I am not a Jean Rollin expert. I feel like I should say that up front, because his films are rich enough to deserve deep analysis. I’ll also admit that before last Summer, I only had the shakiest knowledge of who Jean Rollin was. I knew he was from Europe and that he directed horror films, and that was about it. It wasn’t until Netflix made a good portion of his filmography available for streaming that I became hooked.
My gateway drug was Rollin’s 1982 film The Living Dead Girl. Looking past its cheesy gore and modest budget, there was something more going on than what I was used to from cheap Euro-horror. There was a real sense of artistry at work from someone who knew how to create and sustain a dream-like tone, and a subtext that elevated its zombie/vampire story (the girl in the title is a little bit of both) into a gripping parable of co-dependency. I tried another (Night of the Hunted) and another (Rape of the Vampire) and my fandom was cemented.
Rollin’s popular dismissal as a guy who made a bunch of lesbian vampire films is unjust. For one, it lumps him in with exploitation filmmakers, ones more interested with shock than art. Two, it willfully ignores the themes that run through his better work -- his characters’ refusal to succumb to mortality, his strong commitment to surrealist philosophy, and his elevation of women as enlightened works of art unto themselves, superior to man. If you haven’t given Rollin a try, now’s your chance.
Kino-Lorber is giving everyone an opportunity to discover (or re-discover) Jean Rollin with a new series of Blu-rays. They’ve released five films from Rollin’s extensive filmography, side-stepping his work-for-hire on skin flicks, and focusing instead on the films that reinforce Rollin as an underestimated artist. The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires, The Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, and Fascination are numbered along the spine as 1-5, respectively, and it’s my hope that the numbers continue for a while. These are top-notch discs. Criterion fanatics especially should take note -- the restored picture quality, special features, and artistic significance should place these Blus on your shelf alongside your most prized releases.
The Nude Vampire
Rollin’s sophomore effort unravels like a mystery, with one toe in the avant-garde waters of its predecessor Rape of the Vampire. Here, the son of a wealthy cult leader infiltrates his father’s clandestine meetings and unravels the mystery of the strange woman at the center of the cult’s activities. Rollin is still green as a director; this is his first color movie and his first working with professional actors, and he hasn’t quite mastered pacing or tone just yet.
That said, The Nude Vampire is unmistakably Rollin’s. Packing the frame with memorable locales and splashes of vivid color, Rollin crafts a story with themes that echo through all of his work, namely the antagonist’s obsession with overcoming death.
The Shiver of the Vampires
Much more of a common vampire film than The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires places a young married couple in a remote chateau that’s controlled by a domineering vampire queen. The groom, Antoine, must fight for the very soul of his bride Isa, while her cousins, vampire hunters now turned, attempt to lure her into a life of hedonism and immortality.
Like most Rollin films, this is more artful than you’d expect from that flimsy description, and the movie features several rich philosophical conversations on religion and the perks of being undead. Rollin, helped by a traditional narrative, is noticeably more surefooted as a director, in a way that he wasn’t on his previous film.
The Iron Rose
The Iron Rose is perhaps the most beautiful film in Kino-Lorber’s first wave of Rollin releases. There are single frames here that could stand alone as works of art. It’s the conceptually disturbing story of young lovers who find themselves trapped in an ever-expanding cemetery through the night, with no escape in sight. The longer they’re in there, the more it seems like Francoise Pascal (as “The GIrl”) is either psychically communicating with the dead or losing her damned mind. The film offers no easy answers.
It also never quite delivers on the terror of its own set-up. Despite strong horror imagery (a disheveled clown wanders through the ivy-ridden stone garden, a love scene takes place on a pile of human remains), The Iron Rose loses interest in its own inherent horror and becomes something quieter and more hypnotic.
Lips of Blood
A chance encounter with a photograph of a castle opens up a flood of memories for our protagonist Frederic. He recalls the castle from when he was a boy, enamored of the teenage girl who lived behind its gates. Now, he’s a man obsessed, driven by his desire to find the girl again, after years of being told by his parents that the whole thing was part of his childhood imagination.
Lips of Blood is Rollin at his most romantic, unraveling a mystery through the hazy childhood recollections of a man driven by love. There’s a touch of the sinister, as Frederic is blocked at every turn by his mother and a group of mysterious women, but mostly Lips of Blood is a tale of romantic longing, with lighter touches of the supernatural than Rollin’s other vampire films. It’s a distant ancestor to films like Let the Right One In and that alone makes it worth your time.
The most erotically charged film in the bunch, Fascination would still be memorable even without the copious nudity of actress Brigette Lahaie. Opening with a brief, queasy scene in which upper crust ladies sip blood from wine glasses in a gore-soaked abbatoir, the story cuts away to events that seem disconnected from its prologue. A two-timing bandit screws up his latest scheme and hides out in the closest place he can find -- a massive castle surrounded by a moat and attended to by two sly female servants.
I thought I could see where this one was going, based on Rollin’s previous work, and I was happily wrong. That’s the thing about Rollin, even if he uses the same locales (almost all of these movies use the same cliff-side beach location), the same horror device (vampires), and dresses every film’s actresses in a rainbow of see-through nightgowns, his stories all manage to be distinct from one another. No director has been as successful at re-inventing the same monster over and over again, with completely different results. Fascination stands the test of time as a completely unique vampire tale, with the drinking of blood taking a backseat to a love triangle that feels doomed from the start. Lahaie (once a hardcore porn actress) is easily one of Rollin’s best female leads, and he’d go on to use her again in Night of the Hunted and The Runaways.
(Thanks to blu-ray.com for the image grabs.)