Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Jean Rollin's death in December 2010 at the age of 72 brought down the final curtain on a remarkable, and remarkably unconventional, career in cinema. The French fantasist, who himself considered his work to be a "marginal" one, was, as Peter Blumenstock observes in his introduction to Rollin's long-out-of-print 1997 art book-slash-memoir, Virgins & Vampires (Crippled Publishing, 153 pages), "an outsider of the most extreme kind." He was a poet of fetishistic pulp, an iconographer of necks and nipples, and a surrealist somewhere between Clovis Trouille--the director's favorite painter--and serial maestro Louis Feuillade. Few filmmakers' first features actually precipitate a riot, as Rollin's Le Viol de Vampire did in the tumultuous year of 1968; even fewer of them move back and forth between the avant-garde and pornography like restless shades. Rollin was a steadfast crosser of zones, a voyager in dreamlands where aristocratic ladies drink bull's blood, lovers drift out to sea in caskets, and the undead emerge from grandfather clocks.

Virgins & Vampires collects the director's reminiscences on the majority of his features, as well as an interview with Rollin conducted by Blumenstock and which had originally appeared, a year earlier, in Video Watchdog Number 31. There are over six-hundred-and-fifty photos from his private archive, including numerous behind-the-scenes shots from Rollin's films, as well as a gallery of poster reproductions--indeed, the illustrations for those early efforts comprise some of the most amazing artwork, courtesy of the great Philippe Druillet, I've ever seen. The filmography ends with the director's then-current Les Deux Orphelines Vampires ("The Two Orphan Vampires," 1995), though, happily, more "Rollinades" would materialize in the ensuing decade-and-a-half.

The five-year-old Rollin saw his first picture, Abel Gance's Capitaine Fracasse, in 1942. Immediately entranced, he declared then and there that he wanted to make movies. Ten years later, he began to compose small screenplays on a typewriter his mother gave him. Rollin admired Cecil B. DeMille, but was "really obsessed" with Hollywood's cliffhanging serials, whose "spirit, structure and contents" constitute "the key to" Rollin's work. Blumenstock suggests that artists entering the horror genre "[seem] to have experienced awful things as a child," but Rollin, refreshingly, remembers his childhood as being totally different: rather than aggrievedly recounting his tortured youth, the director's "reflections of it are very romantic, sweet and utterly transfigured. Like recalling one's first love, 20 years later." Rollin was a light and happy artist working in a medium whose often contrived darkness never made him lose his essential sense of wonder at the world. In this sense, he was certainly a magician. Whether at the margins or in the mainstream, we could use more creators like him.

Rollin edited footage for Claude Lelouch in the French Army's cinema department, eventually directing his debut short, Les Amour Jaunes ("The Yellow Lovers") in 1958. Significantly, the shooting site was the beach at Pourville-les-Dieppe, a location which would become mythically ubiquitous in subsequent Rollin features. The artist also served a one-film term as Assistant Director on Jean-Marc Thibault's Un Cheval pour Deux (1962; "A Horse for Two"), an experience he found somewhat restricting ("I wanted to work spontaneously, without any regulations in my head"), and, short of funds, he had to abandon what would have been his debut feature, L'Itineraie Marin ("The Sea Route," 1960), after unsuccessfully attempting to salvage the picture with novelist and directress Marguerite Duras. He seems to have felt no significant attachment to the Nouvelle Vague ("I was always most attracted to traditional old French cinema"), though he met many of its key figures. Rollin's work never achieved anything near the critical acclaim accorded his contemporaries, but if his work wasn't always as accomplished as, say, Claude Chabrol's or Francois Truffaut's, it was every bit as personal, and often pronouncedly more oneiric.

Rollin made a rare foray into political filmmaking with 1964's Generallismo Francisco Franco documentary, Vivre en Spagne ("Life in Spain"), running afoul of Spanish authorities in the process and "[managing] to cross the border back to France just in time." Rollin, in fact, largely eschewed agitprop, though he concedes that, by and large, "the fantastic film is always political, because it is always in the opposition. It is subversive and it is popular, which means it is dangerous." The director published his own fiction around this time, writing novels (most of which remain untranslated into English) for many years. He also collaborated with artist Nicholas Devil on an experimental adult comic, Saga of Xam, and published a two-part appreciation of Phantom of the Opera author Gaston Leroux for Eric Losfeld's legendary Midi-Minuit Fantastique magazine.

Rollin recounts that he "packed [Viol] with as many images and ideas as possible" because he "was not quite sure I would get the chance to make a second film." Admitting that "the result was a sort of dadaist mess," the auteur believed its insanity would be favorably received in the merry month of May 1968. He was sadly mistaken. The striking soixant-huitards felt no connection to Rollin's work, and "even my collaborators thought the film was lousy." Rape of the Vampire (as the title bluntly translates) was a bizarre mishmash: the original film was a mere half-hour, originally intended as a co-feature for distributor Jean Lavie's revival of Sam Newfield's Dead Men Walk (1943) at the Scarlett and Midi-Minuit cinemas. Rollin's financial backers liked what they saw so much that they persuaded him to extend his surreal short, which contained a definite ending in which all the characters died. The director surmounted this obstacle by literally resurrecting his original cast, and resuming where he'd left off, seriously ratcheting up the surrealism. When producer Sam Selsky screened the picture for theatre owners, Rollin remembers, "he was constantly talking to them, disturbing their concentration. So, whenever they said they couldn't understand why this-or-that happened, Selsky replied that they had missed a very important plot twist because of his talking and that they shouldn't worry because it made perfect sense!"

The filming of Rollins' second feature, La Vampire Nue ("The Nude Vampire," 1969), was a nightmare of bounced checks, with the director, who was recovering from being struck by a car--not, hopefully, one operated by an enraged moviegoer--hobbling to the studio to edit the picture, and discovering no one else was working on the film as "they weren't being paid." The picture's release was once again met with derision, particularly the Pourville sequence in which a vampire crawls out of a box. "This is one of the most unusual images in my cinema," Rollin declares, "and despite [audiences'] whistling and heckling, it's there that true strangeness lies." The making of Le Frisson des Vampires ("The Shiver of the Vampires," 1970) was considerably less nerve-wracking. Cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon was in rare form ("Never before did [he] use more dazzling, baroque, phantasmagoric lighting"), his imagination fueled by masssive quantities of "white wine which he found indispensable to the creative process." The splendid Castel twins, Catherine and Marie-Pierre, with whom the director had first worked on Nue, shone in this particular picture, and would return the following year for Requiem pour un Vampire ("Requiem for a Vampire"). The motif of two mysterious women, each completing the other, would become the dominant one in Rollin's oeuvre.

The cordial-imbibing Renon "often had to be supported by technicians" while photographing Rollin's minimalist, cemetery-centered La Rose de Fer ("The Iron Rose," 1972), which the director laments as "certainly my greatest commercial failure." Lead actor Hughes Quester, Rollin complains, "took himself terribly seriously, which I detest. We are bear trainers, stall hands and nothing more." Nevertheless, Rollin took the project seriously enough to be severely shaken by its hostile reception; though he doesn't mention it in the book, he was booed offstage at the film's premiere. (One would think he'd have been used to such reactions by this time, but hope springs eternal in the human breast.) His next effort, the Expressionistic shipwreck chiller Les Demoniaques ("The Demoniacs," 1973) fared much better, although initially "all the young actors and students in Paris refused" to appear in the movie, as false rumors had spread that Rollin "was running a clandestine prostitution ring," with the result that he was "forced to make do with whoever was available."

The explosion of hardcore cinema led to Rollin's pseudonymous (as "Michel Gentil") Phantasmes (1974), aka The Seduction of Amy. Rollin had secured a magnificent chateau and a willing cast, but he faced an uphill battle bringing his vision "of a cursed Satan forced to kill the women he loves" to the screen. The director imagined "elaborate scenarios" for his erotic visions, but gave up because "fans of these kinds of films want X and nothing else...My film wasn't hardcore enough," he sighs. Rollin's other pornographic excursions, whether under his Gentil or Robert Xavier aliases, are listed in his filmography appendix, but no additional chapters are devoted to them; it's obvious he was simply collecting a paycheck, a not-uncommon practice for such Eurocult figures as Jess Franco and Aristide Massacessi. Absent as well are chapters on the patch-up jobs--writing, directing, and so forth--he performed on such grindhouse wonders as Zombie Lake (1980) and Emmanuelle 6 (1988). Rollin claims in his interview with Blumenstock that "Jess Franco just didn't show up" to direct the undead Nazi feature (Eurocine manager Marius Lesoeur has denied that Franco was ever involved with the picture), while Bruno Zincone "couldn't cope with shooting [the Emmanuelle sequel] in South America," and Rollin's script revision "tried to make some sense of the whole thing, which was quite a hopeless attempt."

Much as David Cronenberg had daringly cast Marilyn Chambers in 1977's Rabid, Rollin employed adult film star Brigette Lahaie in the following year's Raisins de la Mort. (They had previously worked together on the director's hardcore Vibrations Sensuelles ["Sensual Vibrations," 1976].) This seminal French gore movie, better known stateside as Grapes of Death, melded George Romero's zombie apocalypse with "the disaster movies that were en vogue at the time." Rollin rather defensively protests this this picture "has nothing to do with Night of the Living Dead, as has been foolishly suggested." Although Raisins is thematically distinct from Romero's debut feature (it's closer in some ways to his later The Crazies [1973]), I fear that here Rollin is deluding himself. Though his "zombies" are not actually reanimated corpses--they're villagers disfigured and demented by a new pesticide, rather like the victims of Romero's "Trixie" virus--the societal breakdown scenario is plainly influenced by Night (as, for that matter, was Rabid). This forthrightly commercial picture is also one of Rollin's strongest works, combining gruesome makeup effects with a grimly beautiful lyricism and surprisingly deep emotion.

Lahaie returned for Rollin's next two efforts, Fascination (1979)--arguably his masterpiece--and the vaguely Cronenbergesque La Nuit des Tranquees ("Night of the Hunted," 1980). Rollin notes that, during the latter film's production, "I was particularly bothered by the disdain that the mainstream movie people displayed towards their porno colleagues," so he deliberately packed the picture with X-rated performers. Rollin, however, vacillates between respect for the idea of hardcore cinema and disappointment at its frequently pedestrian execution: "Sex, pleasure or simply nudity are subjects that are just as serious as any others," he asserts. "It all depends on one's outlook. Unfortunately the most common attitude is that of a pig." Night, unsurprisingly, was not a success ("It was booed at the Festival in Sitges"), and Rollin "couldn't prevent his producers from inserting two or three short sex scenes." The director achieved his greatest commercial reward with 1982's marvelous La Morte Vivante ("The Living Dead Girl"), following it with such oddities as the serial hommage Les Trottoirs de Bangkok ("Streets of Bangkok," 1984)--"a film that was as crazy as it was incoherent"--and the hallucinatory Perdues dans New York ("Lost in New York," 1991). The essays conclude with Les Deux Orphelines Vampires ("The Two Vampire Orphans," 1995), based on Rollin's novel, itself inspired by Adolphe d'Ennery and Eugene Cormon's 1875 Les Deux Orphelines. Rollin describes the movie as "certainly my most accomplished and professional film"; it earned him Fantafestival's Special Jury Prize for Life-time Achievement.

Virgins & Vampires' behind-the-scenes photographs are themselves worth the price of the book alone. There are shots of a nude Lahaie jokingly menacing Rollin with a dagger, the young director sporting a temporary flower tattoo on his brow, and Viol's Jacqueline Siege in lizard headdress, smiling seductively into the camera as stage blood leaks from her lips. And, of course, there are key shots from his features: a scythe-wielding Lahaie, clad only in cloak and boots, the shocking-but-artfully-composed scissors-through-the-eyeballs hospital victim of Nuit, and the mysterious masked girls of Perdues. The cover design, taken from Shiver, perfectly conveys the power of the director's eerily erotic imagery.

By the end of the 1990s, Rollin was on dialysis, severely restricting his cinematic output. A mere handful of his films had made it to the States in the 1970s--most notably, Requiem, amusingly retitled Caged Virgins by American distributor Harry Novak--but mail-order company Video Search of Miami began bringing out "special" editions of Rollin's movies in 1995. Unfortunately, the quality of their videotapes was merely watchable. (Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas generously described them as "always adequate-looking.") VSoM's cassettes were two generations away from the thirty-five-millimeter masterprints (no internegatives were domestically available at that time), but were at least uncensored. Those releases also included camcorded introductions to the films by Rollin himself, which are naturally absent from Redemption, Synapse, and Shriek Show's far superior DVD transfers.

Crippled Publishing's first book was issued in a limited edition of three hundred autographed copies (mine is number 120); a used volume is currently available on Amazon for the exorbitant sum of four hundred dollars. The book contains a bonus compact disc of Philippe d'Aram and Ars Antigua's score for The Two Orphan Vampires. Although this picture is one of the director's more restrained efforts, the twenty-track platter's enchanting electronics serve the film admirably. (The soundtrack is also available as a supplement on Shriek Show's 2002 DVD.) It's unlikely that Virgins & Vampires will ever be reissued, and the definitive Rollin biography remains to be written. Lucas' loving tribute to the director, "The Man Who Befriended Death," appears in the current number (161) of Video Watchdog.

Near the conclusion of his interview with Blumenstock, Rollin expresses grateful surprise at renewed interest in his work. Looking back on the world of the fantastique, however, he glumly predicts that "the genre is about to die, as is cinema in general. The films being made today have nothing to do with my understanding of cinema." As studios churn out increasingly bloated productions inspired by and emulating video games for viewers with dizzily diminishing attention spans, those words are strikingly prescient. Rollin, however, remained resilient in the face of severe personal setbacks, sustained critical ridicule, and general audience indifference. Like his vampire protagonists, this outsider rose again and again. Rollin made movies because he had the blood of cinema flowing through his veins. The body of work he left behind constitutes an antidote to all the alleged blockbusters of our dismal age, which lack imagination and cretinize, if not downright zombify, their patrons. Hail and farewell to the Rollinade!


Blumenstock, Peter. "Jean Rollin Has Risen from the Grave!" Video Watchdog No. 31 (1996).

Hood, Donald E. and Curtis Fukuda. "Eurocine: The Best Little Horror House in France." Video Watchdog No. 63 (September 2000).

Lucas, Tim. "Jean Rollin: The Man Who Befriended Death." Video Watchdog No. 161 (March/April 2011).

Lucas, Tim. "Versions & Vampires: Jean Rollin on Home Video." Video Watchdog No. 31 (1996).

Puterman, Brian and Todd Tjersland. "Art, Sex & Vampires: The Erotic Undead World of Jean Rollin." Guilty Pleasures Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1996).

Tohill, Cathal and Pete Tombs. Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.