What they saw was a collection of seemingly unconnected images, ridiculous dialogue, and nudity. The audience howled, screamed, threw things at the screen and finally walked out, preferring the police tear gas and the protests outside to Le viol du vampire. Since there were only two films opening in Paris that week, all the newspapers sent reviewers. They hated it and Rollin became known as the man who made the most incomprehensible film ever. It would be years before anyone looked at Rollin’s movies with anything close to an open mind.
Revolution was in the air and on film in the 1960s and 1970s all around the world. Censorship had broken down in Europe ten years before it would in the United States and United Kingdom, and the horror film began evolving into a combination of terror and eroticism that became the formula that produced some surreal and perverse films. And low budget film makers like Rollin were all over it. Meanwhile, overseas censors left some of the best frames on the cutting room floor to satisfy American Puritanism and English snobbery.
Imagery and fantasy so dominated Rollin’s thoughts and work that nothing else really mattered. As a result his films were often considered unacceptable to horror fans: his vampires were humanistic, there was a lack of focus on the supernatural, and the suspense was not heightened enough. In many ways, horror fans are close minded; unlike most genre fans who accept whatever the movie industry gives them, horror fans have fixed and rigid ideas on what makes a horror film. They know what goes bump in the night and they don’t like anyone messing with the conventions that have made horror films so predictable. They wanted something more faithful to the Stoker legend. They wanted a Hammer film.
But what they got is what Rollin called “mad love stories” set in remote chateaus, lonely beaches, institutions, and cemeteries. And the images were striking: a grand piano being played in the middle of a cemetery, a pale-skinned woman tied naked to the ruins of a pier on a grey beach, a striking blonde in a white gown with a black Great Dane, a beautiful woman dressed only in a black cape stalking her prey with a two-handed scythe, and, most famously, a vampire emerging from a grandfather clock. (Of this Rollin said, “A grandfather clock is of no interest. A vampire woman getting out of this clock at midnight, that’s me!”). His films reside somewhere between fairy tale and fantasy, waking and dreaming. His films even reportedly put some in the audience to sleep.
Rollin seemed to prefer (to say the least) girls as the central characters in his films. Lesbian vampires were the main attraction in the Euro-horror films of the 1970s and for good reason. I mean when you think about it, you almost can’t screw that up. For his part, Rollin simply preferred to show two naked girls rather than a girl and a man. An artist at heart, Rollin once said, a “naked girl is always poetry.” In his cinema, sensuality and poetry becomes surrealism when a naked girl comes out of a grandfather clock and the clock is no longer just a clock.
Rollin was not immune to the criticism of his work. When he tried something different – such as the very good The Iron Rose – critics panned it. Rollin was devastated. All his own money was invested in the film. Rollin was always struggling to find money for his films and as a result was usually faced with shooting schedules of two weeks and a budget that wouldn’t add up to the money spent on pizza and Red Bull in a James Cameron production.
Rollin made forty-seven feature length films from 1968 to 2010. While his films do require a bit more audience participation than most in the horror genre, if you can make it through the slow action, long takes and periods of silence, there is a rewarding cinematic experience. Admittedly some of his stuff is a complete mess and for years critics have talked about how bad he was. Now, after his death, his work is being reevaluated. Film critic Tim Lucas, writing for Video Watchdog, has said Rollin possessed “one of the purest imaginations ever consecrated to the horror genre.”
Redemption Films and Kino have teamed up to release Redemption’s Jean Rollin catalog on Blu-ray. Here are the films from that catalog worth checking out. Listed in chronological order….
Le viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire, 1968)
Two girls are on the run after escaping from a reform school. They end up in a castle inhabited by the last of the vampires. He’s getting old and tired and seeks virgin blood to extend his life. Of course our two runaways are virgins and one of them is ready for the sacrifice. “We got lost,” says one, “eternally lost.” This film further defines the Rollin film language: two female runaways, lonely people, castles, bizarrely dressed characters, humanistic vampires, and doomed love affairs. There are unnecessarily long takes of naked young women chained to the walls being raped and tortured by the vampire’s human entourage. You will also see a bat perform, er, batilingus on one of the unfortunate detainees.