Baby Blood Blu-ray Review
Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Blu-ray Release: October 8, 2019
Audio: French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0; English Dolby Digital 2.0
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director: Alain Robak
It is a voracious parasite from the dawn of creation, surviving centuries in search of the one thing it needs: to be born of a human. But, when this cunning creature slithers inside a sexy circus performer (Emmanuelle Escourrou), it demands gallons of fresh blood to grow stronger. Now, this reluctantly expectant mommy and her chatty mutant fetus are off on a cross-country killing spree, where prenatal care means violent carnage and the ultimate mother’s milk is Baby Blood! (From Kino’s official synopsis)
Well before the advent of New Extremism – a distinction coined by Artforum critic James Quandt and characterized by blunt and graphic sexual content and gut-punching violence, French horror entertainment was ahead of the curve in terms of its shocking content. Following the sadistic eroticism of the Marquis de Sade and the pre-cinematic tradition of Grand Guignol theatre, French art and entertainment has had a lasting, healthy relationship with vulgarity and violence. Maurice Tourneur’s The System of Doctor Goudron (French: Le système du docteur Goudron et du professeur Plume, 1913) brought the Grand Guignol to cinema screens, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí broke silent era arthouse taboos when they sliced open an eyeball for Un Chien Andalou (1929), and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (French: Les yeux sans visage; aka: The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, 1960) features bloody special effects that still shock to this day. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the rest of the world caught up and gore movies were regular, mainstream entertainment throughout America, Europe, and parts of Asia. As a result, the cult underground grew more extreme in the lead-up to the 1990s and France, for the most part, fell behind with minor exceptions. Before the worm turned in 1992 with the release of Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, and André Bonzel’s Man Bites Dog (French: C'est arrivé près de chez vous), the purely French-born gore boom was almost exclusively encapsulated by a single film: Alain Robak’s Baby Blood (1990).
A simple explanation of Baby Blood would be the dramatic natal horrors of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) meets the exploitative glee of a middle-period slasher. It’s easily appreciated for its lowbrow delights (more on those below), but, like the greatest gore movies, it excels because of its not willing to rest on its laurels. Robak tweaks clichés and expectations just enough to keep the audience occupied, while also acknowledging his inspirations. The script draws upon familiar insemination terrors, namely the dozens of trashy science fiction movies made to cash-in on the chest-busting shocks of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (aka: Horror Planet, 1981) and Barbara Peeters & Jimmy T. Murakami’s Humanoids from the Deep (1980) spring to mind – but tweaks the formula beyond extra terrestrial beings and religious demons, opting instead for an ancient creature of unknown origins. The greater difference is found in the way Baby Blood emphasizes the relationship between its main character, Yanka, and the blood-thirsty parasite growing inside her. The creature is at first a scourge that forces its host to do unspeakable things, ruining her life and setting her on the run. But, the fetus can speak and, as they communicate, they come to an understanding and even grow to love and depend on each other. It’s an oddly poignant touch that is, nevertheless, quite perverse, befitting the gory mayhem.
And do not worry – there’s plenty of said gory mayhem to go around. It’s not as offensive as early ‘80s Italian cannibal and zombie movies had been, nor is it as completely over-the-top and wall-to-wall as Peter Jackson’s Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), but Robak doesn’t pull any punches, either. Highlights include an exploded leopard (while I want to say no animals were harmed during filming, the circus scenes were shot in and around a working circus, so the big cats were emotionally abused at the very least), multiple squirting jugulars, a stabbing murder from the point of view of the scissors doing the stabbing, no fewer than four squishy vehicular manslaughters (one culminating in a beheading), a bloody birthing nightmare, a man blown up under the pressure of oxygen being forced into his lungs, and a series of full-on creature attacks during the closing minutes. Robak is clearly acknowledging the pacing choices of North American slashers and perhaps poking fun at their appalling sexual politics by portraying the murderer as a promiscuous woman who (almost) exclusively slaughters abusive men. Still, even when it’s joyfully depicting extraordinary violence, Baby Blood has the same sense of desolate, grim melancholy that typifies the best extreme cinema from Europe in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Unlike its more irony-driven American (and New Zealand) counterparts, Baby Blood takes its artful vulgarity pretty seriously and portrays acts of graphic violence as filthy, seedy affairs, similar to Germany’s Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik , Der Todesking , others) and the New Extremist French films of the following decade. Those that aren’t delighted by its copious bloodletting may still find themselves enthralled by its relentless mood.
Many years after Baby Blood’s release, writer/director Jean-Marc Vincent made a belated sequel, entitled Lady Blood, in which, 15 years after birthing the demon fetus, Yanka (again played by Emmanuelle Escourrou) is working as a police detective, trailing another supernatural killer. It is seldom seen outside of France and was not well received by fans of Robak’s original film.
Baby Blood was released stateside as The Evil Within, practically straight to VHS video. Some of the violence was cut to secure an R-rating and the order of some scenes was reportedly changed. It was easy enough to find, but remained relatively obscure until Anchor Bay released an uncut, 1.85:1 anamorphic DVD in 2006. More than a decade later, this underseen (outside of France) gem has finally had its first HD release via Kino Lorber (under their Studio Classics banner). Kino doesn’t list any source information, but the results are a spectacular upgrade on all accounts. The image is extremely clean, featuring almost zero in the way of print damage artifacts, though not at the expense of fine film grain. There’s a lot of darkness and purposefully grimy, drab environments, but color quality is still impressive, especially the separation of hues and vividness of greens and reds. Some of the darkest scenes have a grey/green quality that was probably inherent in the original material, but most blacks are clean and the contrast levels are neatly balanced. Compression artifacts aren’t an issue with the exception of some very minor low level noise that is only really noticeable during swift camera movement.
Note that, despite the box art sporting an R-rating, this is the uncut/unrated version of the film.
Baby Blood is presented in its original French and dubbed English. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend watching a dubbed version of a B-horror movie made after the 1980s (unless it was made in a country like Italy that didn’t record on-set sound at the time). Purpose and performance are almost always lost in translation. However, American distributor Dimension Films put real effort into their dub, including hiring Jennifer Lien (Kes on Star Trek Voyager) to voice Yanka (renamed Bianca for this version). The real masterstroke, however, was hiring deep, velvet-voiced Gary Oldman to speak for the monster, who speaks to his wouldbe mother in utero. On the original French tracks, the monster’s voice (provided by Robak himself) is modulated squeaky and high pitched, which isn’t merely annoying, but less compelling, considering the monster isn’t really a baby.
Unfortunately, my advice comes with a catch – the French track is presented in clean, loud, uncompressed 2.0 stereo DTS-HD Master Audio, but the English track is somewhat muffled, lossy Dolby Digital stereo. It’s not a huge difference, but, obviously, two lossless tracks would be preferable. There are differences in sound quality between the tracks that I don’t think are the results of compression, but the mixes themselves. This includes the English dub’s bassier and more echoey ambiance versus the original mix’s sharper and thinner effects work. For example, during Yanka’s first kill, there is a storm outside and raindrops can only be heard on the English mix, while the French mix emphasizes thunder only). There are also a few scenes that are only available in French. If the English track is selected, subtitles will pop up during these sequences. Carlos Acciari’s ambient, sometimes tribal drum-driven score, is the one aural element that sounds consistently better when uncompressed.
Commentary with film historian Lee Gambin and critic/filmmaker Jarret Gahan – writer for Fangoria, Delirium & Diabolique magazines and author of Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film (Midnight Marquee Press, 2012), Gambin and Gahan, who has directed/produced dozens and dozens of featurettes/documentaries, dive right into the factoids and speak about a mile a minute. The quantity of content can be a little overwhelming, but this is an enormously valuable track, because there simply isn’t a lot of English language information available on the film.
Trailers for Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare Beach (aka: Welcome to Spring Break, 1988), George Pavlou’s Rawhead Rex (1986), Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Night Angel (1990), and Richard Franklin’s Link (1986).
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