French erotic-horror auteur Jean Rollin perhaps best described his work in an interview with Virgins and Vampires' author Peter Blumenstock: "A vampire is like an animal, a predator — wild, emotional, naive, primitive, sensual, not too concerned with logic, driven by emotions, but also very aesthetic and beautiful, and these are terms also often used when my films are being described." Rollin's tales of "madness and death" are a treat for the senses — captivating visual poetry. The director's reputation for irrational and nonsensical storylines, nubile bodies, and all things sapphic and sanguine (and ending his films on dusky beaches. You'll see what we mean … ) precedes him, however. His cinematic output has divided audiences for decades — staunch defenders who argue that his work can't simply be disregarded as mere smut or base exploitation, and those who have dismissed him as a nonchalant amateur.
We'll save the exhaustive arguments for another day, and for now share a very brief introduction to Rollin's world in celebration of Kino and Redemption Films releasing a newly issued Blu-ray series this week. Though Rollin surveyed many realms of the monstrous and feminine, we've chosen to introduce several of his vampire tales as they are so intrinsically linked to his canon. Let's explore Rollin's fantastical world, and let us know if we've wooed you to the dark side.
The Rape of the Vampire (Le viol du vampire)
The director's first feature is probably not the film newcomers will want to begin their Rollin education with. It did, however, set the precedent for the rest of his oeuvre, and it's perhaps the most important of his career. Rape of the Vampire bears all the marks of a fresh filmmaker, ripe with excitement, anticipating the future. It's deliriously overloaded and dizzying to follow — like most of the director's movies — but if you can surrender to Rollin's stunning compositions, charismatic characters, and intriguing scenarios, his ambition and pretensions reveal one of the most daring cinematic works you're likely to lay eyes on.
France's enfant terrible introduced his film to audiences in May, 1968. Concurrently — and ironically appropriate — the Paris strikes and riots were underway, making the screening a rarity due to the economic standstill. Rollin financed the movie with the help of producer Sam Selsky — who encouraged the nudity we now identify with Rollin's work — cast a group of unknowns with no acting experience, and extended his original 40 minute cut into a two-part film. We're introduced to four sisters who have been holed up in a crumbling chateau, living as vampires and controlled by an enigmatic voice. A group of strangers attempt to convince the women they are not the sanguinenesses they think they are. In the second half, we meet the Queen of the Vampires who raises her undead servants for a Grand Guignol-style takeover. Noteworthy is Jacqueline Sieger's appearance as the Queen — the only minority in the movie (presumed to be of African descent). Until that time, actors of color in genre films had been relegated largely to roles as hoary voodoo/zombie stereotypes. Sieger's character — a nude, lesbian, killer queen with an active role and in an art house setting — was pretty unique for the time. Senses of Cinema has also pointed out that, "it is tempting to speculate whether a tentative analogy can be made between the catalyst provided to the film by the African fox and the influence of Algerian activists in the [actualized] riots."
Despite the love letters many have written about the movie since its premiere, it was not well received upon release. In an interview, Rollin shared: "Le viol was a terrible scandal here in Paris. People were really mad when they saw it. In Pigalle, they threw things at the screen … The scandal was a terrible surprise for me. I didn't know that I had made such a 'bizarre' picture." We're thankful that he did.
One of Rollin's most elegantly erotic features, Fascination is also the most accessible film in the vampire series. The 1979 movie retained an element of the director's haunting earlier works while exhibiting naturalistic performances and a representational storyline. The majority of Euro-cult/low-budget movies of the '70s were targeted for the sex industry, but Rollin viewed his pornographic career and erotic cinema output as two different entities — despite the frequent appearance of porn stars in his movies, like Fascination's Brigitte Lahaie. Rollin had already directed the curvaceous blonde in an X-rated film and gave her a part in France's first gore movie, The Grapes of Death (Les raisins del la mort), the year before.
Fascination lifts the veil on a coven of aristocratic vampy femme fatales, who acquire an unusual palette after drinking oxen blood as a tonic for anemia. Rollin's works usually contain a battle of the sexes or classes subtext. Fascination is no different, and Jean-Marie Lemaire's Marc as the enthralling, chauvinist thief on the lam wastes no time humiliating his mysterious hostesses. The women powerfully hold their own, however, and entrancingly earn the film's erotic-horror label. Hypnotic and decadent, Fascination is an intoxicating introduction to Rollin's work that deliciously lingers for days.
The Nude Vampire (La vampire nue)
Rollin's second feature film was a movie of many firsts for the filmmaker. It was his first movie in color, with a professional cast, and the first movie he made after considering a career change following the shaky reception of his controversial first release. Influenced by the works of Georges Franju — particularly his orchestration of atmospheric mystery — and including a cosmic fantasy subplot, Nude almost feels like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut teleported back to 1970. A suicide blood cult, the entrancing Castel twins (the erotic muses of Rollin's mythos throughout his career), Belgian designer Jio Berk's wild costumes, and a mysterious man known as The Master draw us deep into Rollin's pulp-inspired universe. Nude's conclusion and plot may seem like an enigma, but its lurid and dreamlike aura is the mark of an unmistakably profound chapter in the Rollin canon.
Bonus Watch: Requiem for a Vampire (Requiem pour un vampire / Vierges et vampires)
If you've made it this far, then chances are you're hooked — and Requiem for a Vampire should be the litmus test if still undecided. Rollin's personal vision starts to take a more definable shape in Requiem — an erotic and somber fairy tale that connects his earlier works with a loose and languid thread. There's no dialogue for the first forty minutes of the movie, but don't let that dissuade you. Requiem's evocative imagery urges us to follow Marie (Marie-Pierre Castel) and Michelle (Mireille Dargent) who become lost in a gothic fantasy — and it's spellbinding. Argento fans unfamiliar with Rollin may find themselves wondering if the Italian maestro tuned into Requiem (made years before his Suspiria) with awe and appreciation. If Rollin doesn't seduce you further down the rabbit hole with Requiem, there's probably no hope. For the rest of you, enjoy your journey.
To find out more about the French director, read a great Video Watchdog interview with Rollin over here, and visit the informative Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience for more photos and Rollin-related everything.