Film

The Films of Jean Rollin

Breaking through from exploitation to arty respectability.

The Nude Vampire

Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Maurice Lemaitre
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1970

The Shiver of the Vampires

Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Sandra Julien
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1971

The Iron Rose

Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Francoise Pascal
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1973

Fascination

Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Brigitte Lahaie
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1979

Made on a shoestring with beautiful production values and the morbid sensibility of a poet-maudit, Jean Rollin's French horror films languished for years, known only to a few fans. When Rollin discovered that an American grey-market video company (Video Search of Miami) was selling VHS dubs of old movies that Rollin himself couldn't get released, he saw a business opportunity where others might have called a lawyer. He contacted them and offered to provide his own prints. Thus his work disseminated through the ranks of cultish connosseurs, promoted by articles in Video Watchdog and other publications, and eventually the British company Redemption began distributing his films on DVD.

Now Kino and Redemption have joined forces to release HD remasterings on both DVD and Blu-Ray, with both English and French soundtrack options, bonus interviews, and intelligent notes by VW editor Tim Lucas, and the work of Rollin (who died last year) seems at last to be breaking through into the world of arty respectability.

It couldn't happen to a nicer auteur. The adjective "dreamlike" is commonly applied to his obsessive, languorous, mystifying narratives, full of unfathomable behavior by deadly women, but somehow they manage to make sense by the end of the dream. The words "poetic" and "surreal" come up equally often, for the films partake of visual sensibilities found in the silent serials of Louis Feuillade (odd characters creeping through the night performing acts of random melodrama), the images of Max Ernst (such as animal heads on people) and the Jean Cocteau strain of death and transfiguration in French cinema.

I have thought of Rollin as the maker of the world's best lesbian vampire movies, but these initial five Kino releases make me understand how reductive that is, for possibly none of these are even vampire movies (or lesbian movies) in the traditional sense, even when "vampire" is in the name. Under its great title, The Nude Vampire (1970) is an optimistic vision of the next stage in human evolution; the ending is transcendant and keyed into the politics of its time (and ours?). The Shiver of the Vampires (1971) is the most traditional horror-film narrative in the batch (couple honeymoon in uncle's castle -- bad idea), and Rollin's brief interview states that he saw the film as a spoof of same; the prog-rock score jars and dates the film.

The Iron Rose (1973), which Lucas considers a masterpiece, isn't even a horror or supernatural tale but an existential drama about a couple trapped in a cemetery; Rollin's films are always half in love with easeful death. It's a vivid product of the same yearning sensibility as the other films, though it engages me less. The extraordinarily mysterious Lips of Blood (1975) follows a young man who tries to understand and recapture a lost childhood memory of a beautiful woman who might be a vampire. He is willing to do anything to realize his obsession. For my money, the greatest film here is the elegant, nostalgic, and sick Fascination (1979), in which a callow thief finds himself trapped in a castle by two nubile women playing a game that will get far out of hand.

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