With the news that French director Jean Rollin died last week, Kamera presents an extract from the Vampire Films Pocket Essentials on the King of the Vampires.
In the world of vampire cinema one person reigns supreme. Jean Rollin’s persistence has made him the world’s premiere producer of vampire films over the last four decades, yet many people have not heard of him and some of those who have wish they hadn’t! Rollin’s is not a world of action, dynamics and quick editing – it is slow, languid and mood drenched. His detractors point to dull, plotless non-narratives with naked people talking gibberish, pointless focus on ornaments and too many beaches. His admirers appreciate the visual poetry, the expressive use of light and form, the bravura lack of concern for bland linear narrative structures and the total cinematic experience rendered on horrendously small budgets.
Such an intense style is not generated in a vacuum, Rollin’s influences include Surrealism, pulp serials and underground comics. His visual flair reflects works by painters such as Delvaux and the collages of Clovis Trouille. Much of his cinematic style derives from Feuillade’s Les Vampires and shares the same love of crime novels and free-form expression. Rollin’s first short Les Amours jaunes (1958) was made when the director was just twenty. His debut feature Le Viol du vampire (1968), ‘a melodrama in two parts,’ was an unexpected scandal on its release, a black and white poem of exaggerated expressions and penny dreadful emotions. Part one tells of four vampire sisters living in their chateau, surrounded by intolerance and wary of strangers who purport to cure their affliction. Part two shows the Queen of the Vampires overseeing the case of the four sisters, who had died at the end of part one, arranging a Great Blood Wedding that will see the vampires rise triumphant once more. La Viol du vampire was greeted with incredulity by a violent audience at its Paris premiere during the heady student riots in May 1968. The aftermath of the riots would see fevered output from the nouvelle vague directors, but for Rollin his debut would prove as much a curse as a blessing. All his preoccupations are laid bare: a love of the beach, chateaux, naked women, flagellation and, of course, vampires. Filmed in a style that recalls Cocteau or the early expressionists, Viol mocks the viewer with half grasped narrative turns and fragmented ideas. Characters die, relive and die again, in an audacious move that enabled Rollin to produce a feature length film out of two shorts. With Felliniesque parades and theatre, medical experiments, Sax Rohmer style tortures and blind beach skittles, Viol paved the way for Rollin’s subsequent work.
In contrast to the black and white artiness of Viol, La Vampire nue (1969) is a searingly colourful pulp melodrama. Pierre inadvertently becomes embroiled in a bizarre blue-hooded suicide cult with exotic rituals involving a captured girl. Told that she suffers from a rare blood disorder Pierre resolves to free the poor thing. Featuring medical experiments with colour coded hooded doctors, animal masks, rhythmic dancing, stunning fetish costumes and blazing guns, La Vampire nue comes from a distinctly European school of science fiction. The vampires here are immortal, calm and socially minded, existing in a different dimension and offering hope, not death. Rollin creates a wonderful sense of mystery and revelation, with beautiful symmetries in the cinematography matched by the structured yet fragile plot of this sumptuous, decadent and bizarre film.
In Le Frisson des vampires (1970) Isa and Antoine spend their wedding night at the castle of Isa’s recently deceased cousins. Looked after by two nubile servants, Isa’s grief leads her to reject her husband and she sleeps alone. At the stroke of midnight she is whisked away by a seductress crawling from the innards of a grandfather clock. Her cousins, it seems, are not quite dead – vampire hunters of the highest calibre, they have been turned into the very beasts they sought to destroy, living on the blood of their hypnotised servants (non-identical twins, a recurring motif of Rollin’s) to prevent needless slaughter. Stylistically, this is one of Rollin’s most astonishing films, where narrative is secondary to emotion. The camera employs dizzying 360 degree pans and tightly framed close-ups which complement his harsh but impressive use of sound – animal screeches, portentous groans and an aggressive soundtrack by Acanthus – which all add to the sense of unease.
Probably Rollin’s most infamous film, Requiem for a vampire (1971) is a lyrical blend of longing and brutal sexuality set against a backdrop of sado-masochism and crime. Marie and Michelle, dressed as clowns, are on the run, seeking shelter at a remote chateau. The castle is the refuge of the last vampire, a mournful figure who resides in his ostentatious mausoleum. One of his companions, Erica, is undergoing the change from human to vampire, a fate that awaits Marie and Michelle. From the opening shot of clowns brandishing a gun through a car window you know this is going to be an audacious and pulpy ride. Rollin has the impertinence to tell his tale almost entirely visually, for the first forty minutes there are three lines of dialogue and all of them irrelevant. In the chateau they come across the sumptuously androgynous Erica playing requiem organ music to a congregation of robed skeletons. Despite the lyrical and illogical juxtaposition of shots this is one of Rollin’s more coherent narratives, a lament for a dying race. Locked up with Erica for all eternity the last vampire is a monster by nature, amoral and sympathetic – his final incarceration inevitable and strangely moving. To enhance the agelessness, Rollin shoots the chateau with as much care and attention as he lavishes on his heroines, the stones become another character in this intensely visual poem.