Jean Rollin: Eros, Exploitation and Le Cinema Fantastique
There was no director like Jean Rollin, the French horror fantasist who died in the waning days of 2010 at the age of 72 and left behind a strange and wonderful (and sometimes horrible) legacy in his distinctive films. His reputation never really extended beyond cult circles but the weird sensibility and distinctive style and imagery of his sex-and-horror exploitation films, and his ability to create unsettling atmosphere out of simple locations and minimalist sets, made him a legend in some circles. (For a sampling of tributes to Rollin, visit the website Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience.)
Rollin’s films belong to a genre all their own, horror fantasies the plunge viewers into wild fantasy worlds out of time and place where figures (usually nude women) wander a deserted landscape. Imagine the poetry of Jean Cocteau meeting the emotionless performances of Robert Bresson in erotic fantasies and surreal dreams of sex and blood, shot on starvation budgets and rushed shooting schedules with porn stars taking the leads. There’s a bizarrely mundane strangeness to his films, a matter-of-fact directness coupled with deadened, flat performances, austere sets and locations and an unadorned camera style. He has an eye for modestly magnificent locations (castles, courtyards, towns of stone and brick at night) that become ominous when deserted and lit with a practical minimalism. In most nocturnal shoots, he floods the performers with a bright light in the center, giving them plenty of illumination even in the dead of night while the light feathers out until it fades to midnight black at the edges. The world disappears outside of his frame.
I was captivated by Rollin when the very first American DVD releases from Image (licensed from the British label Redemption) poured out on DVD in the early 2000s, part of the gush of cult cinema that suddenly appeared in the early days of the format. These films were unbelievable: B-movie exploitations by an avant-garde eroticist, the filmmaking at once slapdash and intense, the imagery screwy and haunting, the narratives dreamy, inexplicable, at times incoherent yet often hypnotic and mesmerizing. Some of his filmmaking was crude (perhaps the result of budget or time, or simply his disinterest in getting a contractual sex scene out of the way so he could choreograph one of his set pieces) but at his best, he was the erotic poet of le cinema fantastique.
I reviewed most of those releases, in one form or another, in capsule form at the time. I revisit those reviews and other notes made over the years in this retrospective appreciation.
Rape of the Vampire (Le viol du vampire, aka Queen of the Vampires, 1970)
French erotic horror master Jean Rollin’s debut feature may just be the lost New Wave horror film, a simultaneous rebellion against the old horror guard and narrative coherence. Often cited as the first French vampire film, it was originally conceived and executed as a surreal short about madness and manipulation, a modernist twist on classic conventions: crumbling estates and secret passages, angry villagers roused to mob action, haunted girls wandering through delirious rituals in white nightgowns, and their obligatory disrobing. Narrative is of secondary concern to images and Rollin hops from one gorgeously composed shot to another. The film is subtitled “A Two Part Melodrama,” which is an understatement. Given the funds to expand it into a feature, Rollin added an entirely new story involving a cackling vampire queen with a convertible and an antiseptic laboratory where scientists toil to find a cure for vampirism. If the first half is surreal, this section is simply senseless. Rollin seems to be making it up as he goes along, bringing back dead characters and killing them off yet again, but he also send the film spinning in mind-bending directions and climaxes with a revolutionary act that channels Jean Vigo by way of Jean-Luc Godard.
The Shiver Of The Vampires (Le frisson des vampires, aka Strange Things Happen at Night, 1971)
A pair of newlyweds stop off at a crumbling castle and drop in on a pair of oddball cousins, who it turns out have just passed away but show up for dinner nonetheless, decked out in Carnaby Street duds and tossing tales of religious research and the worship of Isis back and forth in a game of verbal ping-pong. While the groom Antoine discovers their bloodsucking secret as they stake a recent victim in their cellar (“We must not pass on this terrible curse”), Isolde is seduced by a statuesque vampire high priestess (Sandra Julien) who steps out of a grandfather clock and into her bed, the first of many memorable entrances. A nutty mix of hippie vampires, lesbian seduction, and moonlight ceremonies in a graveyard unaccountably bathed in deep reds and blues in the dark of night, it’s full of passages of naked women wordlessly wandering through the castle hallways and towers, and in true Rollin fashion he can’t seem to decide if the gallant groom or the bloodsucking sensualists are the true heroes of this counter-culture vampire tale. Even more deliriously absurd than most of Rollin’s low budget horror fantasies, this is a mad skin flick for surrealists where bad acting, slapdash effects, and narrative abstraction are transformed into an aesthetic.
Requiem For a Vampire (aka Caged Virgins, 1971)
Two schoolgirl nymphets in clown garb blast handguns from the back of a getaway car careening down a country road. This opening recalls Godard at his most playfully bizarre, but the meandering, abstract narrative is pure Rollin. The braided young nymphs ditch the car, wipe off the clown white and change into mini-skirts with nary a word spoken, and dreamily wander through a graveyard (where one falls into a freshly dug grave and is buried alive!) and into a castle, where they are suddenly set upon by cloaked figures and brutish henchmen. As they awaken to their sexuality, they are made the servants of a tired, sorry looking vampire desperately attempting to perpetuate his race with fresh blood and the nightmarish threat of the sexually depraved vampires looms over them: “Soon you will be initiated. You cannot be both virgin and vampire.” The lyrical first half, with its fairy tale imagery, surreal poetry, and eerie beauty, gives way to astonishingly brutal scenes of kinky decadence and brutal nastiness (the vampire’s ogre-ish henchmen molest naked women chained up in their dungeon), but Rollin’s ethereal mood gives the largely wordless film a delicacy and a surprising melancholy conclusion. It ultimately is a requiem for a dying race, as well as a gorgeous picture that follows the loony logic of a waking dream.
Bacchanales Sexuelles (aka Tout le monde il en a deux and Fly Me the French Way, 1973)
This romp flirts with secret societies and conspiracies, but that plot of blackmail and kidnapping is secondary to the series of naked romps that dominate the film: in beds, on the floor, in the bath, in a dungeon. Unlike most Rollin films, however, these romps are (apart from a couple of kinky moments) giddy and fun forms of play between consenting adults. Though little more than a sexploitation goof, it’s a high spirited film with a few moments of the fantastic that Rollin is famous for.
Demoniacs (Les démoniaques, aka Curse of the Living Dead, 1974)
Credited as “Une Film expressioniste de Jean Rollin,” this surreal pirate film takes place on land amidst the skeletons of beached and plundered ships, the legacy of a cutthroat band of “wreckers” who lure ships into the shallows. When a pair of survivors, young girls glowing in white nightgowns, wander through the shallows seeking help from the merry quartet, they are summarily molested, beaten, raped and left for dead. The story doesn’t make much narrative sense—the girls escape to the haunted ruins where a woman in clown make-up cares for them and a mysterious magician gives them the power to take their revenge in return for sex—but the logic takes on a dream-like quality appropriate to the gorgeous and bizarre imagery. In a strange tavern adorned with skeletons (and a man playing with a Dracula doll!) the Captain is haunted by visions of the girls as white-faced specters. A search for the girls amidst the rotting hulls of old ships culminates in a fiery inferno that burns spectacularly against the night sky. Meanwhile well-endowed co-star Joelle Coer strips at the slightest suggestion, frolics and bounces on a bed, and runs around the beach topless while hunting the girls. Rollin’s strange little film, a ghost story without ghosts, rambles on a little too long before it culminates in a self-destructive frenzy and ends on a sad, serene note.
Lips Of Blood (Lèvres de sang, 1975)
One of Rollin’s best films, this is an Oedipal tale of a young man haunted by visions of a forgotten childhood when he spies a poster of a coastal castle at a party. Jean-Louis Philippe, a hopelessly bland and flat performer, wanders through the deserted piazzas and fountains of his suddenly odd and alien hometown, eerily lit up in the dead of night. He’s a man lost in a world where a woman in white silently appears like a supernatural muse, gunmen appear from the inky black night, and a quartet of naked vampire girls prowl the streets for blood and watch over him like dark angels. When he trussed up in a straightjacket and sirened to a hospital prison, the undead girls put on nurse uniforms (the most clothes they wear in the entire film) to break him out, stopping only to nibble on staff. It’s a tale of blood and sex and haunting desire full of nudity and death and told in an austere, surreal style born of forced budgetary austerity. Rollin is slipshod with his action scenes and stiff with performers, but once he leaves the confines of the “real” world (where he’s oddly uncomfortable) his style creates a trance-like mood to compliment the beauty of his poetically macabre vision. Trivia note: the film our hero watches early in the picture of Rollin’s own Shiver of the Vampires.
The Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort, 1978)
Rollin puts an environmental twist to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in this oddball little zombie movie, this one set in the vineyard region of southern France, where the eerily empty countryside explodes in bloodthirsty villagers covered in oozing sores. These zombies are haunted by the human damage of their destructive sprees and uncontrollable drive to kill the ones they love. Called the first French gore film, Rollin brings a graceful dreaminess to his violence (at least compared to the blunt bludgeoning of Italian goremeisters Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi) and a purely emotional illogic to the impulsive actions of prey and predator alike. Marie-George Pascal stars as the terrified out-of-towner driven off the train and into the infestation, and Rollin regular Brigitte Lahie co-stars as an unbalanced human who wanders among the staggering monsters in a white nightdress and accompanied by two noble hounds, like a queen in the land of the dead. The make-up isn’t so much realistic as simply unsettling: the puss that oozes down their faces looks like vanilla pudding and chocolate syrup, with a tinge of food coloring blood.
This is pure Rollin: empty, austere landscapes which he makes eerie in his way with making them look flushed of life. When the zombies wander through them, they look alien to it, like invaders, while the humans look equally out of place, wandering a strange land. The story itself is driven by illogical impulses, pure irrational emotion, for both humans and monsters.
“You’re beautiful like that, with blood on your mouth.” A pair of society women dressed in all their finery stand in the middle of an abattoir, animal carcasses hanging behind them and blood splashed across the floor, giggling and fidgeting as they drink their prescribed glass of ox-blood. The startling, unreal image of high society manners in the midst of gore and death pitches Fascination into a turn-of-the-century culture come unhinged. When a well-dressed rogue, fleeing from angry partners he double crossed, takes refuge in a lavish, moat-protected mansion, servant girls Franca Mai and Brigitte Lahaie cajole, tease, and seduce him into staying for their nighttime soiree. “You have stumbled into Elizabeth and Eva’s life. The Universe of madness and death,” mutters one of them as they await the cabal where he is the guest of honor.
Shot on a starvation budget and populated with stiff performers, Rollin’s direction is arch and at times sloppy and his story never more than an outline but he beautifully showcases the tension between sin and salvation in each of the principle characters in an erotic dance of sex and death. Again he works in deserted sets and locations and he creates a setting out of time, with a turn-of-the-century atmosphere and guns out of the 1950s. The mix of dreamy and nightmarish imagery gives Fascination it’s fascination: blonde Lahaie stalking victims with a scythe, the bourgeois blood cult swarming over a fresh victim like wild animals, alabaster faces streaked in blood.
Night of the Hunted (La nuit des traquées, 1980)
A fairy tale figure (Brigitte Lahie) clad in a flimsy white nightgown flees through a misty forest in the dead of night, running from a horror that she can’t remember. The imagery echoes with the gothic elements of classic horror fantasy until Rollin takes a hairpin turn into a paranoid tale of insanity, collective amnesia, and haunted souls grasping at stories to replace their dissipated memories. Imagine Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor by way of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Blank-eyed inmates shuffle through the impersonal white hallways and empty rooms of an anti-septic skyscraper asylum known as “Black Tower,” living zombies somewhere between shock and stupor slowly losing their minds. Former porn star Lahie is perfect as Elizabeth: Blank eyed and thick lipped, with a young, childlike face that stops and stares like a dumb struck child and the wonderfully deserted locations and blank, almost abstract interiors make the whole thing even more alienated, like a future where only the insane are left. (Rollin reportedly shot at night in a modern office building and early in the morning on the streets to get that isolated, abandoned-world look.)
The story is more fascinating before the exposition and explanations, when the ambiguous conspiracies and the stark landscapes create an unsettling, alienated world out of time and place. Being a Rollin film, science fiction merges with sexploitation for gratuitous nude scenes and weaves a disconnected series of gory murders to punctuate a story that never really makes sense in the first place. But then Rollin has always been more attuned to mood and texture than narrative and this bubbles with atmosphere. His ethereal, poetic imagery and stark landscapes create an unsettling, alienated world out of time and place, a perfect setting for his ambiguous conspiracies and enigmatic psychodramas.
Zombie Lake (Le lac des morts vivants, 1981)
Jean Rollin reportedly worked on this French horror film (originally slated for Jess Franco and ultimately credited to J.A. Lazer) about Nazi zombies in a haunted lake preying upon skinny dipping girls. The underwater scenes are oddly lovely and the weird reunion between a sentimental zombie soldier and his living French daughter is as tweaky as it gets: the green faced corpse strolls down a country lane hand in hand with the cloying moppet to maudlin music. Wow. Unfortunately, Rollin’s dreamy, surreal touch is almost nowhere to be seen in the rest of this clumsy, blunt production. The make-up wouldn’t pass muster at a pre-school Halloween party, the performances are embarrassingly amateur, the dubbing is atrocious (Howard Vernon sounds like a weasely Peter Lorre wannabe) and the library music creeky and maudlin.
The Living Dead Girl (La morte vivante, 1982)
Grave-robbers enter a tomb carrying barrels of toxic chemicals (why not?), break in through the back of a family crypt to rob the corpses of jewelry and reanimate one of the dead when an earthquake spills a barrel into one of the caskets. She wanders through the deserted castle like a zombie by way of Bride of Frankenstein, using pointed fingers like fangs and sinks them into trespassers, but she’s less predator than tragic victim. Françoise Blanchard plays her as innocent and feral and terrified and sad at once, a figure at the mercy of her bloodlust even as she is terrified of her predicament, while Marina Pierro plays her best friend (and possibly lover) who offers up her own blood, and then lures victims for the living dead girl to feed. If it’s a zombie/vampire movie, its unlike any other out there, suffused with a sadness and a doom usually saved for werewolf films.
The Sidewalks of Bangkok (Les trottoirs de Bangkok, 1984)
Rollin combines kinky sex, Fu Manchu, cliffhanger adventure and sloppy martial-arts action in this pulp-inspired spies, sex and sadism thriller. Diminutive Asian actress Yoko stars as the innocent caught in the web of warring spies and a secret society of deadly female agents, suffering at their hands in every scene, like a kinky, soft-core Perils of Pauline dropped into an espionage drama. It was reportedly Rollin’s biggest hit, no doubt due to the long sequences of strippers and hookers strutting their stuff in meaningless detours from the limp plot.
Two Orphan Vampires (Les deux orphelines vampires, 1997)
Rollin adapted his own novel for the story of two blind girls whose memories are filled with shards of strange past lives and whose sight returns at night, when they are driven to quench their bloodlust thirst. Equal parts innocents, haunted victims, and driven survivors, the film recalls the wandering girls of his Rollin’s early Requiem For a Vampire.
Available on Amazon:
The Rape of the Vampire
The Shiver of the Vampires
Requiem for a Vampire
Lips of Blood
Grapes Of Death – Special Edition
Night of the Hunted
The Living Dead Girl
The Sidewalks of Bangkok
Two Orphan Vampires
Also available on DVD in the US:
He also directed a number of adult films under the name “Michel Gentil,” which have not been included here.
For more on Jean Rollin, visit Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience, a celebration of all thing Rollin; James Newman’s essay The Cinema of Jean Rollin on Images Journal; and the IMDB page for Jean Rollin.