In 1992, much to the distain of director John Landis, Warner Bros. released his film Innocent Blood to an international audience under the preposterous title A French Vampire In America. The decision was obviously a flagrant attempt to cash in on his 1981 hit An American Werewolf In London, leading to the misunderstanding by many that the film was indeed a direct sequel to that film (that dishonour would later go to Anthony Waller’s ’97 pic An American Werewolf in Paris). Landis made his anger at the rebranding very clear, so much so that WB reverted back to the original title for the later international DVD releases, and yet there’s a fragment of truth in that peculiar alternative title.
Innocent Blood has no obvious direct relation to American Werewolf and as far we know it doesn’t even occupy the same cinematic universe, and yet watching it (especially 26 years later) there are several striking similarities between them. The use of title typeface immediately recalls the earlier film, and the method of storytelling – with its familiar blending of comedy with drama – suggests they were cut from the same cloth. When you factor in the similar use of soundtrack and the design of its violence, the French Vampire title isn’t as far fetched as first thought.
The story follows Marie (Anne Parillaud, hot off the success of Le Femme Nakita), a French vampire living inconspicuously in New York City as she abides by her own self-imposed moral code. She refuses to kill innocent people, and so her diet consists of bad guys, a supplement that has served her well until she is interrupted while drinking from the city’s most feared mob boss, Sal the Shark (Robert Loggia). Forced to flee the scene before killing Sal, she unknowingly puts the city in danger when he wakes up reborn as a creature of the night. Before she can finish him off, he begins turning his fellow mobsters into a vicious vampire Mafia.
Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia co-stars as an undercover cop whose infiltration of the mob is exposed by Marie’s slip-up. Together, he and Parillaud lead a wonderful ensemble of players in addition to Loggia, including Chazz Palminteri, Don Rickles, David Proval, Rocco Sisto, Kim Coates, Luis Guzmán and Angela Bassett. It is a fantastic line up of talent, all of whom embrace the genre and walk the fine line between comedy and horror. With Landis’ firm grasp of the genre, he directs with authority, making sure that all performances are given the level of respect and gravity that would be given on a, let’s say “high brow” production. That is to say that Innocent Blood is treated with the same regard as Goodfellas.
Of course, when the horror kicks in and the comedy ensues, Landis loosens the reigns and lets his cast out to play. And what a sight that is to behold. One cannot unsee Robert Loggia and Don Rickles in full-vamp get-up, as they sport gnarly prosthetics, cat-like contact lenses and rip people apart. Both men were well into their 60s at the time, and neither had ever played in a horror film of this degree. Naturally, they embrace the opportunity like 6 year olds in a candy store, and their exuberance leaps off the screen. The film also features a handful of cheeky cameos from some of Landis’ old chums, including Frank Oz, Tom Savini, Sam Raimi and Dario Argento.
Innocent Blood was poorly received at the time, and perhaps audiences weren’t ready for it. Hollywood’s vampire renaissance would come 2 years later with Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, and the horror landscape was ushering a down period of the hit slasher flick. Furthermore, serious wise-guy films like The Untouchables, The Godfather Part III and Goodfellas were still fresh off the rack, and the timing of Innocent Blood may have been misconstrued as parody. Of course, the Warner Bros. rebranding definitely fooled a lot of people, adding to a negative sentiment. What a shame.
Landis is often regarded as a “master of horror” and his knowledge of the genre is relied upon in countless retrospective documentaries, yet his reputation stems solely from American Werewolf, because Aside from Innocent Blood, he has never made another horror movie. His incredible body of work includes The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos and Trading Places (amongst so many more). He is undoubtedly a master of comedy and yet genre aficionados and scholars persistently rely on his understanding of the horror genre. It therefore has to be assumed that his only two entries into horror qualify his stature amongst the horror community.
As a fellow genre fan with a reasonable grasp of what constitutes good horror, I would urge cinephiles to reconsider Innocent Blood and watch it with the benefit of time. It has aged remarkably well and maintains a youthfulness thanks to the same mastery and finesse that makes American Werewolf a bonafide classic.