing.
We can start off easy with Robert Loggia who plays Macelli, the main antagonist in Innocent Blood (and its true star, as you will read about in the following segment), who also played old-school gangster Feech la Manna in the fifth season of The Sopranos. Similar as in the show, Loggia manages to be both threatening and hilarious at the same time — more on that later.
Macelli’s personal driver and bodyguard is played by David Proval, who also played Richie Aprile in the second season of The Sopranos — and who was probably the most memorable antagonist on the show, though it’s so hard to choose.
Tony Lip, who was a regular in The Sopranos as New-York boss Carmine Lupertazzi, plays Frank, one Macelli’s hapless goons. Tony Sirico who immortally portrayed Paulie, one of the central characters of The Sopranos, plays Jack, one of Macelli’s goons who seems strangely mesmerized by Bela Lugosi.
Interestingly, Anthony LaPaglia had been considered for the role of Tony Soprano, one of the greatest characters in TV history. He had been the original choice of David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos but LaPaglia turned it down. While I’m sure he would have been great in the part — he was criminally cut out from Road to Perdition where he played Al Capone — I don’t think any true fans out there would have wanted Tony Soprano to be played by anyone else but the late great James Gandolfini.
A Little Taste of Forever: Remembering Robert Loggia
The true star of Innocent Blood, the one who really steals the show and cements this film as an underrated gem is Robert Loggia as Salvatore ”The Shark” Macelli. If there’s anything that’s superior in Innocent Blood compared to An American Werewolf in London, it’s the casting because, even with the likability of David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne, none of them come close to the mere screen presence of Robert Loggia.
Macelli’s transformation to vampire, his initial confusion as he wakes up in the morgue to the discovery of his strange blood lust, is hilarious. Watching his fellow mobsters grapple with Macelli’s unhinged behavior as well act dumbfounded by his new supernatural abilities are few of the comedic highlights of the film and none of it would have worked were it not for Robert Loggia’s perfect performance.
That’s not to say Loggia only plays Macelli comically, because he remains a menacing force to be reckoned with. Similar to this villainous roles in David Lynch’s Lost Highway and The Sopranos, Loggia is willing to go deliciously over-the-top, but even when he does so, he retains his threatening demeanor. Regardless of his abundance of comical moments, we never forget that he’s a ruthless killer, especially in the opening when he brutally murders Gilly who is weeping for his life. He imbues the perfect balance between viciousness and silliness. If Innocent Blood proves anything, it’s that Loggia would have been a perfect Joker.
Macelli even seems to have his own theme song, courtesy of composer Ira Newborn. The song in question is called Manny’s Death, so it might have been originally intended as Macelli’s signature theme song. But it seems to play in the background whenever Macelli is around and for me, the rousing tune perfectly embodies Macelli’s delusions of grandeur — which only increases throughout the film as he survives getting stabbed in the gut, getting hit by a speeding car and getting shot several times through the chest. His overbearing confidence is even present when he’s gets caught in the middle of an explosion and walks out of the fire, giving a grand megalomaniacal monologue as he’s burning into a crisp. When he finally gets that bullet in the head, the vampiric powers immediately disappear, his whole body immediately collapses into a dust full of ash.
Truth be told, you almost want Macelli to survive in the end. Yes, he’s an evil bastard, but he’s so much fun to watch. I would have loved to see a stand-alone film, focusing on him as he builds up his vampiric criminal empire. I’d imagine his co-star being Frank Vincent, who played Phil Leotardo, the final antagonist of The Sopranos. He would play a werewolf gangster, someone hired by a rival mob family to make a move on Macelli’s territory. This werewolf would follow The Howling werewolf logic, meaning that he doesn’t need moonlight to transform. Like the vampires from Innocent Blood, he would be able to regenerate. He could even survive getting shot through the head — that is until Macelli manages to retrieve silver bullets.
The film would be an outlandish feast of gore and mobster machismo. Naturally a reference about ‘shining shoes‘ would be made to Frank Vincent — which would enrage him ferociously. Both leads would be hamming it up throughout the film. Many people would hate it, but I would love it.
But alas this would be impossible. Frank Vincent died last year on September 13th from a heart attack — his name demonstrably snubbed from this year’s Oscar memoriam. Loggia died on December 4th, 2015 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, which had been diagnosed as early as 2010.
What makes Loggia so great is his diverse track record. Everyone remembers Robert Loggia from different films. Some remember him from Big, where he plays a duet with Tom Hanks on a giant foot-coordinated keyboard; others remember him as Tony Montana’s mentor from Scarface; the patriotic general from Independence Day; as Malcolm’s warmongering grandfather in Malcolm in the Middle or from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, where he plays a Mr. Eddy, a gangster who really, really hates tailgaters.
While never being the quintessential leading man, Loggia always manages to leave a lasting impression, no matter how small his role. It’s hard to choose Loggia’s best performance, but his role in Innocent Blood is one of my personal favorites.
If there’s any reason to watch Innocent Blood it’s Robert Loggia, a legend who is surely missed. But that’s how it always goes. Everyone needs to be taken from us eventually. No one is allowed to last forever.
People have to leave us. Sometimes they go suddenly, when they are far too young. Sometimes they go when they are old, like Loggia, who despite suffering from a mentally deteriorating illness in the last years of his life, did manage to reach the bright old age of 85.
And as long as his work is available for all to see, he will be remembered by many strangers, now and into the future. They will smile when they his face again in some very different movie, they will be amazed by his talent. They might even consider watching an unknown movie because his name is in the credits.
It’s the closest anyone can come to eternity. The only way to live after death is by residing in the hearts and minds of other people. It’s just a little taste of forever, but it’s something.
And it’s that something is the one thing that stands in the way of the great endless void. It’s our final home before the movie is over and the curtain closes.
So while we are still here, in the theater, let’s watch it again. We might not have liked it the first time but maybe it gets better the second time. Maybe you’ve heard this movie is bad and avoided it until now. Give it a chance anyway.
Before you know it, you’ll be hungry for more.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Innocent Blood? Comment down below!
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