Home Video Hovel- The Cinema of Jean Rollin (part 2), by Kyle Anderson
A few months back, David reviewed the first five of Redemption Films’ releases in their “The Cinema of Jean Rollin” line. The five films in that first set were completely unrelated except for the assertion that they were some of the French director’s most personal films. Redemption has released a further three films from Rollin which are some of his most bizarre and experimental. I had only seen one Rollin film prior to these, 1978’s The Grapes of Death, but knew he was infamous for vampire erotica and reading David’s review of the first box set solidified that. I also had heard that his films were not particularly well regarded by most film critics. I, being who I am, tend to love weird or “bad” cinema if it’s done with a particular flare and panache. Jean Rollin has both in spades, but does that make any of these movies any good?
Rollin certainly has some peccadilloes that one has to accept to get any enjoyment out of his films. 1, there are long stretches of time without any dialogue at all; 2, the flow of the story is secondary to the mood of the scene; and 3, he uses nudity the way Tarantino uses the F word, which is to say, a whole fucking lot. The filmmaker seems to be obsessed by the female form, but in a strangely innocent way. While the nudity is there almost purely for titillation purposes, he approaches it almost perfunctorily, as though it’s also just part of the scenery. The sex scenes aren’t so much graphic as they are sustained, as though we’re simply forced to watch and not get particularly aroused by it. Though the filmmaker did eventually in his career forsake horror and make full-fledged erotica/pornography, pseudonymously, he apparently had no interest in filming the actual sex act. One interview with an assistant director in the supplemental material states that Rollin always had one of his assistants shoot the numerous, often lengthy sex scenes and would return to the camera to film the story elements. Try as he might, it’s hard to separate Rollin from sexuality as it increases exponentially through the three films in the set, despite the first film having the most incendiary title.
The Rape of the Vampire
1968’s The Rape of the Vampire is the Rollin’s earliest vampire film, and indeed the film’s trailer proclaims (erroneously) that this is the first French vampire film ever. Told in two parts, this black and white film tells the story of four sisters who claim to be generations-old vampires living in a large manor house in the French countryside. A psychiatrist and two of his compatriots come to the house to try to convince the girls that they are not actually creatures of the night, but have been brainwashed into thinking so. The townspeople, all stupid, slobbery men decide to lay siege to the house and bad things happen to the girls, yes, including rape. This is the first 30 minutes of the film and is properly eerie and atmospheric and the mystery as to whether or not the girls actually are evil creatures is interesting. The rest of the film is essentially a completely different film; there are even different credits, though it picks up immediately where Part One ended. In this portion, the scantily-clad Queen of the Vampires takes her minions to a hospital where a doctor tries to find a cure for vampirism. Things get a little fuzzy through the middle of the film, until there’s a large “blood wedding” on the stage of the actual Theatre du Grand Guignol.
Apparently, Rollin had raised the very small amount of money for the first 30-minute chunk and shot it as a stand-alone short and then was approached by someone offering another small amount of money to turn it into a feature. As such, the first part of the film is much more focused and coherent than the second. It’s also purported that by the second day of filming, every single copy of the script was lost, and so the majority of the film was half-remembered improvisation. Rollin seems less concerned about this than he should, though he’s clearly still quite focused on making interesting screen pictures. The b&w looks amazing and really helps accentuate the gloomy macabre feel of the story. One thing Rollin does very well in all three of these films is to shoot in old, disused ruins in the country, which are suitably otherworldly. Once the action shifts to the hospital setting, I mostly lost interest as there were too many characters and not enough to explain who everybody was. I wouldn’t say that I disliked the film, because there’s still interesting things going on, but it’s definitely the weakest of the three.
Requiem for a Vampire
The second film chronologically, 1973’s Requiem for a Vampire, is by far my favorite. It was also, apparently, Jean Rollin’s favorite of his own films. He wrote the script over a period of only a night or two and is a strange, ethereal journey down a twisted rabbit hole. The film begins in media res on a car chase as two young girls dressed as clowns fire pistols out of the back of a small car as a man drives. They are being chased by some other men in a similar car. The reason for this chase and why the girls are in clown outfits is never explained, and it would sort of ruin things if it were. The men all get dispatched quite quickly as the girls traipse through the back country on foot, eventually stealing a motorcycle and hiding in a cemetery. The actresses playing the girls are in their early 20s, but when they take off their clown makeup and wigs, they are dressed in little girl/nymphette gear. The girls eventually find a secluded old chateau in the hills which is unfortunately the home of the two female acolytes of the world’s last remaining vampire, whose powers are dwindling and is having trouble turning the women fully into the undead. Also under the vampire’s control are three brutish men whose task it is to find young women for the master to feed upon. Our two heroines are placed under the vampire’s control and must use their feminine wiles to secure men to satisfy the vampire curse.
This film is a strange, nightmarish trip. The first 40 minutes of the film are essentially dialogue-free, which Rollin does incredibly well. It’s only when the “plot” starts to get too involved toward the end that the film loses a bit of its magic. There’s also a very (I might even say “overly”) long sequence in the middle of the movie wherein three young women, tied to pillars in the vampire’s tomb, are manhandled, molested, and raped by the three swarthy thugs. This scene serves no narrative function and is purely an exercise in fetishism and bondage, which is a theme throughout all three films. Nothing is ever “graphic,” per say, as all the downstairs fraternizing is covered or offscreen, but it goes on and on. There’s also a very strange shot where a plastic bat (supposed to be real) is sitting atop the pubic hair of one of the poor, tortured women. I was not quite sure if it’s meant to be the vampire in bat form or literally just a bat from the cave trying to get in on the action. These eight minutes aside, I do think this is quite a good film that works as horror and French New Wave weirdness. Strange fact, the film in America was released under the title Caged Virgins which doesn’t really fit as the two virgins are never in a cage, nor does mention all the vampire stuff which is the bulk of the movie.
The final film in the set is 1974’s The Demoniacs, and the only period film in the mix. It should be noted that this film contains no vampires, one of the only Rollin films of the period not to. It opens with a narrator telling us about our four lead characters, known as “wreckers” who run ships aground in order to rape and pillage. They’re inverse pirates. The wreckers consist of three violent men and a busty woman named Tina who gets sexually aroused by violence. After ransacking a newly wrecked ship, the group find two, young blonde girls in pajamas who are the only survivors. Two of the men viciously attack, rape, and kill the girls while the captain and Tina have sex on the rocks. After the horror, they all go back to a bar full of pirate-types run by a woman with second sight. The captain, who is basically insane, sees visions of the two dead girls in the bar, a manifestation of his guilt. Instead of dealing with his emotions, he and the others head back to the wreck to ensure the girls are indeed dead, lest they be able to identify the fiends. Turns out, the girls are alive and just fine (Are they ghosts, zombies, or truly alive? We never know) and, after an attempt to set fire to everything on the beach, the two girls find their way to the ruins, which are apparently haunted. There, they find a girl in clown makeup (one of the two leads of the last film) who leads them to a monk who is guarding a jail cell containing the Devil, in the guise of a handsome man. He tells the girls that, if they have sex with him, he will bestow his powers upon them so they can exact their revenge. Who hasn’t tried that exact line before?
This movie is a film of excesses; it has the most interesting and well-developed story of the movies here and also has the most amounts of gratuitous nudity and sex scenes, both brutal and non. I find it very strange that the film entitled The Rape of the Vampire actually contains the least amount of rape. This is Rollin’s version of a pirate film and he shoots it like the old swashbucklers of classic cinema. Essentially, The Demoniacs is a morality play about guilt, as the wrecker captain’s guilt over his actions eventually leads to his own downfall and the downfall of his cohorts. As a story, it’s easily the most interesting; however the sheer amounts of lengthy sex and sexual violence diminished my enjoyment of the film. This release is the “Unrated Extended Cut” which runs about 100 minutes. I can’t imagine this movie got theatrically released in the US in anything longer than an 85 minute cut. Apart from all the rape and pillaging we see, there are at least five other sex scenes, including one near the end when Tina fondles herself excitedly while the two ghost girls are again subjected to the horrors of the other wreckers. On top of this, the special features contain 10 extra minutes of sex scenes. This truly must have been around the time when Rollin stopped being a maker of erotic horror films and started just making pornography. I wish I could say I really liked the movie, given it is Rollin’s most ambitious and impressive film in a lot of ways, but the noticeably larger budget must have come at the price of having uncomfortably more sex scenes. The camera lingers just a bit too long. I’m certainly not a prude, nor do I ever really have a problem with nudity and sex in films, but there comes a point when they cease to be for filmic purposes and exist solely for patrons to touch themselves in the theaters.
I still can’t really decide if I would call these good films, but they are certainly interesting and incredibly French. Jean Rollin was a filmmaker with a very distinct style and vision and liked to tell a specific kind of story, for good or ill. I will say, having now seen four of his films, I’m intrigued to see more, if for no other reason than to say I’ve seen them. Kino Lorber and Redemption have seen it important to release eight of the man’s films in only a few months and that in itself makes them worth a watch. You do have to know what you’re getting yourself into otherwise they might be hard to digest, but if you can take these films for what they are, you can see the work of a director with a unique eye and voice.