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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: psychotic loner terrorizes New York City with nightly killing sprees.

Amidst the deluge of cheap (and often, infuriatingly irritating) slashers it’s easy to forget that the subgenre could occasionally conjure up something halfway interesting when it traded the regressive for the psychological. Maniac is one such example. For once an absolute dearth of story actually serves to intensify the feeling of unease, filth and degeneracy. Savaged by critics upon release and the poster child of the Video Nasty panic that engulfed the United Kingdom in the early eighties; Maniac has garnered something of a bad reputation over the years for being one of the sleazier entries of the subgenre. While that may not be entirely untrue Maniac is also one of the most depressing of the form. On top of that, it manages to pack quite a punch with what is, by all means, very little. Envisioned by just one man and pretty much a labor of love for all involved Maniac is a misunderstood (and often misinterpreted) masterpiece in terror.

The man behind Maniac was beloved character actor Joe Spinell. To the average moviegoer he’ll be known for his bit parts in, among others, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) but to rabid consumers of the weird and obscure he’s known as a pillar in exploitation cinema. In the early-to-mid 1970s Spinell befriended (and mentored) a young fellow Italian-American by the name of Sylvester Stallone. His protégé had starred in everything from low-rent porn to grindhouse gunk as Death Race 2000 (1975). By the time Spinell had started pre-production on Maniac, Stallone was just two years away from making it big with Rambo: First Blood (1982) and establishing himself as the new, larger-than-life American action hero. The paths of the two men, understandably, parted. That Maniac owes its existence in no small part to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is uncontested. Just like Three On A Meathook (1972), Deranged (1974) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) before it Maniac was loosely based on the life of Ed Gein, that night ghoul of the graveyards or, as he’s better known, the Butcher of Plainfield. If you were to look at the origins of Maniac the most logical place to start would be Luigi Cozzi’s candy-colored, psychotronic exercise in excess, the delirious space peplum StarCrash (1979).

Originally Dario Argento was supposed to co-produce, his wife Daria Nicolodi was to play the lead and Goblin was contracted to provide the score. Unforeseen circumstances forced Argento to remain in Italy to complete filming on his Inferno (1980). Understandably, the agreement collapsed with Argento taking with him not only his money but, more importantly, Nicolodi and Goblin. When British producer Judd Hamilton got wind of the situation he offered to help finance the project if his then-wife Caroline Munro was cast as the lead. It made sense from a personal – and logistical standpoint. Spinell, Hamilton and Munro all had worked together on StarCrash (1979) and obviously there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the three. Caroline had worked with the British house of Hammer in the early 1970s and after her brief detour into Italian pulp the next logical destination would be America. To helm Spinell’s script producer Andrew W. Garroni recruited director William Lustig, cinematographer Robert Lindsay (both whom had experience from shooting porn), composer Jay Chattaway and special effects wizard Tom Savini. Savini had made a name for himself with George A. Romero’s Martin (1976) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) as well as Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Savini had a protégé of his own and that was the talented Rob Bottin. Maniac employed no name-stars unless Rita Montone and Carol Henry from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) qualify as such. Abigail Clayton and Sharon Mitchell came from porn. It was filmed guerrilla style in New York over 26 consecutive days on an estimated budget of $350,000. Suffice to say, there’s something to admire about the tenacity of Joe Spinell to practically will this one into existence in face of all difficulties and tribulations. Spinell and Munro would reunite for the third and last time in The Last Horror Film (1982).

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight, badly dressed, chronically unemployed forty-something Italian-American living in a claustrophobic, overstuffed dump of an apartment in New York. As a child Zito suffered abuse at the hands of his now deceased prostitute mother (Nelia Bacmeister) and in his studio he has a candlelit shrine dedicated to her memory. Strolling aimlessly through Central Park one day he’s captured by the camera of photographer Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). He musters up the courage to talk to her and the two become friends. Anna in turn introduces Frank to her model friend Rita (Abigail Clayton, as Gail Lawrence). Striking fear in the hearts of all New Yorkers are the headlines in the newspaper screaming of an unidentified maniac on the loose. What Anna and Rita don’t know is that Frank, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, succumbs to his homicidal psychosis In the throes of said psychosis he spends those silent hours on the cold, uncaring city streets indiscriminately preying upon, killing, and scalping young women of all walks of life. He brings the scalps home and dresses the store dummies in his clogged apartment in the clothes of his victims. In doing so he hopes to grieve the loss of his mother and, if possible, reform her evil ways.

With so little in the way of story it’s understandable that Maniac is - perhaps unjustly and more for the sake of both convenience and easy classification – bundled together with the slasher explosion in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). While it uses some of its conventions this first and foremost is a character study and one hell of a slowburn. This is about as far away from the formulaic slasher as you can get. And the most depressing thing is, forty years later men like Frank Zito more commonplace than ever having their own social circles and attendant cultures. Killing sprees like Zito’s have become scarily frequent, almost weekly events, bordering on the mundane. In the intervening four decades professional help for the mentally unstable, the unhinged and the certifiably insane has not materially improved (at least not in the US). It might very well be in a worse state than when Maniac first premiered. You can sort of see where Savini came from and where he was going. For starters, Maniac is custodian to a legendary head explosion that was recycled (and markedly improved upon) from Dawn of the Dead (1978). Secondly, the concluding zombie evisceration looks like a test-run for the undead make-up and bouts of bodily dismemberment that featured prominently in Day Of the Dead (1985) five years later. That Savini almost immediately distanced himself from Maniac because of the unsavory reputation it had quickly garnered speaks volumes of the efficacy of his handiwork.

Maniac grossed an impressive $10 million at the international box office and was unavoidable in chain video rental stores. It’s unfortunate that Spinell lived not long enough to see Maniac get its due reappraisal many years later and become enshrined as the American horror classic that it truly is. Only the equally chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) would come close in matching the downtrodden nihility of Maniac. William Lustig went on to direct the Maniac Cop (1988-1992) series as well as the enjoyable but futile slasher Uncle Sam (1996). In the years since he has been primarily active as a producer of (horror) cinema documentaries and took an active role in the inevitable (but entirely pointless) remake of Maniac in 2012. With a Maniac Cop remake currently in the works he’s involved as a producer with that as well.

As a producer Garroni frequently worked with director Gregory Dark keeping actresses like Shannon Whirry, Julie Strain, Monique Parent and Melissa Moore employed in mind killing direct-to-video and late night cable softcore dross and occasional low budget action. It was famously sampled by New York/Las Vegas death metal ingrates Mortician on their second, and arguably only worth checking out, 1996 “Hacked Up For Barbecue” album. Mortician might always have been irrelevant from a musical standpoint, and the fact that they have not released any new music since 2004 (going on 20 years for those keeping count) their inherent obsoletism probably at long last dawned upon the undynamic duo. Mortician might have faded into obscurity and irrelevance (if they were even relevant to begin with, which is another can of worms) yet Maniac remains as iconic and an undisputed genre classic that continues to live on in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. Joe Spinell would be proud.