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Plot: vampire recounts her life, losses and regrets over the centuries.

Have you ever wondered what and how a Jean Rollin vampire film would have looked like on a modest budget (at least in Hollywood terms) of $8 million? Byzantium offers a glimpse into what such possiblity might look like. This was absolutely the last thing you’d expect of Neil Jordan after nearly twenty years of putting distance between himself and the poisoned gift that was Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). Together with Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) it was some of the best gothic horror that Hollywood had to offer. While it did not usher in a new decade of gothic horror revivalism it was able to stand on its own merits and deserved every accolade/criticism bestowed on it. Byzantium does the exact opposite by examining how vampires would acclimate to the capitalistic pressures of modern urban metropolitan life and the hardships they face as women.

Neil Jordan is a master technician and his features (regardless of subject) are always exquisitely photographed and oozing with style. Jordan, after all, debuted with the fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984) or an adaptation of Angela Carter's gothic fairytale deconstruction that used werewolves, Little Red Riding Hood, and psychology as a metaphor for puberty and a young girl’s sexual awakening. It was truly hypnotic and spellbinding and let you know exactly what it was from the very start. After leaving the fantasy and horror genres behind Jordan specialized in biographical – and social dramas, usually concerning the Troubles of Northern Ireland and the exploration of human sexuality – often combining the two in prestige pictures as The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996). Ten years after The Company of Wolves (1984) Jordan got his big break in Hollywood with the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) or his calling card (and most enduring work) in the eyes of pulp fans the world over and a modern interpretation of the mopey, sadboi vampire ur-character. On television he was behind the historical drama series The Borgias (2011-2013). Byzantium was the first time in nearly twenty years that Jordan returned to his old stomping ground of the vampire. It’s not hard to see why he would be attracted to Moira Buffini’s play A Vampire Story and her screenplay adaptation of it as it elegantly blended various elements of history, folklore, feminist socio-political ideas (the trials, tribulations, and smalll-minded prejudices women of all walks of life face in patriarchal male-led societies; the bourgeoisie using the downtrodden and the disenfranchised for their own material gain) and universal themes as friendship, unity, and overcoming hardship. Headlining are the multiple award-winning duo of Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan with Kate Ashfield from Shaun Of the Dead (2004) in a supporting role.

Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. The only way to tell her story is to write it down and throw the pages to the wind. Old man Robert Fowlds (Barry Cassin) has been collecting the discarded pages and has connected the dots. Meanwhile, Clara (Gemma Arterton) has been working in a stripclub and after a lapdance turns violent a figure from her past materializes. Werner (Thure Lindhardt) chases her across the city. As Clara lures Werner to her apartment and kills him Eleanor has finished exsanguinating old man Robert. Realizing the gravity of their situation Clara and Eleanor set the apartment on fire and flee the city. The daughters of darkness commute to a nearby coastal town. There Ella meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) just as Clara meets lovelorn Noel (Daniel Mays). As the two women get comfortable in their new living situation figures from Clara’s past come haunting them. Head of the Brethren Savella (Uri Gavriel) does not suffer anyone crossing the laws he has laid out to ensure their survival. He dispatches Darvell (Sam Riley) and Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) to exterminate them for their transgressions…

Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) came with all pomp and excess that harkened back to the best Italian, Spanish, and Filipino vampire films of the most ancient days. If the stark and minimalist look of this British-Irish fantasy thriller (they apparently are still deadly afraid of scaring audiences by calling this a horror) is anything to go by you’d almost believe that Jordan took an interest in French fringe filmmaker Jean Rollin and his late 1960s/early 1970s erotic vampire horror fantastiques and isolated moments from Jess Franco vampire romps. While the atmosphere is meditative, introspective, wistful, and at all times melancholic Byzantium starts off in a seedy stripclub where voluptuous Arterton is giving a client a sultry lapdance. It doesn’t get more Franco than that. There are endless shots of idyllic beaches, there are opposing sects like in Fascination (1979) and at one point Ella is baptized in blood very much in the way of Grapes Of Death (1978). For the Francophiles these vampires don’t sprout fangs and can withstand daylight, during the beach kill Clara does the Jesus Christ pose just like the chicken coop/fence victim in Female Vampire (1973) and Clara too ends up bathing in (a waterfall of) blood like Lina Romay in said movie and Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos (1970) before her. Like in any good Rollin flick the vampires are a pair of young girls, although this could just as easily could be seen as a genderswapped take on the Lestat-Louis pairing of Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) with Frank in the Claudia role. Here Eleanor is somewhere between Claudia and Lestat in that she’s cultured, articulate, a misanthrope, and a philosopher whereas Clara is Louis-by-way-of-Lestat in that she’s guilt-ridden, sexually aggressive and impulsively self-destructive. She too has a habit of torching her domiciles, there’s piano playing and Jordan continues his Little Red Riding Hood motif with Ronan. Thematically this feels like a fusion of the razorsharp socio-political commentary from Baby Blood (1990) with about half the plot of The Living Dead Girl (1982).

Byzantium too singularly concerns itself with beautiful people living an immortally condemned life of hedonism and debauchery and effortlessly fails to be sexy at any point. Early on Clara is described as, “morbidly sexy” as she suggestively wiggles her bum in a baby doll during a lapdance. Despite said scene being set in a stripclub (and commenting on the plight and exploitation of sexworkers and the inherent perils of prostitution) it’s also repelled by the naked female form. Shortly thereafter Ella is called, “an aberration” for whatever reason. In typical Hollywood fashion Byzantium is deadly afraid of nudity in any form. To its credit director of photography Sean Bobbitt beautifully captures the pastoral British-Irish environs, beaches and lush marshes as well as the filth-ridden, neon-drenched streets of modern metropolitan hubs rife with urban decay – be they societal, systemic, or infrastructural. Just like Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) had faint but pronounced gay undertones Byzantium has a clear and defined undercurrent of feminist/progressive politics and disseminates an aggrieved polemic on generational poverty and disenfranchisement, entrenched gender roles in paternalistic societies, the limited agency and career possibilities of women without degrees or menial labor skills, and how apparently their only option for upward social mobility is preying upon (in this case very literally) desperately lonely (and sexually deprived) men of any age, but preferably their own. The score from Javier Navarrete is a bit stock sounding whenever it gets electronic and will sometimes wander into standard horror territory. Had it only consisted of the serene piano melodies then perhaps it would have been stronger. While Navarrete is far from bad we’d be interested in what Simon Boswell could have done with this.

It largely eludes us as to why Byzantium isn’t as beloved or well remembered as Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). And just like twenty years earlier Jordan was able to secure two of the biggest British/Irish stars of the day, in this case Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. Arterton and Ronan are versatile actresses and more than worthy every of the many and different awards they have, individually and collectively, collected over the years. Actresses of this caliber don’t agree to banal projects and especially not lowly horror films (still an uncultured, philistine genre in the eyes of many). This is as much a feminist manifesto as it is a socio-political commentary on modern life with the thinnest veneer of horror. Byzantium is not your average vampire film and more of a meditation on the late-stage capitalist corporate dystopian hellscape and all the societal ills that come with it than a thriller in the traditional sense. What must have drawn Arterton and Ronan to this must have been the interpersonal dynamic between the two women as they navigate the dangers - mortal and otherwise - of modern life. That it just so happens to look like fringe Eurocult films from nearly half a century earlier is a neat bonus. If this can serve as a gateway to some into exploring the prime work of Jean Rollin then Byzantium admirably rose to its task. If not, then you just saw a very good movie.

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 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 by equally infamous 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) can diminish from what Alain Robak accomplished here.