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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: not everything is what it seems in this retirement home….

La Nuit de la Mort! (or Night Of Death! back at home, re-released in 1988 by Colombus Video as the more colorful Les Griffes de la Mort or The Claws Of Death to fully exploit the advent of the American slasher as a subgenre) is a quaint and often overlooked little oddity from that time the once-fertile French cult cinema landscape had been reduced to a barren desert. In just a few short years the fantastique had become, for all intents and purposes, a relic of a bygone era and the arrival of the American slasher as the logical (d)evolution from the old terror and suspense films was felt in the French countryside too. Night Of Death! breathed new life into an old formula by injecting it with what was popular at the time. Released the same year as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), and Altered States (1980) history has failed to remember director Raphaël Delpard, unwittingly or otherwise, as the father of the French Extreme and Night Of Death! as the first of this violent new breed. Not bad for a barely remembered little French shocker made for next to nothing and starring nobody in particular. As recent as 17 April 2019 it was shown as part of the Cabinet des Curiosites section on the 12th edition of the Hallucinations Collectives, Le festival de l'Autre Cinéma at Cinema Comoedia in Lyon, France. Vive la France!

Raphaël Delpard’s charming (and only) excursion into pastoral horror arrived at an interesting time in French horror and fringe cinema at large. Jean Rollin was still active but the halcyon days of the female vampire were well and truly over. Instead of looking outward Delpard looked inward and with that put a new spin on an old formula. By taking the central conceit of, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963), and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) or that of Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973) and transporting it from the American heartland to the idyllic French countryside he could produce a horror on a miniscule budget and with no name-stars to speak of. Delpard was simultaneously trained in theater and puppeteering with Jean-Loup Temporal and worked as a screenwriter for Jean-Pierre Mocky. His other claim to fame is the comedy Les Bidasses aux Grandes Manoeuvres (1981) (an early role for future Hollywood star Jean Reno) and after perservering with cinema for a few years longer he reinvented himself as a multi-award winning novelist and non-fiction writer from 1993 onward. In that capacity he wrote on the Occupation, the Indochina War and the Algerian War. Allegedly sold in the United States, Germany, England, and Italy and counting the late Tobe Hooper among its most vigorous supporters (he even send Delpard a telegram to congratulate him) Night Of Death! has the good fortune of pre-dating other legendary splatter horror classics as Norbert Georges Moutier’s Ogroff (1983) and Antoine Pellissier’s Folies Meurtrières (1984). Before other infamous French (and Francophone) horror exports as Rabid Grannies (1988) and Baby Blood (1990) there was Night Of Death! Oh yeah, apropos of nothing, this was released the same year as Anthropophagus (1980) and Zombie Lake (1980). Somebody has to be the first.

After an 8-month dry spell Martine (Isabelle Goguey) has sorted her life out. She will soon be starting employment as a nurse-governess at Doux Séjour (Soft Sojourn, for some reason changed to the more grim sounding Deadlock House in the international English version), a stately manor and hospice de vieillards somewhere in the pastoral French environs, and for that reason breaks up with her boyfriend of some time Serge (Michel Duchezeau) through a hasty writ. Reporting for duty on her first day Martine makes her acquaintance with groundskeeper Flavien (Michel Flavius) as well as iron-fisted châtelaine and administrator Hélène Robert (Betty Beckers), in that order. Madame Hélène is clearly frustrated (and makes no effort to hide it) that Martine taking office before her colleague’s two months are up is not done and she’s thoroughly scolded for just that. Martine soon befriends current (and beleaguered) nurse Nicole Clément (Charlotte de Turckheim) who, despite experiencing opposition from her superiors, has no intention of leaving her position. Les pensionnaires sont the usual bunch of eccentrics, loonies, and lonely but there’s no denying that they’re remarkably well-preserved for their advanced age. One day Martine is told that Nicole picked up and left and that a maniac known as the Golden Needle Killer is on the prowl. As she starts investigating Martine discovers that things at Doux Séjour aren’t what they seem.

Delpard stacked his cast with stars, old and new. Among the elderly Betty Beckers, Jeannette Batti, and Germaine Delbat were stately monuments of pre/post-war French cinema and television and Jean-Pierre Mocky regular Georges Lucas (imagine being him in a post-1977 world) would later turn up in The Return of the Living Dead Girls (1987); ostensibly drawing the attention are Charlotte de Turckheim and Isabelle Goguey. That de Turckheim was destined for greatness was all but a given. As the daughter of Adrien de Turckheim and Françoise Husson of the Lorraine-Dietrich automobile and aircraft engine manufacturer and cousin of composer/director Cyril de Turckheim she initially worked as a secretary, clothing store clerk, and French teacher. Charlotte debuted in the Bernard Launois porno The Depraved of Pleasure (1975) in the demanding role of “a cyclist” and shared the stage with Eurociné regulars Olivier Mathot and Rudy Lenoir as well as sometime Jean Rollin muses Marie-Pierre and Catherine Castel. Mais oui, the same Bernard Launois who would go on to direct the utterly deranged gothic Devil Story (1986). In 1979 Coluche wrote and produced her first stand-up show, simply called One Woman Show, that premiered in the Théâtre d'Edgar in Paris in 1981. From there she quickly went on to bigger and better things beginning with Claude Berri’s Schoolmaster (1981), My Other Husband (1983), Dirty Destiny (1987), and Wonderful Times (1991). De Turckheim shared the screen (often several times) with Alain Delon; the Claudes, Brasseur and Chabrol, Michel Aumont (father of Tina), Philippe Noiret, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, as well as Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sophie Marceau, Dominique Lavanant, and Virginie Ledoyen; Night of Death! is sure to stink up an otherwise impressive resumé.

Mon Dieu, Isabelle Goguey is what the French call une fille bien agréable. After appearing in the comedies The Big Recess (1976), The Phallocrats (1980), and A Dream Night For an Ordinary Fish (1980) la jeune mademoiselle landed her most enduring role in Night Of Death! assuring that long-desired cinematic immortality. Had Bruno Gantillon ever made a follow-up to his féerique Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971) la jolie rouquine should have been at the center of it and such a thing would surely would’ve transformed her into an international sex symbol or at least a cult favourite. La belle rousse could, nay, should have been a star in a dream-like fantastique from Michel Lemoine, a pompous bodice-ripping Italian gothic or giallo, a Spanish El Hombre Lobo epic from Paul Naschy, or even a not quite as glamorous British knickers and knockers romp from Pete Walker or Norman J. Warren. Sacré bleu, that such a thing never transpired. Delpard was so good to give de Turckheim and Goguey a nude scene each. Charlotte’s happens early on but it’s Goguey who has the most memorable. After Night of Death! demand for redheads like herself dried up and economic anxiety forced Isabelle into working with her father Claude Pierson as a production assistant and assistant director on the numerous pornos (usually with France Lomay, Nadine Pascal and/or Cathy Stewart) he was filming at the time. Goguey would have been right at home in Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (1982). No doubt Isabelle Goguey could have been a bigger star given the right project and role.

Perhaps it’s somewhat too charitable to call Delpard a provocateur the way Joël Séria was. Night of Death! is a lot of things, but it’s hardly a masterclass in subversion as such. Regardless, surely Delpard was trying to make some kind of point (which is never exactly clear, but it’s the sentiment that counts) with the bourgeoisie quite literally eating the proletariat to retain its youth. It was something of a throughline in 1970s counterculture cinema at large, as was the generation gap and the attendant changes in morals and values. There’s something skincrawlingly eerie about the old feasting on the blood and gnawing on the bones of the young. Certainly Night Of Death! tries to say something (again, it’s never exactly clear what, but still) about class conflict, the struggle between the ruling – and the working class, the patricians and the plebeians, and the capitalist construct of social stratification. Jules, the resident card-carrying Communist, not only “knits the sweaters of the Revolution” but assures Martine that when has he “finished knitting, the Revolution of the old people will begin!" Does it say something about the treatment of the elderly, the infirm, and the mentally unfit? Probably. By the same token it decries that these elderly homes are permanently underfunded, understaffed, and its employees always on the verge of bankruptcy. The decade of untethered ego and greed was characterised by the disintegration of community, the dismantling of tradition, and fear of institutional, establishmental, and government overreach. None of which are necessarily bad in and of themselves but in unison tend to generate an explosive mix of fear and paranoia. Night Of Death! might not be a work of great socio-political critique but it’s definitely there.

While the gore is pretty much limited to one or two scenes it’s more than enough to qualify Night Of Death! as the earliest example of what history would come to call the French Extreme. Whereas in the 1970s directors as Jean Rollin, Mario Mercier, Michel Lemoine, and enfant terrible of French comedy, Joël Séria arguably were dominant forces by the time the next decade rolled around only Rollin, Lemoine, and Séria would remain active. In their decade-long reign of terror Eurociné unleashed some of the worst that exploitation and Eurocult had to offer. Night Of Death! has the good fortune of preceding Ogroff (1983), Devil Story (1986), and The Return of the Living Dead Girls (1987) by several years. Only Baby Blood (1990) from Alain Robak a decade hence would attain similar historical importance and cultural significance. That is to say, until Fuck Me (2000) but would do a similar thing another decade later. It’s rather interesting how French cinema upped the ante about every decade or so. A long way from the fantastiques and gothics of old Night Of Death! was a signifier that French fringe cinema wasn’t afraid to evolve with the times. The French Extreme begins here.