Well, this is more like it, or it's near enough to being more like it that I'm not about to complain all that strenuously. I'm referring to the films of Jean Rollin, which, when last I checked in with thoughts, had found my enthusiasm for the man and his work dampened somewhat by the not-at-all-interesting-in-fact-pretty-bad Zombie Lake and Schoolgirl Hitchhikers, those two having just been released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Kino Lorber is at it again, though, with the releases tomorrow of Rollin's The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted, two films he made while in the middle of his run as a director of porn films. I'd have said something like "while lost in the wilderness of porn," or something equally evocative, which is to say "not very evocative," except that at least one of those films, Phantasmes from 1975, is a film Rollin took as seriously as any of the many other brilliant horror films we all know and love him for (so I learned from the essay by Tim Lucas included with both Blu-rays). That's also the only porn film Rollin put his own name on, so maybe otherwise he did consider porn to be a wilderness -- the softcore Schoolgirl Hitchhikers certainly didn't indicate much interest in that form. But what do I know. Maybe Kino Lorber will get around to Phantasmes some day, too. In any case, and speaking of "what do I know?", here we have these two films, from 1978 and 1980 respectively, and if neither one struck me as quite worthy of Rollin at his best -- a statement that implies far more negativity than I'd like -- it could be to tread on very thin ice to try and make much of anything out of that particular thought, in terms of how Rollin was earning most of his money at the time, because sandwiched in between The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted is another "pure" Rollin film, the one called Fascination, which might well be his masterpiece. So subjectivity, and all that stuff.
Night of the Hunted - But, you know…sorry, I’m taking these in reverse chronological order, plus I’m going to get hung up on something slightly irrelevant, but, you know, how good, as a movie, can Phantasmes really be? I’ve seen a few of the somewhat current almost-trend of arthouse films that contain scenes of unsimulated sex, and it’s difficult for me to take, for instance, 9 Songs seriously as a real, like, movie-type movie. And that one wasn’t even filmed as porn, stylistically speaking, which I can only assume Phantasmes was. This is all perhaps my own hang up, though I assure you whatever hang up it is, if it is one, is not Puritanical in nature. I just think the concept of 9 Songs is stupid, and, further, I think the whole idea of unsimulated sex in regular movies with actors in them is usually backed by a juvenile impulse masquerading as “Well why can’t we just be honest?” art-douche posturing. Then again there’s Antichrist, a film I like a great deal, which comes very close to justifying its own compliment of brief hardcore sex scenes. That doesn’t mean they’re not backed by the same juvenile impulse – this is Lars von Trier we’re talking about, after all – but they do provide certain events towards that film’s end with with a certain explicit causality. If you get me.
Anyway, I bring all this up in relation to Rollin’s non-hardcore Night of the Hunted, partly because certain questions along these lines are, I think, unavoidable when talking about his films, and European horror of a certain era in general, and partly because I wonder how similar this film, and other Rollin films like The Demoniacs, might be in terms of style, structure, and the employment of their sexual component, to Phantasmes, a film I might as well confess to really wanting to see. What I’m getting at here, as far as Night of the Hunted goes, is that all of the sex and much of the ancillary nudity in the film is entirely gratuitous, to the point of being goofy, and it feels almost entirely removed from the action of the film. The film stars Brigitte Lahaie as Elisabeth, who we first see running in a hospital gown down a highway at night, where she is picked up by Robert (Vincent Gardere), a good man who genuinely only wants to help this woman who, it turns out, is suffering from a terrible form of amnesia that allows her to remember scraps of what she was running from, but not why, or anything before that, or, just a bit later, back in Robert’s home, how she came to meet him. It will turn out that she escaped a scientific/medical facility known as The Black Tower, along with a young nude woman named Veronique (Dominique Journet), in which are housed dozens of men and women suffering from the same affliction as Elisabeth. When Elisabeth is inevitably dragged back to The Black Tower, she and Veronique, who has also been re-captured, almost immediately embark on another escape attempt.
The strange environment of The Black Tower, the escape attempt, and the aftermath are the whole film, which is of course plenty, though that escape attempt takes up the bulk of it. As a result, that strange environment becomes the show, a not unusual approach from Rollin – it includes, most affectingly, stories of despairing patients who practically beg anyone nearby to tell them who they are. The best of these involves a woman asking if anyone knows the name of her daughter – the fact that she has one is the only memory she retains. It’s a wonderful scene, and it reminded me very strongly but also very vaguely of another scene in another movie, which I have thus far been entirely unable to pinpoint. So this is either a false memory, or I’ve just lost the thread. Either way, pretty fitting. Also included are scenes of sexual violence, or sex that becomes violent, which adds a hint, as Tim Lucas notes, of Cronenberg’s Shivers from 1975. The big difference there, though, is that in Shivers those scenes relate directly to what that film is. In Night of the Hunted, all Rollin offers is the information that the severe memory loss is merely a step towards total mental disintegration, which itself can reasonably be said to lead to the sexual violence. But that doesn’t make those scenes of the film. To some degree, that element of the film exists because Rollin knew he might be forced to market the film as a softcore sex movie.
Despite how it might sound, I mean none of this as a judgment against the film, or not in any condescending or moralizing way. But it’s a reality of Rollin’s career that I find interesting -- and which I would find a good deal less interesting if I didn’t think he was so brilliant – that I see no reason not to acknowledge as an occasional barrier to hurdle. Night of the Hunted at its best is nowhere near Rollin at his best – and, again, as noted by Tim Lucas, Rollin would agree with me about that – but it does have a quiet, dreamy menace to it. There’s something reminiscent of J. G. Ballard to all this, too, with this giant modern office building containing within it obscure and abstract dangers presented as, and possibly even literally existing as, a cure for something even more obscure and abstract. There’s a heavy dose of politics in here, which Lucas lays out in his essay much better than I could, any in any case isn’t the kind of political element that would reveal itself to a viewer who didn’t seek out facts about Rollin and his beliefs, as well as his specific thinking while putting Night of the Hunted together, but without that we’re still left with a reveal that all of this has something to do with a minor nuclear disaster. None of this comes across very strongly as a statement about anything, but the film’s ending, which brings two characters to the same level and leaves them there, might remind you, as it did me, of the act of living your life every day as though the world was not collapsing all around you.
The Grapes of Death - Which leaves The Grapes of Death to say what about, exactly? It’s more successful, from top to bottom, than Night of the Hunted, but is also perhaps has less going on in it. By which I mean both good and bad stuff, though it does also contain a hint that nuclear power can lead to horror, though in this case it functions in about the same way as “this happened because of a comet” would in its place. A sort of zombie film, The Grapes of Death is about a young woman, another Elisabeth played by Marie-Georges Pascal, on a train trip with her friend, played by Evelyne Thomas. They’re apparently the only people on the train, save one conductor, a man with some terrible and fast-spreading skin disease, who attacks them, killing Elisabeth’s friend, before she’s able to escape. Stranded far from either her destination, a town called Roubelais, where her fiance’ owns a vineyard, and from her starting point, she now has to try to work her way to Roubelais on foot. But everything on that route is death and madness, as she encounters one person after another with the same vile condition as the conductor, and possessed by the same bloodlust.
One of the things I found so effective about this film is how merciless it is towards its supporting characters. Don’t get attached, is what I’m saying, but it goes a bit beyond that. The Grapes of Death does achieve a level of shrieking horror in this way, if that’s not overstating the matter. But it is merciless, and, for example, there’s a decapitation scene that is shocking because of who is decapitated, when they’re decapitated, who decapitates this person, and, most importantly, the clumsy, messy fury of it all. Being able to see the strings, as it were, does nothing to dent the chilling, spurting frenzy of the moment.
Like a lot of zombie movies – which, again, this sort of is – the power of The Grapes of Death is in similarly visceral moments, and in its relentless march towards a not very happy ending. Not as bracingly surreal as many of Rollin’s best films, it’s close to being as grimly haunted, with a final minute that’s close to brilliant. I don’t believe Rollin ever fell back on any kind of typical horror ending – even if the climax is a flurry of violence, he closes it all out with a moment of chilling grace. Hell, if I remember correctly, even Zombie Lake took a shot in that direction. In The Grapes of Death, it’s rather uncertain what will happen after we cut to black, but any number of things could and we’d remain secure in the knowledge that the damage has been done. Grace like this is not something that is often sought in horror – it’s not even respected, not now, anyway. But if you have it, it’s immensely powerful. Rollin had grace.