The hallucinogenic vampire cinema of French cinema’s most underrated fantastic film director.
It’s one of the tragedies of cinema that Jean Rollin’s remarkable early Seventies work remains, for the most part, unknown or dismissed outside (and sometimes even inside) cult film circles. Sold as sexploitation horror films in France, the movies were relegated to the grindhouse circuit in America – if they played at all. Most of Rollin’s work failed to make it to the international market despite the gothic trappings and extensive nudity that ought to have been catnip to exploitation distributors. The fact that few of these films travelled well is perhaps a clue that there was something beyond mere boobs and blood at work here.
French horror cinema of the era is often an odd beast, sitting at the crossroads between the exploitation cinema and arthouse experimentation – if you look at films like Morgane et ses nymphes or the occult movies of Mario Mercier, you can see a strange, otherworldly universe in existence that is beyond that found in the films from other countries – similarly, Jess Franco‘s most poetic and dreamlike stories tend to be those shot for French producers. Rollin’s work is interesting because it becomes more than just the sum of its parts – on paper, these films seem trashy, cliched and throwaway, bogged down with tacky titles that were, like the levels of nudity of display, a contractual obligation from producers like Sam Selsky who were willing to indulge Rollin’s fantastical ideas as long as he included enough saleable elements. Rollin’s best-known films are his vampire movies, all of which sound like pure exploitation – The Rape of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire and so on. For years, if genre critics (with the honourable exception of David Pirie) mentioned Rollin at all, it was to dismiss him as a soft-porn director who just happened to make vampire sex films, a dismissal that was rarely based on actually having seen any of the films it would seem. That the only one of his films to make it to UK VHS in the early 1980s was the entirely untypical and disposable job for hire Zombie Lake hardly helped his reputation. It would take the sterling efforts of Nigel Wingrove’s Redemption Films in the 1990s to bring his work to a new generation.
Rollin’s films – at least his films from the late 1960s until the mid-Seventies – are hardly exploitation cinema, at least not in a way that we might easily recognise. They are barely horror films at all, in fact – many of them have more in common with the strange, slightly scary, playful films of the era that worked as fantasy explorations of female sexuality and rebellion, like Jacques Rivette’s Julie and Celine Go Boating or Vera Chytilova’s Daisies – or if we want to be a little more on the nose, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Lemora – A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural – than they have with Hammer’s Vampire Lovers, Joe Sarno’s Veil of Blood, The Devil’s Wedding Night or any other vaguely erotic vampire film of the period. Some of the films have a dark melancholy about them and many are awash with pop art and comic book sensibilities that feel more like underground cinema than anything vaguely commercial.
Jean Rollin’s debut feature appeared in 1968. Le Viol du Vampire is a strange, often confusing affair that will probably leave most viewers baffled if they come to it expecting a conventional narrative – or even a slightly weird vampire film. It does, however, offer hints of where his remarkable career would go and has much to fascinate within its confused whole.
Originating as a short film designed to play support to another feature, the film was eventually expanded to feature-length, taking the form of a two-part story – though part two is essentially a more or less direct continuation of part one, forming a single if rather disjointed narrative. The film is somewhat loosely plotted, but initially tells the story of a psychoanalyst who visits a chateau where four women live, believing themselves to be vampires. They’ve been convinced of this by superstitious local villagers, who then descend on the chateau to stop the ‘vampires’ escaping. This story of psychological gaslighting is interesting, but Rollin is perhaps less interested in exploring ideas of superstition and terrorism of those who are different than he is in playing with trippy, hallucinogenic imagery and fantasy. As the film progresses, it gets stranger and stranger, with what little coherent story there was falling away to a series of dream-like moments involving real vampires. Characters frequently disappear and then reappear later with no real explanation, everyone seems to be in a trance-like state and the film’s tenuous grasp on reality rapidly falls away.
It sounds like a mess, and in many ways it is. But if you can adjust your mind to accept Rollin’s free-form narrative and not worry about anything making conventional sense, then there is much to enjoy here. While the black and white film betrays the technical inexperience of all involved – the focus is often off, for one thing – it offers up a series of startlingly striking images, some haunting moments and an atmosphere of such complete weirdness that it becomes oddly compulsive. The entire thing is closer to a series of artistic vignettes than any sort of narrative story and is as close to the scattershot unpredictability of a dream as any film you’ll see.
The crude English title translation The Rape of the Vampire (it is, admittedly, a direct translation, but Le Viol du Vampire sounds so much more elegant!), has probably not done much for the film’s reputation, or Rollin’s either for that matter – critics and fans alike are quick to judge and the idea of a sex film leering over rape is not going to impress many people. In truth, the film is not remotely exploitative or sexually violent – the nudity, while frequent, is restricted to breasts and buttocks and is entirely non-sexual, while the action scenes are a knowing pastiche of B-movies, serials and horror clichés, twisted and deconstructed to the point where they seem almost deliberately undramatic.
This is hardly the Rollin film to use to introduce new admirers, but for those already attuned to his unique style, it will be a fascinating, trippy experience, and one that shows his remarkable visuals could work just as well in monochrome as they did in lurid colour. But the lurid colour definitely added something to the mix and his next movie is one of the most delirious and surreal visual feasts that you could hope to see.
La Vampire Nue (English: The Nude Vampire) was made in 1970 and is a wild, psychedelic tale that takes full advantage of the medium, keeping the screen awash with remarkable, wild visual stimuli and vibrant colours that positively bleed out of the screen in this remastered version. Whatever technical inexperience that Rollin had with his previous film has now been replaced with an assured weirdness – from this point onwards, Rollin’s films might still have eschewed traditional filmmaking styles but now they were doing so deliberately. He was developing a style, one that is not for everyone – his films are a mix of wild visuals and static stillness, cliched vampire imagery, exotic sexuality, cartoonish visuals, dreamlike dialogue and a strange sense of tragedy and bleakness. It’s a heady mix and if you don’t immediately get it, you’re probably not going to be converted by extended viewing.
The visual spectacle of his work is, to a large degree, a replacement for a story, and that’s never more the case than in this film, which is a tale of secret societies, sweaty old men seeking immortality, a vampire cult and a remarkably hapless and inefficient hero, all of which are little more than devices to hang fascinating imagery on.
The film offers up a mix of outrageous costumes more suited, perhaps, to Flash Gordon than vampire horror; bizarre and off-kilter characters (in most circumstances, the one-dimensional, wooden performances on display here would be a distraction; but here, they simply add to the over-arching oddness of the atmosphere); and a furious psych-prog soundtrack that propels things along at such a pace that you quickly stop worrying about the plot holes and instead just begin to absorb the whole experience, allowing the film to wash over you. There are moments where the film slows to a crawl, admittedly – but even then, there is always some arresting visual moment just around the corner. It’s the product of a comic book imagination, where the imagery and the excess are everything, and the resulting film is more like a fever dream than anything.
You can see hints of the mysteries of Last Year in Marienbad, the work of Godard and more here. As a horror film, it barely works, and as a sex film, it’s even more unsuccessful – again, there’s relatively little nudity and no sex at all. It’s perhaps understandable that some people react so negatively to these films because they confound expectations and that probably leaves a lot of viewers both confused and disappointed. If you watch a film called The Nude Vampire, you probably have certain requirements in mind and this film is not really interested in fulfilling them.
Rollin’s follow-up to La Vampire Nue was Le Frisson des Vampires, which translates directly as Shiver of the Vampires – the title used on the English-language editions today – but is perhaps more accurately interpreted as ‘The Vampire’s Thrill’. Again, it’s a title that loses something in translation. In any case, this 1971 film generally avoids the comic book psychedelia of its predecessor in favour of a more conventional tale of the supernatural, with an almost classical horror narrative in which a honeymooning couple (Sandra Julien and Jean-Marie Durand) find themselves staying at an old family castle. They are told that the wife’s cousins have passed away, and are surprised to then see them, seemingly alive and well. It soon becomes clear that they have become vampires, and are determined to draw their remaining family members into the cult.
While this seems a less trippy experience than the previous films, let’s not pretend that this is conventional cinema. As with most of Rollin’s work, his sympathies lie with the alleged monsters as much as with the victims and his story is a romanticised tale of vampirism, with our living heroes being drawn into the vampire cult out of love, not malice. While it is a more sedate story, it still wallows in a dreamlike atmosphere, with the same remarkable visual tableaux that make his films so unique taking precedence over more traditional horror imagery. In a sign of the changing times, the film is also considerably more openly erotic than its predecessors – there are no real sex scenes, but there’s much more nudity and an aura of depraved sensuality pervades. If this is still a dream narrative, it’s definitely more along the lines of a wet dream, albeit a rather unsettling one.
There is a downside to this movie – it has rather too many lengthy dialogue scenes that somewhat lack pace and at their worst bring everything grinding to a halt, suggesting that Rollin was more at home creating his delirious visions of ecstasy rather than dealing with a (relatively) straightforward narrative. It was better to let the images do the talking – something he thankfully returned to in his next film, also made in 1971.
Learning his lesson perhaps, Rollin doesn’t saddle Requiem pour un Vampire (released in America under the spectacularly misleading title of Caged Virgins) with any sort of developed story. The film starts out mid-scene, opening with the bizarre image of two young girls dressed as clowns in the middle of a car chase/shoot-out that is not explained or set up at all; we are left to guess the back story to this as if explaining it would simply be too boring. Right away, we can see that the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere than telling a story. But briefly – our two heroines (played with blank expressions by Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent) find themselves lost in the countryside and stumble upon a crumbling chateau and nearby cemetery where things are clearly not right, as the dead bodies, arms sticking out of walls and skulls as decoration would confirm. They are chased and captured by the servants of the Last Vampire, who intends to make the two young virgins into converts, in turn using them to seduce locals – but Castel is instead seduced by a passing young man.
Rollin uses this thin plot as an excuse for a series of extraordinary visuals with little regard as to whether they make sense or not. There is probably no more than five minutes of dialogue in total during the entire movie and most of the incidents happen without any explanation. It’s a beautiful and ultimately quite a melancholy exercise on creative freedom and I can only imagine what drive-in audiences expecting babes and bondage must have thought.
It’s not all great – the final half-hour tends to drag somewhat, and even by Rollin standards, this one is going to divide audiences. If you are not attuned to Rollin’s sensibilities then the over-the-top vampire fangs, some terrible special effects and the very, very strange acting styles won’t be for everyone. If you are connected to Rollin’s ethereal approach, then the scenes of naked girls being tortured in a dungeon might seem like an ugly intrusion (as indeed they are – Rollin was forced to include the scenes against his will). But this is, nevertheless, one of his most interesting movies and perhaps the culmination of his style – there seemed nowhere that Rollin could really take the vampire film after this without either repeating himself or being pushed further into commercial sex and horror styles.
Indeed, his next film – The Iron Rose, made in 1973 – was a more personal movie for Rollin, a bizarre, essentially plotless study of madness and the love of death that oozes with atmosphere and striking visuals but throws out the supernatural and (for the most part) the erotic.
The film follows two thinly drawn characters – a girl (Francoise Pascal) and a boy (Hugues Quester) as they meet at a wedding and set up a date the next day. This eventually takes them to a huge, ancient cemetery, where he convinces her to make out in a tomb. But when they emerge, it’s nighttime, and they cannot find their way out. As they wander around looking for the exit, the girl becomes more and more fixated – possibly, arguably possessed – by the spirit of the dead, and the boy becomes increasingly aggressive and desperate.
Rollin drops hints of sinister things to come early on. In a nod to what audiences might have expected from a Rollin movie, the cemetery seems to have a resident vampire – who we see briefly early on, but who has no part in the narrative – and its fair share of sinister-looking visitors, including Rollin himself. However, the film quickly evolves into something very unique – closer to the works of Alain Renais or Bunuel (his Exterminating Angel also features people inexplicably trapped in a location). The cemetery, in the daytime a run down, atmospheric pace of the dead, becomes a maze and possibly an alternative universe, and it is the atmosphere more than any supernatural aspect that I suspect possesses the girl. Apart from a quick fantasy trip to Rollin’s favourite beach location (a chance to have Pascal frolic naked in a film otherwise devoid of the producer-required nudity and eroticism), the film never leaves this increasingly claustrophobic location, and neither do its two leads.
Francoise Pascal gives a remarkable performance. Rollin’s films are not generally known for their acting, but he undoubtedly had the ability to draw a melancholic sense of necromanticism from his better actresses (he would do a similar thing in The Living Dead Girl years later). Pascal seems entirely possessed by her character – her transition from terror to acceptance to a strange sort of joy in death being remarkable, as she moves from peril to pleasure in a way that is intense and unnerving. Her smile at the film’s finale is chilling.
If you need to convince people that Rollin deserves to be seen in the same light as other European arthouse filmmakers of the Sixties and Seventies, then this is probably the film to begin with. As a horror film, it’s really a non-starter, but as a work of art, it’s amongst the best you’ll see. Visually stunning, atmospheric and unforgettable, this is a highlight of Rollin’s filmography and of French cinema in general. Even if his vampire films don’t appeal, I suggest you give this a try – you won’t regret it.
After this very personal film flopped at the French box office, Rollin was forced to make rather more commercial films, including the first of several hardcore sex films that he shot under pseudonyms (these include the 1976 film Suce moi vampire, which is not really a part of his vampire filmography). After the 1974 erotic horror movie Les Demoniaques – a solid but not especially remarkable film that has little of the style that we might associate with the director – he made Lèvres de Sang (English: Lips of Blood) in 1975, his final vampire movie for twenty-two years. Cinema – French cinema in particular – had gone through significant changes during the first half of the 1970s and Rollin’s poetic, psychedelic studies of parallel vampyric universes would struggle to find an audience in later years.
Lèvres de Sang is one of the few Rollin films that features a male lead, with the film centring around Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe), who sees a photograph of an old castle while attending a cocktail party and immediately has a flashback to a childhood meeting with a beautiful and mysterious young girl (Annie Belle). However, his mother claims to have no memory of the place and his attempts to find it are hampered by secrecy and threats from sinister, gun-toting characters. But eventually, he uncovers the truth and returns to the castle, where scantily clad female vampires lurk.
Although at times this feels like one of Rollin’s more personal films, it’s rather less effective than much of his work – Philippe isn’t a particularly engaging lead (it always feels as though Rollin is never as interested in his male characters as his female ones), and while the visuals are as arresting as ever, the film is rather too slow. While this film, as ever, doesn’t feel as though it is really about the story – it’s more to do with the sense of discovery and the romanticism of the undead, and you suspect that there is more of Rollin’s own childhood memories and fantasies here than in most of his work – it is rather more conventionally plotted and structured than his other films of the time and unfortunately struggles to hold the tale together in an effective way as the uncharismatic hero stumbles around looking confused. No amount of impressive locations (with many a familiar sight from other Rollin films) or vampires in transparent gowns flitting about can liven up scene after scene of the wooden, bored-looking hero aimlessly wandering about – of which there are a few too many. The film tries to sit between the poetic fantasy of earlier Rollin and a more conventional narrative but it all too often errs on the side of the latter, and that’s not the director’s strength.
That said, this is still often remarkable – it’s utterly gorgeous and its world of hyper-unreality is as pronounced as in any of Rollin’s other works. As an existential search for the forgotten, and an other-worldly love story to boot, it remains as far from traditional horror as you can get, something that makes the occasional exploitation scene (a surprisingly strong female masturbation scene; a few splashily bloody killings) seem almost jarring in their incongruity. Rollin would learn to combine the graphic gore and explicit sexual requirements of the new era more effectively into his narratives as time went on – Fascination and The Living Dead Girl being great cases in point – but here these scenes feel out of place.
Rollin’s career after the mid-Seventies was a mixed bag – he made the occasional great film and several jobbing efforts between the porn movies. Most of these films have something, but none quite reach the levels of his early movies where it seemed as though he was working with almost complete creative freedom and unfettered imagination. He would return to the vampire story in 1997 with Les deux orphelines vampires (English: The Two Orphan Vampires), based on his novel and a decent attempt at recreating past glories that didn’t quite work. His 2002 movie La fiancée de Dracula is perhaps best forgotten.
The films made during the first five years of Rollin’s career are, however, as fresh and unique today as they were when first made; perhaps even more so given the tedious conformity and elevated pretensions of modern horror. That Rollin is still not recognised by many genre fans is a genuine shame, though not exactly a surprise – work this singular is never going to appeal to everyone. For those who enjoy films that are almost pure cinema though, there is much to enjoy in these movies.
Use code reprollin until December 15th 2021, for 20% off all Jean Rollin discs at Salvation Films and for 50% off streams of the Jean Rollin Triple-Bill on Redemption TV… The home of Jean Rollin.
Help support The Reprobate: