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.