The Cinema of Jean Rollin

V I D E O   R E V I E W   B Y   J A M E S   N E W M A N

The works of French director Jean Rollin have been difficult if not altogether impossible to see in America. However, reference books, such as Phil Hardy's The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, frequently describe Rollin's movies in glowing terms. Hardy describes Lips of Blood as "beautifully macabre" and Requiem For a Vampire is described as a "deliriously lyrical sadean poem." Meanwhile, Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' excellent Immoral Tales devotes nearly 60 pages to Rollin's career while reserving its highest praise for Rollin's films and describing him as "a weaver of dreams."

Several of Rollin's films have been available on video, but usually in badly duped copies from fly-by-night mail-order companies. Any hope of an official release of Rollin's films from high-quality source material seemed to be a pipe dream. However, a British company, Redemption Films Ltd., has recently been releasing his films on video in the UK. And now Redemption Films has entered a distribution deal with Image Entertainment to release Rollin's films on DVD in America.

The first group of these movies--The Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs, Fascination, and The Night of the Hunted--are now available. Several more releases will soon follow. Lips of Blood, The Living Dead Girl, and Lost in New York are slated for release in November 1999, while The Rape of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire, and The Sidewalks of Bangkok are scheduled for the year 2000.

A listing of his film titles hints at the strange images on display in his movies--but it only hints. Within the films themselves, a bounty of exotic, sadistic perversities awaits: lovers are sealed in a coffin, a marriage ceremony weds a pair of vampires, a female vampire frantically slices open her arm and drinks her own blood, a coven of vampires chain women victims to the walls of a dungeon, a crew of pirates tortures the survivors of a shipwreck, upper-class women convene at a chateau for ritualistic blood drinking, and that's just for starters.

Rollin's movies frequently tell conventional horror stories. The Shiver of the Vampires, for example, gives us one of the most familiar of all horror plots: a newlywed couple spends an evening at a castle and discovers it is crawling with vampires. But Rollin tells his stories in the most unconventional of ways. In Shiver, the vampires become intellectual hippies who spout bizarre theories about the history of religion in Europe. His movies contain elements of horror cinema, but Rollin insists he does not make horror films. Not surprisingly, because his movies tend to defy the expectations of audiences, reactions to his movies can be volatile. His first full-length film, The Rape of the Vampire, was greeted with violent protests in Paris. And throughout his career, his movies have encountered hostile critical reactions. The French Board of Control (which certified movies for release in France) described Rollin's The Demoniacs as "a complete stupidity."

Compounding the problem, Rollin frequently solicits expressionistic, extravagant performances from his (largely inexperienced) actors. Or he allows the actresses to remain virtually immobile--like cold, beautiful sphinxes. It's no coincidence the Rollin movie that arguably received the best reception from audiences and critics--Fascination (1979)--also features the most naturalistic performances of any Rollin movie to date.

Rollin's movies did not achieve widespread cult status because of their acting. Audiences, instead, have reacted to Rollin's images. While the performances frequently have the same effect as fingernails on a chalkboard, the images themselves tend to stick in your mind for long after the final fadeout. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs described Rollin's cinema this way: "[Rollin's movies] look back to a romantic, doom laden past, filled with displaced vampires and uncanny beauty…His best films have a bleached out intensity, a unique mood all of their own."

His movies combine pulp imagery with the plot mechanics of serials. You'll find American models, such as The Perils of Nyoka (remember the scene where the native tribe strings up Nyoka over a fire pit?), combined with the classic French serial tradition of Louis Feuillade, as epitomized by Les Vampires and Fantomas. In contrast to his enticingly hyperactive subject matter, Rollin's approaches storytelling with a cool, dispassionate eye. Whereas directors such as Jose Larraz (Vampyres) and Jess Franco (Succubus) indulged in intensely emotional subject matter and images, Rollin preferred languid, morbid contemplation. So while his subject matter involved comic book aesthetics, Rollin filtered his storytelling through a high art sensibility.

These contrasts in style and subject matter tend to elicit confusion and consternation from audiences; however, for those people who can appreciate Rollin's wildly idiosyncratic and non-conformist vision, his movies are filled with morbid delights.

Rollin's third feature film, The Shiver of the Vampires (1970; original title Le frisson des vampires) was Rollin's most successful film to date. It was even released in the UK, retitled Sex and the Vampire and minus about 18 minutes. It tells the story of a newlywed couple who stop at a castle to visit the childhood friends of the wife. However, the castle's inhabitants emerge as hippie vampires who take an instant liking to the wife (the strikingly beautiful Sandra Julien). Progressive rock music by a band named Acanthus forms the backdrop as the husband watches his wife become further and further entrenched in the vampires' plans.

Unfortunately, however, The Shiver of the Vampires contains some of the most banal imagery in the Rollin catalog. Virtually all the scenes are brightly lit, destroying any potential for an eerie atmosphere. Even the much ballyhooed scene where a female vampire emerges from a grandfather clock is clumsy and ludicrous. Vampire movies traditionally avoid showing vampires rise from coffins--because the sight of a vampire scrambling to its feet tends to negate the creature's supernatural allure (so some movies give us vampires who swing up from their coffins as if spring-loaded and hinged at their feet). The sight of the female vampire awkwardly swinging her shoulders out of the clock's interior creates the same problem as vampires faced with coffins.

Newcomers to Rollin's cinematic universe should not begin with The Shiver of the Vampires. It contains occasional visual flourishes--a naked lesbian couple caressing on a fur blanket, a female vampire using spiked breast plates to kill a troublesome woman, a naked unconscious woman draped over a cemetery vault, etc.--but the flourishes work like autonomous fragments. Rollin draws upon a litany of lurid developments, but he fails to make the most of the connections he draws between vampirism and sex. For example, Rollin takes pains to set up the allure cast over the wife: she is mesmerized by the female vampire. But when she is led to a cemetery and the vampire bites her neck, the wife instantly collapses. The act of vampirism is reduced to a nano-second event with no eroticism other than the naked bodies on display. Rollin would not make this mistake again. His subsequent vampire movies effectively draw delirious connections between sex and vampirism.

In contrast to the long talky passages in The Shiver of the Vampires, Rollin's next movie, Requiem for a Vampire (1971; French title: Requiem pour un vampire) contains long, nearly silent episodes. Little dialogue of any importance whatsoever is uttered until late in the movie. This reduced emphasis on dialogue allowed Rollin to focus purely on the visuals, which involve several stunning sights: a woman falls into an open grave and is nearly buried alive, a pair of young women are pursued across fields by a group of animalistic vampires who grunt and pant, an underground vault contains a bevy of kidnapped victims chained to the walls, etc. The plot concerns two women on the run. In the first scene, they are dressed as clowns--who pour gasoline on their fatally wounded accomplice and set him afire. They then wander through the countryside, luring a vendor into the woods with the promise of sex before stealing his wares and setting off again aboard their motorcycle. Marie Pierre Castel and Mireille D'Argent dress like school girls, complete with knee high socks and long braids--but they carry guns and use sex to get what they want. Eventually, they stumble upon a castle, which is inhabited by a coven of vampires. The head vampire is a sad creation known as "The Last Vampire," who would like to use the girls as new blood for his bloodline. But his resolve isn't particularly strong, especially in light of the pathetic muscle-bound brutes who call him master.

Requiem for a Vampire contains one of the most perverse scenes in all of Rollin's cinema: the brutish vampires rape and assault victims chained to the dungeon walls. Rumors persist that Rollin filmed this scene for the financiers, who made no other demands upon him. However, the movie builds dramatically to this scene. Without the scene, the movie contains a gaping hole in its middle. Admittedly, though, the scene looks different than the surrounding scenes--as if it had indeed been filmed separately, with different lighting and different film stock.

Pairs of young women (frequently lesbian lovers) would be featured prominently in many subsequent Rollin movies, including all five movies in this initial salvo of Rollin DVDs.

Jean Rollin loved Hollywood movies such as The Sea Hawk and The Crimson Pirate. With The Demoniacs (1974, French title: Les demoniaques), Rollin showcased that love while also turning the tables on pirate movies. Instead of giving us pirates as heroes, he gives us pirates as a vile, deplorable gang who lure ships too close to shore so that the ships crash upon rocks. Then they salvage the cargo while raping and murdering the survivors. The plot involves a pair of women who survive a shipwreck only to be brutally attacked and left for dead by the "wreckers." However, ghost-like images of the girls soon interrupt the pirates' drunken reverie.

Rollin begins this tale with an old-fashioned device: each of the main characters appear during the opening credits, framed in a vignette and introduced by a narrator. It's a style usually reserved for adventure movies or comedies--not for horrifically violent movies. Rollin seems to enjoy upsetting the audience's expectations, but in this case the light-hearted attitude only serves to make Rollin's motives all the more suspect. His pirates become brutal cartoonish characters with less depth than the Skipper and his mate in Gilligan's Island. As a result, Rollin's usual penchant for delirious, sadistic visuals is reduced to crude, obvious contrasts that overstay their welcome after only a few seconds.

To help increase the sex quotient, actress Joelle Coeur is also on hand to bare her breasts. She plays the sadistic girlfriend of the captain. During one of the movie's most disturbing scenes, she writhes on the beach, in orgiastic ecstasy, as the wreckers violate two young women.

If you're unfamiliar with the cinema of Jean Rollin, here's where to start. Whereas expressionistic and somnambulist acting styles are generally the rule for Rollin's movies (with the extreme styles serving as refuge for the bad actors he worked with), in Fascination (1979) he received the benefit of a strong core group of actors--led by Jean Marie Lemaire as a thief who stumbles upon the chateau where Franka Mai and Brigitte Lahaie are staying. He doesn't know why Mai and Lahai are all alone at the chateau, with the servants nowhere in sight. But we receive a good hint in the movie's opening scene: a group of upper-class women receive treatment for their anemia by visiting a slaughterhouse--where under the supervision of a doctor, they drink fresh blood. That evening, visitors--all upper-class women--start to arrive at the chateau. Lemaire doesn't know what's planned, but he has a good time until he starts to suspect the fate that awaits him.

Among the movie's striking visuals, Rollin gives us Lahai wielding a scythe and using it to dispatch a group of thieves that have followed Lemaire to the chateau. She stalks the thieves while only clad in a thin nightgown that tends to flap in the breeze. The band of thieves, unfortunately, is one of the movie's more risible elements. They're about as convincing as the shipwrecking crew in The Demoniacs. But they're the exception. Lemaire, in particular, takes a charismatic turn as the story's roguish hero. He underplays his character and avoids becoming cartoonish. Mai plays the entranced young woman who almost allows her love for Lemaire to overpower her bloodlust. And Lahai (a veteran of French pornographic productions) gives a captivating performance that relies upon much more than just her physical charms (although they are clearly on display).

Quite probably the most influential member of the film crew, however, other than Rollin, was the cinematographer, Georgie Fromentin. Fascination is possibly Rollin's best photographed movie. It attains a gothic intensity thanks to the stately images provided by Fromentin that are juxtaposed with reds and oranges. He creates a romantic, overripe world that has entered a stage of decadence and morbidity.

The Night of the Hunted (1980, French title: La nuit des traquees)received some of the worst notices of Jean Rollin's career. To be certain, it's not a particularly good movie, but it does contain some unusually effective scenes. In part, it resembles David Cronenberg's Shivers, but it's a more controlled and contemplative film. It involves a group of people who have been affected by a radioactive leak. Their minds slowly deteriorate until they become vegetables. One young woman, played by Brigitte Lahaie, wants to remember her past, but nothing sticks in her mind. In the movie's first scene, she escapes from the monolithic office tower where the affected people are held. On a highway outside of town, she meets a young man, who stops and picks her up. Later, at his apartment, she initiates a protracted sexual encounter with the young man--while professing that she wants to remember what happens--in a sequence that manages to be erotic without being exploitative. An overpowering feeling of melancholy overwhelms the scene as the woman searches for some sensation that won't dissolve from her mind minutes later. It becomes a key sequence that provides the motivation for later events. Unlike the arbitrary, obligatory sexual encounters that frequently appear in Rollin's films, this encounter is well grounded in the characterizations and the plot. As a result, it acquires a mournful, horribly sad atmosphere--especially once we realize these memories will indeed leave her mind only minutes after the young man goes to work the following morning.

Outside of this relationship, Rollin's next area of interest in The Night of the Hunted is the relationship between Brigitte Lahaie and another asylum inmate, Dominque Journet. They develop a close friendship, with the camera focusing on their confused faces. They're lost souls who understand just enough to realize the horrible depth of their illness and how it has affected their minds. But outside of these relationships, Rollin's lets the movie drift lazily, with frequently poor photographic compositions.

The masters for the video transfers were created from Jean Rollin's own 35mm inter-negatives. All materials were ultrasonically cleaned and color corrected. Each DVD contains liner notes by Marc Morris, whose comments are largely confined to providing background information on the actors. The DVD jackets unfortunately contain blatantly exploitative images that are not derived from the movies themselves. This is especially disappointing considering the astonishing images that frequently fill Rollin's movies. Instead we get models, with way too much eyeliner, who look like refugees from pornographic productions.

The Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs, Fascination, The Night of the Hunted are now available on DVD from Redemption Video (distribution by Image Entertainment). Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For additional information, check out the Redemption Web site and the Image Entertainment Web site.