Jean Rollin is not exactly a household name, even among cinephiles. His unique brand of vampire erotica has long been unavailable in the United States outside of VHS bootlegs, which garnered Rollin the cult following he enjoys today. In fact, Rollin himself encouraged the bootlegs, contributing short introductions to each film that are included in Kino Lorber's new blu-ray releases of five of his titles. Having bought the rights to the Redemption Films catalogue, which includes much of Rollin's work.
Rollin's unique directorial voice is less apparent in these early films, which were often subject to studio imposed sex scenes to increase marketability, which are often stilted, awkward, and out of place.
This is especially true in The Nude Vampire, in which a young vampire woman is held captive by group of scientists hoping to discover the secret of immortality. When one of the scientist's sons discovers the young lady, who has never before seen a human face, he falls in love with her and sets out to free her from her captors, even if it means betraying his own father. But a mysterious suicide cult is also interested in her, leading to a bizarre showdown that becomes less a horror film and more a wild sci-fi thriller.
Rollin's work always tends more toward the surreal, but more so than his later films, The Nude Vampire is just plain odd. Made on a miniscule budget with non-professional actors, the film appears to be just another B-movie exploitation film. But watching it in conjunction with his other films, the seeds of Rollin's talent become clear, even if it is not fully manifested until later. The opening scene, for instance, in which the young woman runs from hooded figures dressed as deer, chickens, and other various animals is a terrific set piece, hinting at some of the more evocative work in Rollin's later films.
It turns out that her cousins are not dead, at least not quite. Once successful vampire hunters, they have been turned into vampires themselves by a beautiful lesbian vampire who takes an immediate liking to Isla.
The film that follows features perhaps Rollin's most convoluted plotline, even more so than The Nude Vampire, but it does feature an interesting history of a war between paganism and Christianity that explains much of the modern vampire myth.
It is also more dreamlike than the often clunky Nude Vampire, and displays a marked growth in terms of visuals and storytelling prowess. What distinguishes Shiver of the Vampires, even from Rollin's other films, is its creative use of imagery and color, which looks especially bright in Kino's new HD transfer. Of course, it is somewhat marred by the almost goofy inclusion of soft-core erotica, and the thumping rock score by French prog band Acanthus puts the film squarely in the realm of campy 1970s exploitation. Once again though, something of Rollin's talent shone through the dated trappings. Rollin was not just another cheap peddler of erotic horror smut, but he wouldn't get his chance to truly prove it until 1973, with the release of The Iron Rose.
And what a film it is. While Rollin's films were never really what one would consider scary, The Iron Rose absolutely is. It's the story of a young couple who go into a graveyard for a late night romantic tryst, but can't find their way out again. Hopelessly lost and increasingly frightened, the two slowly descend into paranoia and eventually madness.
There are no vampires or anything supernatural at all in The Iron Rose. Instead, Rollin fully unleashes his surrealist tendencies to craft a film that is both beautiful and eerie, a haunting exploration of the human psyche and a superb cinematic study in slowly mounting dread.
The Iron Rose is arguably the best showcase of Rollin's talents. Not as bizarre or campy perhaps as some of his earlier work, but it displayed a poetic, lyrical quality that had skirted around the edges of his previous films before coming to fruition here. Distilling history, romance, and philosophy into a haunting melting pot of feelings, ideas, and fear, The Iron Rose is perhaps one of horror's most overlooked masterpieces, and Kino's blu-ray release is a treasure not just for horror fans but for fans of great cinema as well. For those looking to see what is so special about Rollin's work, one need look no further than this trip down a macabre rabbit hole from which there is no escape, which represents the pinnacle of the director's unique brand of surreal horror.
Lips of Blood introduces us to a young man whose trip to a party triggers repressed childhood memories of a meeting with a beautiful young girl at a Gothic mansion. His domineering mother dismisses the memory as fantasy, but he becomes determined to find this girl, who becomes an object of fascination and desire.
Soon he begins seeing her everywhere and becomes more and more obsessed (he even sees her while attending a screening of The Shiver of the Vampires). Along the way he discovers a dark family secret - the young girl is a vampire who has been held in captivity for years. The film culminates with a surprisingly tender and emotional note that somehow combines the thoughtful lyricism of The Iron Rose with the more lurid qualities of Rollin's earlier work. Rollin weaves themes of memory and repressed sexual desire in with the more erotic elements with much greater skill here than he had before, making Lips of Blood one of his strongest films and yet, sadly, yet another commercial failure.
Fascination is also a kind of vampire film without vampires. It features blood drinkers, yes, but not the kind one would expect. It's the story of an unlucky thief who takes shelter in a castle while fleeing from an armed gang he tried to rip off, and discovers two beautiful young servants who are home alone, awaiting the arrival of the master and mistress of the house. At first it seems like some sort of dominant male fantasy, and armed man with two nubile young women at his service, but the tables are turned when their friends arrive, and they are nothing like what they seem.
It turns out that they are a "blood cult," a group of women addicted to drinking blood. What started out as drinking ox blood as an old fashioned cure for anemia turned into a desire for something more, and now he is at their mercy in a strange orgy of human depravity. But when one of the women falls in love with him everything changes, leaving her conflicted about whether to obey her heart, her friends, or her own ravenous thirst for blood.
Fascination is perhaps Rollin's most straightforward film. The plot makes sense, there is very little of Rollin's trademark surrealism, and for perhaps the first time, the sex actually feels natural, even essential, to the plot. It may not be as strong an auteurist piece as The Iron Rose or Lips of Blood, but it doesn't have the same lofty goals either. It's just a solid genre piece, and it was clear that by this point in his career, Rollin was completely comfortable with who he was a director.
Kino's presentation here is surprisingly first rate, even by their normally high standards. The films themselves still have occasional scratches and pops, but that is to be expected with films of this type. The extras are all top notch, with each disc containing a 20-page booklet with notes by Tim Lucas (although it's the exact same booklet with each film) and a short introduction by Rollin himself, as well as interviews with cast and crew and, in the case of Fascination, two deleted sex scenes for those so inclined.
The real special feature here, however, is the fact that these films are finally available to a wider audience. More than just exploitation curiosities, Rollin's films are both beautiful and fascinating works that deserve the attention and consideration they can now be afforded by a new generation. Not unlike Val Lewton, Rollin transcended the seemingly sleazy roots of his subject matter and emerged with vibrant, lively works of art.
THE NUDE VAMPIRE - ★★½
THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES - ★★½
THE IRON ROSE - ★★★★
LIPS OF BLOOD - ★★★½
FASCINATION - ★★★
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.