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by Jim Pyke

Over the past few years I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the great directors of modern European horror films. I am still surprised with each meeting to find that the creators of such unsettling films are some of the nicest guys I will probably ever meet. My personal theory is that they exorcise their inner demons through their films, leaving the rest of their lives nominally carefree. This theory is probably an exaggeration, but upon meeting Jean Rollin
()at Eurofest '96 I do have a little more supporting evidence.

If Rollin were inclined to be a bitter man, he would have some reason to be so. There were riots at the premier of his first feature, LE VIOL DU VAMPIRE (The Rape of the Vampire, 1968), and while these were more the result of the general student strike in Paris that spring, the film was also universally panned by the critics. A lesser man might have been deterred by such a response to his creation of the first French vampire film. Fortunately for the world of cinema, however, Rollin has persevered to make more than a dozen atmospheric and erotically charged horror movies over a career spanning nearly three decades. Recently, his efforts have received some long-deserved positive attention both at home in France, with the recent high-profile re-release of several of his films on video, and abroad in the United States and England, with major video releases and media coverage in magazines like European Trash Cinema, Necronomicon, and even the more mainstream Fangoria.

Like his favorite female lead Brigitte Lahaie, Rollin has also shot a number of porn films, but unlike her, he is not particularly proud of them and in large measure only did them for the money (as is evidenced by the fact that he refused to put his own name to them, preferring the pseudonym, "Michel Gentil"). Throughout the 1970s Rollin shot porn films assigned to him (which unfortunately did not help his reputation much) while waiting and working for new opportunities to create his own unique visions.

The genre films Rollin makes are often weighed down with a sense of loss: of friendship, of love, of innocence, even of life itself. His style comes more from the older French cinematic tradition of poetic realism (directors like Marcel Carn and Jean Renoir) than the New Wave movement of his contemporaries, who include Truffaut and Godard. In keeping with this, Rollin's movies are always imbued with a strange feeling of nostalgia, even in the science-fiction tale LA VAMPIRE NUE, in which the nostalgia is for an imagined utopian future rather than an artificially sweetened past.

Now in his late fifties, Rollin is completely surprised by his renewed popularity, and—after having recently completed his first new feature in years (LES DEUX ORPHELINES VAMPIRES)—he is happily hard at work developing a mini-series for French television conceptually based on "The Twilight Zone."


Select Filmography
* marks films featured at Eurofest '96


LA VAMPIRE NUE
(The Nude Vampire, 1969)

Rollin's second feature tells the enthralling tale of a wealthy man trying to gain immortality for himself and his peers by chemically replicating the blood of a vampire he is holding captive. For the majority of the film, however, this plot is kept shrouded behind mysterious events, such as late-night costumed rituals in a secret villa, kidnappers darting about wearing rough-hdwn animal masks, and scantily clad women performing swirling dances. Part of what holds everything together so well is the fact that (as in most of Rollin's work) the side effects of the film's low budget—cheap color film stock and a visibly hurried style of shooting—lend it a powerful sense of urgency often lacking in more polished works.


LE FRISSON DES VAMPIRES
(Thrill of the Vampires, 1970)

Another handling of what seems to be Rollin's favorite subject: the overtly erotic vampire film. This time the tale concerns a love pentangle

comprised of a newly wedded couple (on their way to consummating their vows in a remote honeymoon castle), the bride's two male cousins (former vampire hunters turned vampires who inhabit the castle with their nubile servant girls), and a lesbian vampire queen (the last of her bloodline and cast in the image of the original Nosferatu, Max Schreck). The vampire queen's intent is to seduce the bride and share her with her cousins so that they can impregnate her, thus carrying on the bloodline. Everything from the actor's performances to the striking lighting and experimental camera work is played well over the top in this delirious and surreal parody of vampire movie stereotypes. Certainly one of Rollin's most technically accomplished films, with a score to match by the wild garage/psychedelic rockers, Acanthus.

REQUIEM POUR UN VAMPIRE
(Requiem for a Vampire, 1971)

The completely improvised story begins with a car chase/shoot-out instigated by two women dressed as clowns. Soon, they ditch their car, set fire to it, and run off into the forest, where they encounter an escalating series of dangers, culminating in a brush with an aging vampire who needs their virtue to perpetuate his specier. Thanks to his wildly wandering story, Rollin has ample opportunities to inject REQUIEM with images both surreal and beautiful, disturbing and erotic. The film's strongly atmospheric quality is furthered by the fact that it is largely free of dialogue. Even without the aid of words, by the time we reach the end of it, we have passed through much of Rollin's favorite thematic territory—touching on ideas of undying friendship, honorable and melancholy vampires, and women who are ultimately far stronger than the men who apparently endanger them.


LES RAISINS DE LA MORTE
(The Grapes of Death, 1978)*

After several years of shooting pseudonymous porn films, Rollin returned to horror with this, the first Francophone gore-fest (). It is also Rollin's first venture away from vampire films to the neighboring land of the zombies. In this chapter of the zombie mythos, it is poisoned wine (hence the alternate title PESTICIDE) that precipitates the decaying, undead state of the film's antagonists. In an even more original twist, the wine affects only its male victims physically; the women simply go invisibly, murderously insane. This allows for one the film's most striking images: an homage to Italian horror mūstro Mario Bava, in which the stunning Brigitte Lahaie goes on the prowl with her menacing black attack dogs. For those who may be wondering; although this was her first nonpornographic role, she does strip down briefly in order to ostensibly prove that she is unaffected ("look no open sores") by the plague.


FASCINATION (1979)

Near the beginning of the 1900s, there was a big health fad among the rich that involved a pilgrimage to the local slaughterhouse for a goblet of freshly drained animal blood.

FASCINATION concerns itself with a group of women who decide to take this a step further and drain human men for their gory tonic. Brigitte Lahaie has a fantastic role as the deliciously dominant femme fatale who (with her partner Franca Mai) draws a wayward man into the bloody trap. The Eros-Thanatos connection is made quite explicit—it is appropriate here to note that French sex-and-death theorist Georges Bataille was a close friend of Rollin's mother and used to tell strange bedtime stories to little Jean—and the fact that Lahaie is featured in all of the sex scenes and most of the death scenes, goes a long way toward making the unfolding connection between them entirely enthralling. Also drawing the viewer ever deeper into his wdb is Rollin's use of an exceptionally mobile camera, which pulls us along with its restless swirling, tracking, and panning.

LA MORTE VIVANTE
(The Living Dead Girl, 1982)*

With this film Rollin deals in greater depth than ever before with his recurring theme of the unbreakable bond of friendship between two women. This time, however, the bond is between one living woman and another who is undead (the result of a toxic waste spill in her crypt). In a smart and sensitive twist, the living woman turns out to be the greater menace—she is on a quest for victims with which to slake the bloodlust of her friend—whereas the undead woman simply laments her cursed state and seeks only the everlasting peace that death will bring. Ultimately, the only way she can find this peace is to destroy her only friend (who drags her undead companion from the lake where she has attempted to drown herself) in a blood feast that is simultaneously frenzied and melancholy. This is at once Rollin's most repellently gory and most deeply touching film.


LES DEUX ORPHELINES VAMPIRES
(The Two Little Orphan Vampires, 1995)*

Rollin's most recent film once again features his favorite protagonists: a pair of young, beautiful women. This time they are the blind and deceptively docile residents of a Catholic orphanage

who transform into vicious prowling vampires by night. Much of the film transpires during these nighttime hunts, and so we are treated to some very adept and beautiful day-for-night shooting (a technique in which a deep-blue filter is placed over the lens to simulate the appearance of night). To these lovely blue-toned scenes Rollin adds a number of others, boldly lit and filtered with deep reds and greens, creating some of the most stunning visuals of his long career.   </end>

These films and others by Rollin are available on video in the U.S. from Video Search of Miami (PO BOX 16-1917, MIAMI FL 33116).


JIM PYKE has written for European Trash Cinema and lives happily in Ann Arbor. Someday, he hopes to move to Gary, Indiana.

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