Mixing genres is always a difficult task to pull off successfully. Producing quality work in a single genre is difficult enough without trying to be faithful to two at once. And when the genres appear to be diometrically opposed -- like horror and comedy -- it's even more difficult, with a much higher potential for failure. Director John Landis has attempted this hybrid several times with mixed results -- most notably in the music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller", Twilight Zone: The Movie, and the two subjects of this review, An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood.
In 1981, An American Werewolf in London quickly became a definitive entry in the genre, both a critical and commercial success. Previously known for such frantic comedies as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and the Kentucky Fried Movie, Landis worked from a screenplay he had written at the age of 19.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne portray David and Jack, respectively; Americans on a walking tour of London. During a stop in a local pub, they are warned to avoid the moors (after all, this stuff always happens on those old foggy moors -- seeThe Wolf Man). Ignoring this advice, they are both attacked. Jack is killed but David is only injured, having the curse passed on to him in the process. While David is in the hospital recovering, Jack visits him from the grave, telling him he must "sever the bloodline" (kill himself) or Jack will be condemned to limbo due to his "unnatural death."
Providing one aspect of the film's grisly humor is that Jack appears in various stages of decomposition, at one point causing Naughton to declare, "I will not be threatened by a walking meat loaf!" Also providing a source of laughs is the stereotypical understatement of English culture, typified by a local who says, upon getting mauled by Naughton, "I can assure you this is not the least bit amusing."
Special effects wizard Rick Baker and his team continued the advances in werewolf makeup made by Baker protégé Rob Bottin in Joe Dante's The Howling -- released the previous year -- winning Baker his first Academy Award in 1982 (the year the make-up category was introduced). It's good to remember that these films were done before computer graphics (such as were used in the ill-advised sequel An American Werewolf In Paris) and, as such, are still stunning in their visuals. Landis and Baker would team again to work on the "Thriller" video and would continue their partnership for several more films.
One major difference between American Werewolf and its predecessors is that Landis approached the film from a standpoint of cultural awareness, making a werewolf film that is informed by other werewolf films. Added in as a not-too-subtle in-joke, all of the songs on the soundtrack have the word "moon" in their title.
An American Werewolf in London has become the classic genre film for the generation of moviegoers that eschew black and white. Landis took the germ of an idea and created something that will outlive him. Ten years later, he attempted to replicate this successful mix of horror archetype and comedy in Innocent Blood (from a script by Michael Wolk) to less success.
Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita) stars as Marie, "a French vampire in America" (as the film was also known, although the word "vampire" is never used in the story). Using the local mafia don, Sal "the Shark" Macelli (Robert Loggia), for a food source, she is interrupted, leaving him alive enough to transform him. She eventually teams up with undercover cop Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia) to kill the vampire don before he spreads the condition to others.
Landis shows several films on televisions throughout Innocent Blood, including clips from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee respective turns as Dracula and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. This is fun for film buffs but really just serves to remind us that we could be watching another, better film. The cast, as usual for Landis, is peppered with cameos of other film directors like Sam Raimi, Dario Argento as an ambulance driver, and Frank Oz as an unlucky pathologist. Scream queen Linnea Quigley appears as a nurse who screams.
Innocent Blood, though, has a certain wacky charm. Parillaud is a fetching heroine (especially when she smiles) and LaPaglia is a serviceable hero. Loggia, on the other hand, looks like he's having a ball playing the transformed Sal, who spends a majority of his screen time covered in his own blood. Every line is underlaid with that sort of fun over-the-top quality that only actors in supporting roles are allowed to get away with. The score by Ira Newborn sounds more suited to his work on the Naked Gun films.
The film does raise a few questions, like why does Marie growl like a panther while she is feeding, and where did I miss the relationship development that would rate such an intense sex scene? Perhaps it was just an excuse to show the comely Parillaud in all her glory.
An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood are good examples of the range of quality to be expected from John Landis. Sometimes he delivers an inspired product -- and he has several modern classics to his credit -- but even when he doesn't, it's always fun to watch him try.