Director: Alain Robak
Screenplay: Alain Robak and Serge Cukier
Cast: Emmanuelle Escourrou (as Yanka); Christian Sinniger (as Lohman); Jean-François Gallotte (as Richard); Roselyne Geslot (as Rosette)
Synopsis: At a circus, a new leopard is acquired that houses a millennia old parasitic life form waiting to be born. When the leopard is unsuitable as a host, it emigrates into the womb of the pregnant Yanka (Escourrou), the wife of the circus owner whose foetus is taken over by a life form that demands human blood to grow from. Fleeing the circus and living in whatever way she can, Yanka and the life form develop a love-hate relationship with nine months ahead before she gives birth to the being.
French horror cinema before the 2000s from an ignorant outsider's point of view is a series of valleys and peaks in terms of the amount of films made in contrast to other European countries like Italy who, when they started making horror movies at a consistent rate, kept making them over decades long. Around the 2000s onwards there's a large industry for such films, but its far more inconsistent at least in terms of what is known of outside of French audiences. There are a handful of films over the decades from Jean Epstein's 1928 adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher to Eyes Without A Face (1960) and even in the largest period before the 2000s for horror movies, the late sixties and seventies, if you remove the co-productions between countries and prolific individuals like Jean Rollin there's sadly an obscurity of films written about in great detail. The wave of new French horror of the 2000s stands out because suddenly up to today a vast sub-industry of horror films were being made in the consistency of the seventies output. Unfortunately films will have likely been left in obscurity during the period inbetween even when horror and cult film fans embrace an international palette in their cinema, Baby Blood a great example of this. I didn't know of the existence of such an interesting film until the Horror Channel in Britain gave it a chance a few years ago on the TV schedule, and it's not been on DVD let alone Blu-Ray in the UK.
This is a shame as Baby Blood is certainly a peculiar gem. Only here could you think a film is going to turn into Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981), with its claustrophobic room shots and occasional prowling cameras, only to end like a French Peter Jackson splatstick film. There is a distinct earthliness, a grim realism, to the film which weaves with the more absurd gore moments that come in as Yanka's pregnancy goes through its nine months, personified by Emmanuelle Escourrou herself as Yanka. Escourrou is a very earthy, curvaceous woman, far removed from the manufactured glamour of magazines and closer to a real young woman you'd bump into in a rural French village or on the Paris streets. Exactly like Béatrice Dalle, who'd go from art cinema to horror films like Inside (2007), one of Escourrou's distinct physical traits which do add something to her prescience is her gap teeth, which do drastically change a person's face and add a great deal to her appearance between an innocent woman having to deal with the parasite in her stomach and a person willing to kill others for said parasite. The casting of ordinary men and women in the rest of the film adds a verisimilitude far removed from the stylisation most English language horror outside of seventies exploitation films. This applies to the world depicted as well, a general corporal realism to the film which balances between the naturalistic and the visceral, close-ups of uneaten sausage and beans left to mould on a plate to slime and viscera being split, the disgusting and the pretty intermingling a great deal. The only part of the film that might put people off but not for intentional aesthetic purpose is the god-awful fashion. On the cusp of the nineties, shell suits and perms populate the cast, and considering late eighties Eric Rohmer films suffered from this for their sake of realism, its merely a archival curiosity which doesn't detract from the film's style at all. Just be aware that, while it adds to the realism, this shows one of the most extreme examples of dated fashion ideals out of any horror films I've seen, the naked realism preventing a nostalgic kitsch from saving any of the clothes. In many ways it adds to the visual virtues of the film by forcing it, unintentionally, on a viewer decades later.
The film manages to be a fascinating character study where the plight of Yanka's is sympathetic but the parasite in her body is just as interesting an individual. Voiced with an almost helium induced voice, the developing interactions between "him" and his improvised mother, to the point of moments like Yanka correcting his pronunciation of a word, makes them sympathetic together despite him being a monstrous character. That Yanka eventually treats him as her child draws out a peculiar sweetness despite him encouraging her to commit random murders to feed him. The relationship, alongside the many colourful characters they encounter, provide the film with a depth whilst the mix of the serious and blackly humorous completes the entertainment value. The air of absurdity that eventually coats the film, like two of the most unprofessional ambulance drivers I've seen in cinema ever, adds to its personality and it helps the cast around Escourrou is just as interesting as her. Director Alain Robak doesn't hold back in casting people who you'd find on the streets, distinct character faces that are instantly memorable in just a cameo for a few seconds, and likewise his grubby depiction of France where the rural countryside is off to the side of motorways is certainly a unique presentation for the central story adding to it.
A huge advantage in Baby Blood's favour is its technical quality, a visual flair as a result of its mixing of the very realistic and down-to-earth with the absurd, right down to momentary flourishes - such as a shot where Escourrou is more than likely travelling on the dolly of the camera or a cart, depicting her mental state as the tall apartment buildings behind her move past as she moves ahead without walking - which bring a viewer in further to engage with the story. Despite the dated late eighties fashion and hairstyles, the matching of a gritty reality with bright primary colours helps the film, even grimier than something like Street Trash (1987), the stark reality of urban and rural France with bright colours because of the decor choices of the time period melding together exceptionally well.
One thing that can be compared to films like Street Trash and early Peter Jackson horror films completely are the ways the deaths are depicted. The film eventually becomes more and more ridiculous, including an unexpected amount of head trauma from improvised sources, and as a result more blackly humorous as Yanka's pregnancy goes to its final stages. The prosthetic effects used are certainly icky and memorable enough to help in this.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Admittedly, while Baby Blood is a strange and macabre experience, it isn't unconventional in tone. Instead the real meat of the film is its balance between sympathy for Yanka and her baby, and the grim humour of the characters and scenarios that take place as the viscera is spilt. The tonal shifts between the serious and humorous, the aesthetic shifts between reality and exaggeration, does create something unexpected, but not one to that would qualify for the Abstract List.
As someone who wants a fully international palette to his cult cinema, who goes out of his way to see films from all around the world out of a sincere curiosity, adding another film to the small list of French horror films I like is a great thing. Baby Blood is confident enough for there to be a visual joke about a Baby Blood 2 poster being visible at a cinema in one scene, and it can get away with it because the content is good. Very idiosyncratic in its characters' moments of existential conversation but also very prickly in its humour and very natural tone. Again it's a regret a DVD is non-existent as it would perfectly play for an audience wanting something different.