Keep On Rollin

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French director Jean Rollin – infamous for his arty, sexy and bizarre vampire flicks – died last month aged 72. Here’s a look back at his unique career…

Rollin started making films in 1958 with Les Amours Jaunes, a short about a man walking on a beach to the accompaniment of a poem. In the ’60s, he made four more shorts before moving into the surrealist horror genre towards the end of the decade.

Original title: Le Viol du Vampire

The Rape of the Vampire (1968)

The plot, such as it is, concerns four women who are thought to be vampires forced to keep away from the nearby village by unhappy locals. Viewed today, it’s one of the toughest Rollin films to get through – a seriously weird trip. Rollin reckoned that when it opened in 1968, the year of riots in the streets of Paris, there was also fighting in the cinema. He attributes this to there being people who hated the film and others who loved it; certainly no-one had ever seen anything like it before.

THE NUDE VAMPIRE (1969)

Original title: La Vampire Nue

Unconcerned by the critical lambasting that Le Viol du Vampire had received (“The critics always hated my films,” says Rollin), the Frenchman pushed ahead with his second feature, another insane arty horror about a man who happens upon a ghostly woman who may be a vampire. It features everything from animal masked men to fetishised women with ornate nipple covers, and actually veers into science fiction territory towards the climax, when it turns out the members of a secret society are protecting the female vampire from extra-terrestrial mutants!

Rollin’s idea had been that the film was based around the idea of “mystery” and that each sequence was to heighten it. Critics weren’t certain that he had succeeded, and even friendly ones would later conclude that this one was “for completists only”. Like most of Rollin’s films, it was made extremely cheaply, and here it does show. The director would become used to improvising when technology let him down: while making Zombies’ Lake in 1980 (under the pseudonym JA Lazer), Rollin encountered power supply problems shooting in Spain. This meant that the camera was running slowly, making the filmed action appear speeded up, so the director had to teach the cast to act in slow motion to compensate. He looks back and laughs now.

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THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES (1970)

Original title: Les Frisson des Vampires

Les Frisson des Vampires was originally released in Britain under the title Sex And The Vampire , and, remarkably, ran for almost a year on a double-bill with Swedish sexploiter Diary Of A Half Virgin at a Leicester Square cinema. This surreal extravaganza includes a number of elements that would become part and parcel of Rollin’s repertoire, including beautiful women in diaphanous nightgowns and a pairing of two girls (who often end up naked together). Rollin tells us that the question he gets asked most, apart from why he chose to make so many vampire films, is why he frequently has these female pairings as part of his narrative. His answer is usually: “I don’t know!”

Rollin’s films also contain lengthy silent sequences, and this one’s no exception. When there is chat, it’s largely pretentious nonsense, but then the actors did write most of their own dialogue. The characters are suitably bizarre: one is a sexually ambiguous vampire, portrayed by an actress only credited as “Dominque”, who keeps popping up out of chimneys and grandfather clocks. There are also two effete, hippy vamps who habitually spout pompous confabulation. Still, the film has a certain charm. Mondo Digital said of it: “Though not his most polished effort, Shiver is really where it all started and remains an important contribution to European vampire cinema.”

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REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (1971)

Original title: Requiem pour un Vampire

Requiem For A Vampire begins with two beautiful girls in clown costumes on the run in a stolen car that they drive to the countryside before ending up in a vampire’s chateau (they also burn to death their former partner in crime after an attempted rape). And not a word is spoken for the first 40 minutes of the film. The countryside setting extensively utilised here would become as familiar to Rollin fans as his scenes set on beaches (which also pop up in The Rape Of The Vampire , Lips Of Blood and The Iron Rose among many others). Rollin told us that when he was 17, he visited Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, and remembers sorrowfully kissing a girl goodbye on the seafront, so it’s no wonder that in his movies beaches are places where emotional scenes of remembrance or hope are played out.

Looking plush and polished on a low budget, Requiem is one for more patient viewers, because it moves at such a slow pace. The head vampire’s teeth changing position from shot to shot is also a distraction. The dialogue is predictably strange and random (appalling dubbing on early English-language prints didn’t really help). But it’s a sexy little number, albeit in the versions where the actresses remove their clothes; cleaner, more heavily clothed versions of certain scenes were shot simultaneously, as was the fashion of the day. In the United States, the film was released as Caged Virgins , which led unhappy producer Selsky to muse, “Americans probably don’t know what requiem means anyway.” (Rollin’s films were often given lurid alternate titles abroad. Others include: Once Upon A Virgin for 1975’s Phantasmes , the aforementioned Sex And The Vampire for Shiver , and also Crazed Virgins for Requiem .)

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LIPS OF BLOOD (1975)

Original title: Lèvres de Sang

Lips Of Blood is probably the best of Rollin’s vampire pictures, concerning a man (Frederic) who is haunted by a childhood incident. It’s a dream-like, eccentric chiller that’s oddly likeable thanks to its evocation of childhood experiences, casual erotica and ultimately twisty dramatics. There are also several striking images: in one, a ghostly woman in white appears in a spooky cemetery and has Frederic open up coffins to release female vampires – clad in diaphanous nightgowns, of course.

Sadly, Lips wasn’t a box office hit and Rollin retreated into hardcore sex films, often under the pseudonym Michel Gentil, directing the likes of Hard Penetration (1977) and Discosex (1978). As porn films go, they’re quite classy.

During the making of Lips Of Blood , Rollin dived in to the sea to rescue a coffin that was being dragged in. The waves brought it down on his head and knocked him unconscious. His life was saved by lead actor Jean-Loup Philippe.

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FASCINATION (1979)

Brigitte Lahaie was one of the most gorgeous actresses working in the French film industry in the 1970s – Rollin had previously used her in grot film Vibrations Sexuelles and here had her as a scythe-wielding avenger who’s also a lesbian vampire. It’s that scythe image that is one of the most famous in the Rollin canon, and has been used on numerous posters and video covers for the movie. Lahaie is one of two beautiful castle-dwelling females who have their sensuous existence interrupted by a thief on the run who breaks in. Trouble ensues, including gun battles, another recurring feature of Rollin’s pictures. (One other recurring Rollin theme is religious figures and imagery, but Rollin says this does not reflect his own views: “I believe in nothing!” he barks.) Promising but languid, the film barely did any business due to being caught up in a row between distributors and the producers – it was set to open at 12 screens in Paris, three times as many as Rollin’s pictures would normally open at, but instead it opened at none.

Interestingly, the trailer that appears on Redemption’s British DVD release is a good deal more explicit than the film on the disc is – for instance, Lahaie’s pubic hair is seen when she is wielding the scythe and when she stabs a man to death in a barn. Rollin claims he has no idea why this is so, but again it’s likely that softer versions were shot for more prudish countries.

Lahaie went on to work with Rollin three more times. She also came over to Britain to play a sex-hungry French journalist in the extraordinary Paul Raymond’s Erotica .

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TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES (1997)

Original title: Les Deux Orphelines Vampires

Rollin’s return to the world of vampires after an 18-year gap was a film based on a book he had written in 1993, Les Deux Orphelines Vampires (Rollin has authored several books). It has a clever conceit: the vampiric female pair of the title are blind in daytime, but regain full sight at night-time, when they go on the prowl for living blood banks. Sadly, this idea only goes so far, and if you weren’t a Rollin fan before seeing the film, you are unlikely to be afterwards. On the plus side, it looks great – there’s no-one that can shoot a graveyard with quite so much evocativeness and feeling as Jean Rollin.
Redemption’s DVD cheekily features on its cover about the only scene where the girls get naked, but what’s curious is that the disc inside the packaging – that’s inside the packaging – which features the same image, airbrushes out both the girls’ nipples, turning them into abnormal beings! The packaging also features splatter.com’s verdict that it “stands out as one of Rollin’s all-time best films”, which makes you wonder how many of them they’ve seen.

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DRACULA’S FIANCÉE (2002)

Original title: La Fiancée de Dracula

What’s likely to be Rollin’s final vampire film sees him finally use the name of the Count himself in the title, although Bram Stoker’s pain in the neck only shows up for around ten minutes of the movie. Most of the rest of the time is taken up with a pair of vampire hunters doing what vampire hunters do, although we mustn't forget the other elements here: angry dwarf jesters, chain-smoking nuns, wizards, she-wolves, baby-eating ogresses... yes, this is Rollin at his loopiest. People talk in nonsensical riddles and the resident professor insists on saying things like: “All madness has a hidden coherence, invisible to the eyes of normal people.” Weird things happen, such as a nun who is murdered but then returns as an undead being still clutching her own beating heart, which she throws into a fire. The general effect is bemusement, and the video-shot look is not as attractive as the ambience of Rollin’s ’70s projects shot on film.

Rollin has made two films since Dracula’s Fiancée La Nuit des Horloges in 2007 and Medusa last year. The latter stars Rollin’s wife Simone in the lead role and although it’s yet to be released worldwide, stills from it demonstrate that Rollin has lost none of his talent for getting girls naked and covering them in blood. Not bad going for a 71-year-old.

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