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Plot: abused woman is impregnated by alien and becomes its murderous host.

France was absolutely the last place you’d expect to find a genuine horror gem at the dawn of the decade that all but killed the genre. A simple concept can go a very long way when executed properly. Baby Blood might very well be the French horror classic from the 1990s that revived the genre domestically. As unbelievable (and unlikely) as it may sound Baby Blood does, and did, just that. It might not look like much but once Baby Blood gets down to business it packs a mean little punch. Armed with an enchanting lead actress and a trio of hungry special effects craftsmen about to go places Baby Blood is a triumph of creativity and ingenuity over more practical restrictions in time and budget. Plastered with gratuitous wall-to-wall nudity and enough gore to satiate the inhuman cravings of any gorehound Baby Blood is nothing if not an unsung classic. Alain Robak directed (and co-wrote) what just may be the best David Cronenberg body horror that David Cronenberg never made. It well deservedly won the jury price at the 1990 Festival international du film fantastique d'Avoriaz (Avoriaz International Fantastic Film Festival), or the precursor to the current (and still running) Festival international du film fantastique de Gérardmer (Gérardmer International Fantastic Film Festival) in Gérardmer in the Vosges, France.

If nothing else Baby Blood looks and feels like a composite of some of the best body horror and slashers that from the two decades preceding it. It merges the central premises of Rabid (1977) and Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage (1988) and has a snake-like alien creature enter its host the same way it did Barbara Steele in Shivers (1975). Said serpentine creature has similar motivations as the alien in Ciro Ippolito's Alien 2: On Earth (1980) and filters that through a sobering, clutter-free character study on the model of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). Baby Blood is visually informed by Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Bad Taste (1987) and alternates that with a detached, almost documentary-style of filming reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and a distinct feminist undertone not unlike Abel Ferrara’s evergreen Ms .45 (1981). Like Alien 2: On Earth (1980) before it Baby Blood is custodian to some of the most outrageous, over-the-top splatter effects of the decade being surpassed only by Peter Jackson’s laugh-a-minute gorefest Brain Dead (1992) some two years later. On an interesting side-note both Gary Oldman and Jennifer Lien lend their voice talent to the international English-cut. Oldman was but two years away from the Francis Ford Coppola big budget gothic horror throwback Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Luc Besson's Léon (1994) two years after that. Lien would become a staple in US television.

Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou, voiced by Jennifer Lien in the international version) is a 23-year-old performer for Le Cirque Lohman currently touring all across Northern France. Hers is a life of disenfranchisement, lack of opportunity and social mobility in a male-dominated field rife with every imaginable sort of discrimination. Her current lot as the reluctant mistress of Lohman (Christian Sinniger), the circus manager/ringmaster, affords her some stability but at the price of her well-being. She’s preyed upon not only by Lohman but by seemingly every man. She’s conscious about her weight and neurotically documents her findings each and every day. On top of her body image issues Yanka desperately looks for any and all opportunities to escape her present situation. Lohman is a loathsome, bovine weakling of a man prone to sudden fits of physical - and verbal violence. One morning while Yanka is coming out of the shower a delivery truck arrives custodian of the latest addition to the circus bestiary, a leopard from Equatorial Africa. While the deliveryman (François Frappier) tries to get an eyeful of her form the tamer (Thierry Le Portier) notices how restless the creature is. That night the leopard is reduced to minced bloody chunks and immediately Lohman organizes a canvas of the perimeter to apprehend the culprit. While the men conduct the search a snake-like parasite crawls into Yanka’s uterus. Not feeling her usual self she hops onto the scale and it dawns upon her that she might be pregnant.

Coming to grips with the realization that a carnivorous parasite has taken up residence in her uterus Yanka has no choice but to relent to its demands for the duration of her pregnancy. The creature (voiced by Alain Robak and Gary Oldman in the international version) communicates with her telepathically and keeps her subservient by triggering severe cramps whenever she does not comply. As the unwilling host (and reluctant incubator) to the alien creature Yanka’s subordinate to the will of the malevolent parasite and forced to relate to her fellow human beings only as predator to prey. Her first (and obvious) victim is one of convenience, the contemptible waste of flesh Lohman. In the nine months that follow Yanka adopts the nomadic lifestyle of a vagrant drifting from town to town, job to job, living where she can while seducing and exsanguinating hapless marginalized men to satisfy her uterine passenger’s hunger. The parasite informs Yanka that in five million years it will replace man as the dominant species on the planet and that once carried to term it must be released in the ocean. The parasite allows Yanka to carve a better path in life for herself by literally carving her way through all abusive men she encounters. As Yanka completes her journey of self-actualization and self-realization she exerts her newfound independence by expelling the hostile creature from its corporeal confines.

In place of casting an established name Robak instead decided upon an unknown, more or less. What other way describe Italian-Greek Emmanuelle Escourrou other than that she was all milk and cookies? Another would be to calll the impossibly proportioned 21-year-old the French answer to Debora Caprioglio or Serena Grandi. Is Emmanuelle related to Pierre-Marie Escourrou from Eurociné debacle Zombie Lake (1980)? Who knows, it’s entirely within the realm of plausibility. According to Escourrou’s official biography she accepted the role on merit of Baby Blood being the first French gore film, which isn’t entirely true, and it posing a challenge. Even as a female-centric splatter film it was preceded by Night Of Death! (1980) a decade earlier and the grand père of the entire subgenre is probably Jean Rollin and his The Grapes Of Death (1978). None of which dilutes from Emmanuelle rising so wonderfully to the occasion, wide-eyed and dripping with vigor, in a demanding role that required very physical acting as well as extensive partial and full frontal nudity, a challenge she readily accepted and even moreso desired.

To say that Emmanuelle literally lets it all hang out would be putting it mildly. Comme disent les Français, “Elle a de gros lolos.” Her derrière is worth a mention too. A lot of retrospective reviews over the years and decades since apparently make a big deal about the fact that Escourrou has a gap-tooth but they conveniently forget that this is something very French. Aren’t (and weren’t) Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, Muriel Catalá, the Isabelles, Adjani and Huppert; Béatrice Dalle, Vanessa Paradis, Emmanuelle Béart, and Audrey Tatou beloved for exactly that reason? Nobody ever seemed to raise a complaint about them over such a triviality For her performance she won the second ever Michel-Simon award, given to her by British director Terry Gilliam, at the Parisian Festival Acteurs à l'Écran (Screen Actors Festival) in Saint-Denis. Had things gone any differently (or had Brass cared to look outside of his native Italy) Escourrou could have been in Paprika (1991). Possessing both genuine acting talent and the body of a goddess it’s no wonder that Escourrou almost immediately legitimized herself in the mainstream and became a monument of French cinema in her own right.

To understand the historical significance of Baby Blood one should look at the beginnings of the French Extreme some ten years earlier. Night Of Death! (1980) laid the groundwork and set the standard for the French Extreme. The growing movement was bolstered bolstered by equally linfamous no-budget splatter epics as Ogroff (1983), Devil Story (1986) and The Return of the Living Dead Girls (1987). Baby Blood begins where Night Of Death! (1980) ends or only dared hint at. It may not be the originator of the form or even the first of its kind, but time hasn’t dulled any of its inherent shock value. Also not unimportant is to remember that it was released in 1990, at the dawn of a decade characterized by horror collapsing into either slapstick comedy or slightly darker thrillers. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was most directly responsible for the change but in hindsight it was Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) that was eerily prescient for the decade and for the direction of horror at large. With no other direction to go the genre instead resorted to poking fun at itself, futilely at that. In other words, the 90s was the decade of irony and marked by a dearth of any significant real horror.

Baby Blood, consciously or otherwise, is a different beast entirely. In truth Baby Blood reinvigorated a cycle that had commenced a decade earlier and set a historic precedent and established the pattern that has more or less been followed since then. The French Extreme seems to renew itself (and pushing itself to new extremes every time the cycle repeats) about every decade as Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Fuck Me (2000) ushered in what would later be dubbed the New French Extreme. Other historical entries into the New French Extreme include Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), High Tension (2003) from Alexandre Aja, Inside (2007) and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008). No doubt the Francophone (but not geographically/culturally French) Calvaire (2004) from Belgian filmmaker Fabrice du Welz deserves to be recognized as part of the same movement. Not bad for unassuming little splatter epic shot over five weeks in Paris and Nanterre for next to nothing. If Emmanuelle Escourrou isn’t able to sell Baby Blood to you with her divine figure and acting, the special effects from Benoît Lestang, Guy Monbillard, and Jean-Marc Toussaint in all likelihood will.

Does Baby Blood says something about social security and the treatment of immigrants, the working poor and the systematically disenfranchised in France and the larger Parisian metropolitan area? Does it comment on male entitlement, machismo/sexism and toxic masculinity in a decade when such words didn’t have the traction they have now? Can Baby Blood be considered a feminist manifesto and enpowerment wish fulfillment fantasy? Mais oui, it probably has a thing or two it begs to share on all three and whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely within the eye of the beholder. If you are here to see Emmanuelle Escourrou bare her gros tetons and twirl around in the nude, Baby Blood has you covered (and her too a good portion of the time). If you’re here for outrageous splatter effects, there’s that. For everyone else this is just some great body horror in tradition of early David Cronenberg with that uniquely French opaque dream-like atmosphere and quality. The spirits of Jean Rollin or Michel Lemoine might not dwell here but that doesn’t make Baby Blood any less fantastique or fantastic. Whichever way you want to slice it, Baby Blood is quintessential French horror and every bit the classic it’s made out to be. Not even the very belated sequel (it only took 18 years!) Lady Blood (2008) (with a returning Escourrou) cannot diminish from what Alain Robak accomplished here.

Plot: criminals and hostages end up in bar somewhere on the Mexican border….

There’s no contesting that the ‘90s were pretty dark and abysmal time for the horror genre. Much of it had devolved into thrillers, self-aware or otherwise, on the one hand and comedy on the other. Hollywood had attempted to revive the classic gothic with Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) had resurrected (but not necessarily improved) the tired and tiring slasher for an entire new generation. Mexico always had been a steady haven for horror and earned its place in cult cinema history thanks to a handful of titles in the golden age. Who better to bring the Mexican spirit to America than the country’s promising export with the help from Hollywood’s hottest young new talent? From Dusk Till Dawn, or one of the best horror films of the ‘90s, may not reinvent the wheel but it puts a fresh spin on an old formula. What more could you possibly want? Occasionally the Hollywood machine gets something right.

What was From Dusk Till Dawn if not two friends getting together and throwing one hell of a kegger? These two friends just happened to be Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. As the legend goes, Tarantino had offered the script to special effects man Robert Kurtzman to direct but he declined. This prompted Tarantino to hand it to Rodriguez and he gladly accepted. Kurtzman in turn lend his talents to the effects with his Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group. The time was right. Rodriguez had just legitimized himself in the face of the Hollywood bigwigs, first by making El Mariachi (1992) by the skin of his teeth on a very modest budget of $7,000 and he had admirably evinced that he could handle a sizable budget with the remake Desperado (1995) the year before. Presumably something of a diversion in between serious projects Rodriguez and Tarantino threw this curveball in between Desperado (1995) and The Faculty (1998) as well as the 1970s crime epic valentine Pulp Fiction (1994) and the blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown (1997), respectively. Not only was From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino’s first paid writing gig (he also executive produced and acted to help his friend Rob out), it’s also somewhat of an anomaly in the filmographies of both as Tarantino and Rodriguez haven’t made a horror before or since. A decade later both would reunite for Grindhouse (2007) but that was more of a valentine to ‘60s/’70s drive-in exploitation rather than a straight-up horror. Eli Roth has done more for exploitation horror than Rodriguez or Tarantino ever did. All quabbles and reservations aside, the spirit of Juan López Moctezuma proudly lives on in From Dusk Till Dawn.

After robbing a bank in Kansas and escaping jail, Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his slightly psychotic and deeply unwell brother Richard (Quentin Tarantino) hold up Benny's World of Liquor where they add store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) and Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) to their ever-growing list of casualties. The two are pursued by FBI Agent Stanley Chase (John Saxon) and after leaving the liquor store in flaming ruin the two head to the Mexican border with their hostage bank teller Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) in tow. They pull in at the Dew Drop Motel in Texas where they bump into the Fuller family. Jacob (Harvey Keitel) has taken his adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu) and daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) on a vacation. Jacob is a minister in the midst of a crisis of faith after the death of his wife. Seth and Richie commandeer Jacob's RV to smuggle them across the border at gunpoint and order to take them to their rendez-vous. The minister is to take them to the Titty Twister bar where the brothers will meet their contact Carlos (Cheech Marin) at dawn providing them shelter at El Rey. Carlos figures that a bar doubling as a stripclub/brothel will offer all the necessary entertainment.

The Titty Twister proudly exclaims to be open from “dusk till dawn” and if Chet Pussy (Cheech Marin) is to be believed they have every kind of girl for every kind of customer. The intrepid gang first meet resistance from bartender Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) who insists that they don’t fit their strict “bikers and truckers only” policy. Jacob is able to negotiate their entry on a technicality. Before long they are introduced to the bar’s main attraction, the devilishly beautiful Satánico Pandemónium (Salma Hayek) whose dance of seduction instantly beguiles and enslaves Richie. When the bar employees reveal themselves to be a reptilian breed of vampires known as culebra the group find allies in tough bikers Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Frost (Fred Williamson). They are able to hold their own against the first wave, but the things have a nasty habit of resurrecting their previously claimed human victims. As the vampires re-emerge and start to claw down the group must stay alive to reach the liberating rays of daylight.

George Clooney had played a guest role on the CBS hospital sitcom E/R (1984) and just finished his 6-year run as Doug Ross on the NBC medical drama ER (1994-2009). About ten years before Clooney had been in the horror spoofs Return to Horror High (1987) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988). Juliette Lewis was the prerequisite Hollywood alternative chick. Her star was rising due to her roles in Cape Fear (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Strange Days (1995). Harvey Keitel was and is a living legend and has played many iconic roles. Keitel has worked with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, and Abel Ferrara appearing in, among many others, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), the comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Piano (1993). To top things off, the all-star cast is anchored by pulp cinema pillars Fred Williamson, John Saxon and Tom Savini and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo. This being a Tarantino script every line Clooney (and every other main character, Fullers excepted) utters is filled with rapid-fire expletives and random profanity. And then there’s her, Salma Hayek.

Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium

No coverage of From Dusk Till Dawn is complete without mentioning, obligatory or otherwise, Salma Hayek. Are we terribly dating ourselves by calling Salma a hot tamale? Hayek’s electrifying performance was a sure-shot to international superstardom, if her sizzling role as the love interest in Desperado (1995) hadn’t done so already. Only Laura Cerón from ER (1994-2009) came close to matching la Hayek. In these times before Eva Longoria, Ana Ortiz, and Selena Gomez; Hayek was Mexico’s biggest export.

What other way to describe Salma other than the best of Bella Cortez, Tina Romero, and Maribel Guardia, combined? Rodriguez obviously was keenly aware of the fact and has Hayek writhing and slithering around suggestively in nothing but a tiny burgundy bikini and feathery headdress while handling a large Albino Burmese Python Reticulus. Tarantino on the other hand uses the opportunity to indulge his well-known foot fetish. First, by ogling Lewis and getting down and dirty with Hayek. If Salma’s scorching dance routine doesn’t get your pulse racing you’re either dead, barren or both. In age-old Hollywood tradition the extras get topless but the main attraction doesn’t. Hayek has a scant few lines but delivers each and every of them with wide-eyed, lipsmacking glee. It makes you long for Ukrainian belly dancer Diana Bastet to re-enact (and expand) the Satánico Pandemónium routine with costume and all. Salma’s delectable shapes and forms turned heads a quarter century ago and continue to do so to this day. In a now legendary 2021 Red Table Talk interview the 55-year-old candidly admitted hers only gotten more sumptuous and bigger with age. As a woman of such enormously gigantic proportions, the price of beauty comes with all the expected physical ailments.

Regardless of how you might feel about Tarantino and his post-modern witticisms From Dusk Till Dawn remains a formidable genre exercise on its own merit. Whether it’s the heist/action of the first hour or the suvival/vampire horror of the last 48 minutes the shift remains as brilliantly executed, seamless in transition and unexpected as when it first premiered. For cult cinema lovers there’s a lot to see if you know where to look. Judging from Hayek’s sultry dance Rodriguez apparently has seen Black Eva (1976). The batscene was clearly inspired by Hammer’s The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Once the surviving vampire killers emerge they bear some semblance to those of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). The vampires are modeled after the Deadites from Army Of Darkness (1992). Frost’s slaying and ultimate demise echoes one of the earlier Derek enemy kills in Bad Taste (1987).

Sex Machine transforms into a grotesque behemoth rat-vampire monstrosity similar to the rat-monkey in Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992). Hayek’s transformation into her reptile culebra form pre-dates Mallika Sherawat’s in Hisss (2010) by almost fifteen years and neither for that matter does she vocalize only in hisses and moans. Chet Pussy’s often sampled and legendary pussy monologue remains priceless as ever, as does Chango beer and Sleaze tequila. Equally funny is when during the Titty Twister massacre Tito & Tarantula continue to play music on a severed torso and various body parts. The vampires’ demise by daylight is eerily similar to that of the Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) or the shambling corpses in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), you be the judge. Oh yeah, and where else are you going to see a dive bar/brothel built on a Aztec pyramid/temple consecrated to snake god Quetzalcóatl or Coatlicue? Nowhere, that’s where. It also helps that it’s exceptionally gory. It’s a wonder that Hollywood and the censors allowed it.

It wouldn’t be too far off to call From Dusk Till Dawn the Bad Taste (1987) or Evil Dead II (1987) of the nineties. Is it as crazy as some of Mexico’s best horror of yore? Hell, no but for a mainstream Hollywood production it’s more than a little quirky and even mildly insane. People with no cinematic literacy or knowledge still delude themselves into thinking Tarantino is some prodigious genius that reinvents cinema on the regular. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no denying Tarantino’s visual mastery, vast knowledge, witty writing and technical craft but every single thing he has ever done is taking the exploitation genre of his preference, and blowing it up with all the bells and whistles that come with a massive Hollywood budget. As these things tend to go From Dusk Till Dawn spawned a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups in the form of the unnecessary sequel From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), the prequel From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999) as well as the series From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (2014-2016). That most, if not all, couldn’t hold a candle to the original was, sadly, expected but at least they built and expanded upon the mythology and characters it established. As of this writing, it hasn’t been tarnished by a modern-day remake/reimagining – hopefully it will remain that way too.