Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

DVD/Blu-ray: Le Cinema Fantastique de Jean Rollin

There was no director like Jean Rollin, the French horror fantasist who died in 2010 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.

His films are categorized as “horror” by genre and they are obsessed with vampires and ghosts and spirits from past eras, but they really belong to a genre all their own. 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.

These weird fantasies plunge viewers into surreal worlds out of time and place where figures (usually nude women) wander deserted landscapes and abandoned villas, cemeteries, and ruins, as if hypnotized by the possibilities of magic beneath these rarified locations. 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. Yet Rollin has an eye for modestly magnificent locations (castles, courtyards, cemeteries, cobblestone streets) that become ominous when deserted and lit with a practical minimalism at night.

Poor bootleg copies and inferior, heavily edited American versions aside, most Americans had their first opportunity to discover his films when the first DVD editions (resurrected and produced by the British home video company Redemption and licensed to American companies) poured out in the early 2000s, part of the gush of cult cinema that suddenly appeared in the early days of the format.

What a discovery! 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, and usually incoherent, yet also hypnotic and mesmerizing. Some of his filmmaking was crude (a 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.

Redemption has now remastered the films for high definition and Kino has licensed the library for new stateside DVD editions and their American Blu-ray debuts. The first five releases include two films that were not part of the earlier Image / Redemption collection but were briefly released by Redemption’s own American label (which I never actually saw anywhere; this was one project that suffered from lack of publicity and distribution).

The Nude Vampire (1970), Rollin’s second feature, is a strange work of conspiracy, family rebellion, and innocence imprisoned, both a vampire film and a strange science fiction fantasy of a shadowy old men performing secret experiments. Pierre (Olivier Martin, aka Olivier Rollin) is drawn into the story when he’s entranced by a young woman wandering the streets, naked under a sheer gown and shadowed by men in black tights and animal masks. When he’s barred from following her to a villa, where apparently a private party is underway, he becomes obsessed with learning the secret of the villa and the woman.

'The Nude Vampire' - A masked sentinel lit up in the night

It’s Rollin’s first color film and his debut collaboration with cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon, who first creates that distinctive look of Rollin’s nocturnal shoots here, flooding the performers and their immediate vicinity with 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.

Rollin’s love of twins and matched pairs is first hinted at here, as is his penchant for romantic heroes drawn to mysterious women and supernatural places. He dresses the entire affair up in formal evening clothes for the guests and wild, skimpy costumes for the twin servants (one scene has them in skirts with fringe like banana peels, which the lascivious old man peels off one by one). But we’re really transported to Rollin’s world when the cabal of old men move their experiments from their urban villa and anonymous office building headquarters to a grand mansion in the country. A parade of night people (Alive? Dead? Undead?) converge on this seeped-in-time manse, marching across ancient paths and raised stone walkways with an eerie grace, and carry the film from the modern world to a supernatural out-of-time existence. Rollin presents them as neither evil nor benevolent, simply other, inexplicable, both of and out of this world. The mystery and allure of this other world becomes a siren call to his heroes.

Case in point: The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), one of Rollin’s defining films. A pair of newlyweds stop off at a crumbling castle and drop in on a pair of oddball cousins. It turns out they have just passed away but they 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 groom Antoine discovers their bloodsucking secret when he spies them staking 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) whose entrance into her locked bedroom would inspire Fantomas and bring a smile to the ghost of Cocteau. Like Pierre in The Nude Vampire, Isolde is entranced by the supernatural strangeness of the world inside this castle as if attuned to the wavelength, while Antoine takes the traditional romantic hero role of the protector.

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. While Isolde gives in to the allure of blood and sex and Pierre holds on to the material world, it’s clear that Rollin’s heart goes with Isolde. 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.

Rollin's primal beach

The Iron Rose (1973) is a weird haunted graveyard piece of two young would-be lovers on a first who become trapped in cemetery after dark, when the locking of the gates transforms the pathways into an inescapable maze. There are no monsters here, no vampires or predators, and the only ghosts are by suggestion. The Girl (Françoise Pascal) first resists the idea of a tryst in a graveyard after a day frolicking together in a state of puppy love (Rollin resists his usual impulses and keeps her clothed for almost the entire movie—almost) and only grudgingly follows The Boy (Pierre Dupont) into the marble orchard. But as night falls and Rollin’s atmospheric night shooting transforms the familiar imagery of crypts and gravestones (he shot the film on location in Amiens Cemetery in Arras, France) into weirdly beautiful world of stone totems and old ruins being recalled into the earth, her fright turns to a serenity that begins to freak him out. “Don’t worry,” she says soothingly, “The dead are our friends.”

In another film that might be the cue for the rise of the zombies or a vampire clawing out of the loam, but this is more about her transformation—perhaps madness, perhaps possession, perhaps she’s simply crossing over from her world to theirs—a spiritual rather than a physical threat. Like the couple of The Shiver of the Vampires, she gives in to the atmosphere and embraces (spiritually of not literally) the dead beneath them while the Boy panics, and Pascal is all innocent intensity, as if being brought back to a state of childhood and the unconditional trust in the unseen world that comes with it. And as in The Nude Vampire, the film carries The Girl to a primal beach where rotting pilings rise from the surf like ancient totems. Rollin returns to this beach again and again in his films.

Two more films complete this first wave of releases. Lips of Blood (1975) is an Oedipal tale of a young man haunted by visions of a forgotten childhood and another film defined by his eerily deserted landscapes of timeless cobblestone streets and old village piazzas. While Rollin seems all thumbs when it comes to storytelling or action, 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.

Brigitte Lahaie in 'Fascination'

And Fascination (1979) is a film that trades on vampire movie imagery for a tale of blood fetishism and addiction in turn-of-the-century high society. Again Rollin creates a world out of time with his deserted locations and misty landscapes, and against this dream world he explores the tension between sin and salvation an erotic dance of sex and death. The mix of dreamy and nightmarish imagery gives Fascination it’s fascination and its defining scenes: blonde Brigitte Lahaie (a porn star who became Rollin’s favorite muse in his later films) stalking victims with a scythe, the bourgeois blood cult swarming over a fresh victim like wild animals, alabaster faces streaked in blood.

All of films were shot on low budgets and the master prints show minor scratches and grit, but the colors are amazing and the vivid mastering brings Rollin’s imagery to the forefront. The earlier releases (all now out of print) were perfectly adequate and a revelation at the time, but these new discs are something special and each of them (on both DVD and Blu-ray) feature a selection of new and archival supplements. Most of them feature introductions by Jean Rollin (from video interviews conducted by Daniel Gouyette between 1999 and 2003) and all of them have bonus interviews (with Rollin, longtime Rollin collaborator Natalie Perrey and others, including Françoise Pascal on Rose) or other extras (such as a TV profile of Rollin from the British series “Eurotika!” on Fascination). All in original French with English subtitles and a few of them feature bonus English dub soundtracks.

For more on Rollin, see my essay on January 2011 on Parallax View.

See also reviews by  Dave Kehr at The New York Times and Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience.

Available on Amazon:
The Nude Vampire [Blu-ray]
The Nude Vampire [DVD]
Shiver of the Vampires [Blu-ray]
Shiver of the Vampires [DVD]
The Iron Rose [Blu-ray]
The Iron Rose [DVD]
Lips of Blood [Blu-ray]
Lips of Blood [DVD]
Fascination [Blu-ray]
Fascination [DVD]

"The dead are our friends" - 'The Iron Rose'