Monday, May 14, 2012

Where Black is the Color, Where None is the Number

So I'm really getting into this Jean Rollin fellow, and Kino Lorber continues to be the best source for his films on DVD and Blu-ray. Recently, they released three of his films -- Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs and The Rape of the Vampire -- on this latter format, and I watched them all. Please for to see below.
Requiem for a Vampire - This film, from 1973, is pretty singular in its weirdness, even after Rollin bails on, or moves on from, the deep craziness of its first two-thirds. It begins with two young women (Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent) dressed in clown costumes firing guns at someone or another from a car speeding down a rural French road. Driving the car is a man who will very shortly be killed, leaving the two clown women to fend for themselves (after having, apprently, given their pursuers the slip). The film, also known as Caged Virgins, which is as accurate a title as Requiem for a Vampire, which is to say "pretty accurate," proceeds from there almost silently through a series of odd and spooky encounters, which includes one of the girls being almost buried alive when she falls into an open grave, and on to the point where the girls seek refuge from a general lack of resources inside an old castle. There they meet a woman who is almost a vampire, a woman who is sort of the middle manager of things, three rape-minded men dressed as either aristocrats, in the case of two of them, or a barbarian of some sort in the case of the third, and a full-blown vampire for whom we shall presently be experiencing a requiem. The idea is that he is the last vampire, and in order to propogate his kind he needs to transform these two women, who are virgins, and in the meantime task them with luring victims back to the castle for him and the near-vampire woman to feed on. One of the women, Dargent, takes to the idea more or less willingly, while the other, Castel, is a good deal more reticent -- she ends up storing her chosen victim safely, she hopes, within the castle.

That's the plot, and most of it comes in the film's last chunk. Rollin seems to have disdained dialogue, preferring to function as a strict mood filmmaker. A lot of the imagery inside the castle, when the girls first arrive, is of the Halloween haunted house variety, with skeletons wearing clothes and chains on walls holding decaying corpses, and even a green glow when the vampire first arrives and spreads his cape. The "What is that about?" nature of the clown costumes (which are shed as quickly as possible, in favor, at first, of nothing, and then of what I guess would have to count as regular clothes) initially gives the film the kind of dreamy tone Rollin so liked to imbue his films with, so it's sort of surprising that he bothers to offer an explanation for them later. Surprising and disappointing, to a degree. Also somewhat disappointing is the sudden rush of plot, but here Rollin is actually heading somewhere rather interesting. There are a few things about Rollin that are unique to this kind of film, and that make their way into Requiem for a Vampire. Among them is that the lesbian scenes, of which he was a great supporter, aren't really there just to be there. Castel and Dargent's naked lounging may at first seem like gratuitous skin, and it certainly is that, but as the film goes along you realize that they were lounging naked not because it's the 1970s and these chicks'll do whatever, man, but because they actually have a relationship together, which becomes important. Important also is the film's title, its original title, and it's fascinating the way Rollin brings an air of melancholy to the film's climax. It's not melancholy in the way vampire stories tend to be melancholy, because a vampire's life is so very difficult, but because the vampire in this film is the last, the end. We may not like vampires much, you and I, but he's not only the last of a breed, as it were, but of a culture, which is maybe perhaps part of what Rollin's on about here. Not specific vampires, but the Gothic tradition in horror was not to be popular, or even practiced, for very much longer, by 1973, and Rollin might well have sensed the end. In Requiem for a Vampire, he may have been preparing to say goodbye to the kinds of films he loved. Of course, as it happens, the end was not quite so imminent as all that.
The Demoniacs - In this film from 1974, set in an 18th or 19th or something century port town, Rollin at first appears set to continue his mostly dialogue-free ways, but only after introducing his four villains (John Rico, Willy Braque, Paul Bisciglia, and Joelle Couer as the shockingly perverse Tina) by showing us their faces and describing the rough personalities of each and the roles they play in their group of “wreckers,” that is a team of scoundrels who lure ships with fake signals to crash on the rocky shoreline, after which point the wreckers commence plundering and raping and killing any survivors. The Demoniacs begins with such an assault. Following an unseen shipwreck, the wreckers descend upon the casks and boxes and crates that wash up on shore, as well as the two young women (Lieva Lone and Patricia Patricia Hermenier) who emerge, ghostly and dressed all in white, from the surf. The brutality that follows is, as I’ve implied, nearly wordless (because what needs to be said?) and lasts for several minutes. The violence is broken up by shots of Joelle Couer parading nude or rutting (the only word for it) with John Rico. However, through what can only be described as clumsiness on the part of the two lower-rung wreckers, the girls escape, and make their way to a haunted island where their thirst for revenge will be indulged by a man who may actually be the devil.

The Demoniacs has a wonderful folkloric feel to it, and turns out to be relatively talky (it’s also the nakedest Rollin film I’ve watched so far, and that’s really saying something). The events on the haunted island, which involve a helpful clown and, as I’ve said, maybe the devil, are reasonably bonkers, but they feed into the legends being whispered on the mainland, where the wreckers know that something terrible is heading their way. That terribleness does not come in any ordinary way, and in fact Rollin might well be accused of allowing his film to turn a bit flabby in the final stretch as he chooses to restore his heroes to some kind of humanity, but as a result turns a great deal of set up into a lot of wasted breath. Though I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For people like Rollin and Mario Bava, with whom he has a few things in common, a rigorous adherence to plot, either in terms of coherence or even classic structure, are not especially important. Of the Rollin films I’ve seen, The Demoniacs actually comes the closest to this kind of storytelling, (barring perhaps Fascination, which may not have much plot, but sticks to what it has), but the story finally becomes a meandering tour through the various sights Rollin would like to show you. Ultimately, I don’t really have a problem with this because The Demoniacs concludes on a note of what I’ll have to describe as localized Apocalypse. There’s nothing much good to take away from the water-logged horrors of the ending – even Joelle Couer’s nudity, up to now used as an enticement of an admittedly depraved sort, becomes a symbol of full-on hellishness. But her character always was the siren of the group, and you all know where sirens lead you.
How a film can contain this image and somehow not be ridiculous is a question I'm afraid you'll have to take up with Mr. Rollin

The Rape of the Vampire - And of course, just when I thought Rollin's films couldn't get any more bugfuck, I watch this one, his 1968 feature length debut. Subtitled a "Melodrama in Two Parts," The Rape of the Vampire somehow manages to be at once itself and its completely off-the-rails sequel, the climax of part one seguing into part two without changing scenes but still being a completely different animal. The first half of the film tells the story of a psychiatrist (Bernard Letrou) and his two associates who seek out four women who have secluded themselves in a Gothic manor, where they either are, or simply believe they are, vampires. They are supported, and in fact possibly brainwashed, into this belief by the elderly lord of the manor. The inhabitants of the surrounding village also believe in their vampirism, and rather quickly any naive belief the viewer might have that this will be some quiet mood piece is shattered. The Rape of the Vampire is a film that rather amazingly includes things like gunfights and car chases, but in the film's first story these elements appear as the signal that reason, what little of it that was available, is shattering around the psychiatrist. Not a vampire story in any ordinary sense, this section of the film is already anticipating the horror, and specifically vampire horror, deconstruction of films like George Romero's Martin, while never distancing itself from the Gothic trappings of torch-lit duels at night or tortured maidens in nightgowns. Or, for that matter, death on the rocky beaches of France, the tides washing over fresh corpses, images and ideas Rollin would return to again and again in, for example, well, The Demoniacs, as well as Lips of Blood.

As good, and as interesting, as the first part of The Rape of the Vampire is, however, it's the second part, called "The Vampire Woman," that truly reveals that Rollin was already, with his first film, playing a game far different from everyone else. Utterly bizarre, relentlessly so, the film's second half begins on the aforementioned beach and shifts gears from our piles of bodies from the previous story to the Queen of Vampires (Jacqueline Sieger) and her quest for women recently killed violently, and her clinic run by a doctor (Jean-Loup Phillipe) who has been tasked by this queen to find a cure for vampirism. The story here is so mental that, in his essay about the three films discussed in this post that is included in each of the Kino Lorber discs, no less an expert on this sort thing than Tim Lucas was moved to call the film "baffling." And so it is. But fascinating, too, in the way it continues the subversion of vampire films it began with such relative subtlety earlier. Here, though, vampires as an idea are so thoroughly upended that they might as well not even be vampires -- they could be creatures of any undead sort, so little do they pursue normal vampire interests, nor do they go out of their way to avoid what a vampire might ordinarily want to steer clear from. Eventually, The Rape of the Vampire will become positively Bergmanesque in its imagery, and even in the sound of the words being spoken, by which I mean the tone of voice, and the cure, when it is revealed, and for reasons beyond its spooky similarity to drug use, addiction, and overdose, is a devastating punchline, one that reminds me, just now as I write this, and in the most ancillary way imaginable, of Isaac Asimov's "The Obvious Factor," one of his Black Widower mystery stories. In both the Asimov story and The Rape of the Vampire, which otherwise resemble each other not in the least, reason, or a version of it in the case of Rollin's film, is restored through simple logic. The reception of this logic is one of the many differences between the two works -- in "The Obvious Factor," it is greeted with a kind of smug delight (not a knock on the Asimov story, which is the kind of mystery story that can only be written once, and so it has been, by Asimov, so that one is now completely off the table), while in The Rape of the Vampire the characters regard it with humble dismay. Of course that's the answer. What a nightmare.


Ed Howard said...

Great stuff, Bill. Like you, I've been pretty obsessed with Rollin lately and really loving almost all his films (by coincidence, I've put up a guest post today at Jeremy Richey's Fascination blog). Of these, I was not too crazy about Demoniacs, which is way too talky in comparison to his dreamy, almost-dialogue-free other films, and which as you suggest gets a little too tied up in its plot contrivances. But Joelle Coeur is really something, just a stunning and sexily menacing presence.

The other two you cover here I love, though. I like your analysis of the melancholy mood of Requiem for a Vampire as a requiem for a whole genre, which of course was the primary genre that Rollin himself worked in. I love how Rollin's blatant exploitation (and there's some of his most blatant in this film in the rather gratuitous dungeon rape sequence) and trashy aesthetics don't preclude some surprisingly genuine and even quite intense emotional subtexts.

I also love your description of Rape of the Vampire as providing its own sequel. The two-part structure is ingenious: in the first part, as strange as it is, everything can technically be written off by logic and reason, and the "vampires" explained as ordinary girls who have only been brainwashed into thinking they're undead. The first part seemingly ends with almost everyone dead and the supernatural explained away by reason - and then the second part immediately brushes all of that aside, resurrects half the cast and introduces unambiguous vampires and supernatural creatures. It's utterly bonkers, and there's a theatrical quality to it all that only makes it even stranger: the ritual at the end with the big multi-breasted bat seems like the vampires are putting on some kind of amateur play for each other rather than performing an occult rite. It's totally nuts and brilliant.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Ed. I did like DEMONIACS myself, quite a bit. My only problem was with how the revenge angle played out -- it seemed to waste a lot of gas going nowhere. But the ending is quite something, and I also really liked Rico's freakout in the tavern early on. The appearance of the two "demoniacs" in various places was very effective. And Coeur...hello, nurse!

And I agree, Rollin's exploitation plays out very differently for me than the exploitation elements of Argento, certainly of Fulci (who really doesn't belong in this discussion in my opinion, so I don't know why I mentioned him; because he's foreign, I guess) and even Bava, who uses exploitation far less often than Rollin. But when Bava does it, it feels like exploitation that, however entertaining it may be, sometimes just needs to be gotten past so you can get on with the film. In Rollin, it's really organic, or very often is (I can think of a couple of counter-examples). In his essay, Tim Lucas says that the nudity in RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE was required by the producer, but ends up serving to make the film seem even more Dadaist than it already was, and he's right, especially in the second half.

That giant felt bat set dressing thing...why didn't I laugh at it? WHY!?

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, there are a few times when Rollin's exploitation is the kind of ok-now-check-out-some-pointless-nudity stuff that you're talking about - I'd point out that dungeon rape sequence in Requiem for a Vampire, which like a lot of the more gratuitous material in his films was apparently was forced on Rollin. When he gets his own way, the exploitation and nudity tends to be more matter-of-fact and ingrained in the film rather than feeling extraneous.

Incidentally, I'd heard the nudity in Rape of the Vampire was not so much required as suggested - like the producer saying "hey people like pretty naked ladies" and Rollin agreeing, "yes they do," a lightbulb doubtless going off over his head at this realization. In any event he seems to have taken it to heart that people like pretty naked ladies. One thing I like about his exploitation moments that, again, only adds to the surrealism, is how often he seems to cut out the transition between clothed and naked. Like, a lot of the time a woman will just suddenly be running around naked for no apparent reason. Like a lot of things about Rollin, this could easily seem trashy or crude, but instead it adds to the weird vibe that his films inevitably project.

Oh and I totally laughed at the bat. Rollin's films make me laugh a lot, but unlike a lot of similarly rough, low-budget works, I'm not laughing at the crudeness or silliness of it so much as with sheer delight at the profusion of crazy images.

bill r. said...

Yes, there's a moment towards the end of part one of RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE when the psychiatrist and the last(I think -- I had trouble keeping the last couple straight) of the four girls are running through that cave towards the beach, and suddenly her boobs are out. I thought "When did her boobs come out?"

I didn't laugh at the bat. Maybe I wasn't letting myself be put entirely under the film's spell. I did cock my head like a confused dog, though.

bill r. said...

Actually, what I probably thought was "That's the best they could do under the circumstances, don't laugh at it." Something like that.

Ed Howard said...

Re: the best they could do, I love the moment when the vampire queen is attacking somebody and a statue randomly almost falls on her head from a shelf. All these accidents and the low-budget aesthetics really do just add to the film's appeal, because it makes all this weirdness seem somehow grounded.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.