Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 12: Death By Boredom

If you're curious how French horror movies went from Eyes Without A Face in 1960 to The Girl Slaves of Morgana La Fay in 1971 and why the European grindhouse industry began releasing films like Daughters of Darkness and Vampyros Lesbos at roughly the same time, before Last Tango In Paris and then Emmanuelle made it possible for sex to fill prestige films as well as sex films, I've got your answer right here: they needed a catalyst and brother did they get one. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was such an important film that everything afterwards was influenced in some way or other. Whether through it's ignorance of genre conventions, its explicit violence, its political subtext or it's willingness to throw out the rules and kill everyone, Night changed things. In Italy, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace and then later his Twitch of the Death Nerve did roughly the same thing for that countries' genre films. France wasn't nearly the prolific exporter of fright films that Italy and the US (or even Mexico and the Philippines for that matter) were. So, though it was probably inevitable that a film would come along and change the way that French filmmakers would make their horror movies, it didn't necessarily have to be as fantastic or memorable as Romero or Bava's. France was so willing to evolve as a purveyor and home of the arts that the mere suggestion that a genre had to move in new directions would have been enough to yield fascinating new films. That's why I find it so funny that the only film I've ever seen that is as boring and self-indulgent and nonsensically angsty as French films are so often accused of being was the same film that led to the trend in ultra-violent, sexualized vampire films that most of Europe became known for.

Rape of the Vampire
by Jean Rollin

The first thing we hear is a man telling a woman (as he undresses her) that three strangers are about to arrive and that she should beware the one who says that he'll cure her. They arrive in the middle of his narration at an old castle. They meet the old man who just issued that sage advice and he explains to the three guests, Marc, Brigitte and Thomas, about a legend concerning four vampires. Then we meet four women under his charge, one of whom is probably the girl he just warned (we will never receive any hint of an explanation as to why four young women are living under the care of an old loon). If this sounds maddeningly vague already (it hasn't been five minutes by this time), that's because it is. Contributing equally to the film's disorienting narrative is the fact that all of the women, of which there are many, look nearly identical. The black and white cinematography coupled with every female in the cast having the same shoulder-length dark hair makes distinguishing between them next to impossible; Rollin hadn't yet developed his affinity for blondes. Anyway, the old man has convinced these four women that they're vampires and they'll do whatever he says.

The girls all take orders from a statue out in a field, which the old man stands behind and pretends to be the voice of their evil god. Thomas, for some reason, makes it his mission to cure the girls of their delusions. This goes really well. He frightens them all half to death and runs around throwing things at them and dragging them around the grounds of the old castle they livein. Because the old man had spent so long convincing them they were vampires, he takes Thomas' quest personally. His reaction is to go into the nearest town and tell a bunch of villagers that his girls are vampires and that Thomas has freed them and that they'll soon be out killing wives and daughters. One of the vampires kills Brigitte and then the rabble kill everyone but Marc, Thomas one of the vampires and the old man. An addled-looking fellow who we've seen leering at the girls, kills another, before he gets stabbed to death by the remaining vampire. Thomas and the last vampire try to flee but Marc kills them. End part 1. Oh, yeah, this is in two parts, did I not mention that?

Rollin made the first half as a short film, then, deciding he wanted to make some money, made it feature length by simply picking up where the last one left off and then having his plot disappear in a cloud of ludicrously pompous imagery. This explains a lot, actually, because I'd wondered how someone with apparently no idea how to direct actors could have gone from whatever served as film school to making feature films at such a prolific rate. He just decided that the film had to be longer and so one of the least competent cinematic personalities was born. What he decided was not that the story needed continuation per se but that he could stretch his aimless movie to feature length by piling ridiculous images on top of each other and hope that critics would mistake it for a profound commentary on existentialism. The resulting film is one of the most ponderous, egotistical and boring horror films ever made. The second part of the movie is essentially about the fact that there's a vampire queen pulling the strings of all the vampirey wierdness we've seen so far and that both Marc and Thomas, who is miraculously unharmed for some reason, will join forces with a clinician to find a cure for vampirism. When they find one, it just kills Brigitte for the second time. In the middle of that are endless scenes of dancing, improvisational theatre, crawling, screwing, lots of shots of scenery and waves and pointless talk about absolutely nothing. The vampire queen spends so much time just issuing decrees about this and that and none of it goes anywhere. The plot of part 2 is composed entirely of window-dressing. People die and are brought back with no rhyme or reason, the film has no message beyond 'life is cruel' and it falls apart after the vampire queen shows up. It has just as many shoddy bat effects as anything Monogram Pictures ever produced and thinks it can make up for it's incoherence by filming topless women on beaches and in the backs of corvettes. It's dead wrong.

Rape of the Vampire is a mess, plain and simple. If Jean-Luc Godard had made a send-up of vampire movies instead of retiring to increasingly pedagogical films about the inextricable links between humans and politics at the end of the 60s, it might look like Rape of the Vampire. Of course, it would have been intentionally funny, which Rollin's film is not. The odd bit of arresting imagery shows up here and there, but who cares? Rollin seemed to have been operating under the notion that you could throw a bunch of faux-profound images and words together and that the rest was up to infinitely patient and forgiving film critics. Take for example the scene where Thomas and the last vampire lie naked on a beach after waking from the dead and begin talking about some dreams they had. The vampire: "Yes, a woman strong and imposing leaning over me. Then whiteness....The masks, the white masks! Then, the woman." Palme D'Or, please! The editor went fucking crazy, thrusting us in the middle of scenes that haven't been explained yet, while the actors lazily flit in and out of character. This film is almost a pastiche of the kind of films made by Ingmar Bergman and Michelango Antonioni....except it's not. Rollin also makes a big deal about the juxtaposition of an ancient evil being fought with modern methods (the 'psychoanalyst' is the vampire's nemesis) what with his non-sequiturs involving dueling aristocrats and all that vague sciency stuff in the third act, but all he succeeds at doing is illustrating how much better antique takes on the genre are. Nosferatu and Vampyr look timeless when lined up next to this travesty. Though if you're looking to have fun with it, play David Bowie's "Cygnet Committee" over any portion of the film and you'll have an instant pop-art freakout!
The film does set up Rollin's style, which would appear in everyone of his horror films in the coming decades. There's his cheapness: the vampire queen is just a woman with her breasts hanging out, an old set of curtains around her neck and a lizard pendant stuck to her forehead. She performs her last sermon in front of a giant bat made out of ornate bed sheets and old pillows. A bunch of Rollin's friends round out the cast and he seemed to refuse to do second takes: Just as the queen bends over to bite a new girl in her sex room, a piece of the scenery falls over and hits her shoulder. His penchant for letting the movie air out: There are long stretches where nothing much happens. Granted this isn't as glaring here as it is in say Night of the Hunted or The Grapes of Death, but it's still a problem. His love of breasts: all the vampires wear sheer clothing, see-through nighties, or simply forego covering themselves at all. His laughable direction of actors: the best scenes are the ones with the angry villagers, who clearly hear the word 'action' in the scene, because they sit around statically for a few moments before they put on their angry faces. His love of fat hippies: as in Demoniacs, a tubby guy who looks like he just escaped from a Renn Fest, prances around for much of act 2, doing things that don't make anything like narrative sense. Which brings me to the finest of Rollin's trademarks as a director: His refusal to make sense.

The movie makes no sense at all, Rollin can't even decide whether these people are actually vampires or not. If they're vampires, how come they die so easily, as when Marc and Brigitte appear at the end with Tommy Guns (...the hell?) to finish off their foes? Why do they react to poison and knives? That's not what I'd call a vampire, that's what I'd call a human being who happens to like killing other human beings...or a murderer. We see teeth occasionally, but they do so little that it's hard to tell what exactly their vampiring amounts to. Then there are lines like after the vampire queen leans over to her vampire minions looks at the bodies of Thomas and the last vampire and says: "You know what you have to do....don't forget they're vampires." Well, fucking duh!
I'm usually a bit more charitable with Rollin's films, because though they're all uniformly terrible, they seem to know what they want to say. This was a film made up of plot threads that go nowhere and say nothing. Every scene is apparently meant to be taken out of context because together they make no sense. If a director can't be bothered to assemble a coherent screenplay with something to say, I don't think I should be bothered to play by his rules. It's boring, it's gratuitous, it's nonsensical, it's one of the most pretentious movies I've ever seen and it deserves to be forgotten. And blessedly, I’m not alone in my assessment of this trash. Apparently audiences rioted when Rape of the Vampire debuted in France. They too would not be fed pointless misogynist existentialism lying down; even France hated Jean Rollin. And yet, just what do you think most French horror films looked like for the next decade? That's right empty, ambient films about women in gossamer gowns dancing, screwing and wandering about doing absolutely nothing; Rollin gave us the Lesbian Vampire genre, a gift I don't remember anyone asking for. No less a cinematic pariah than Jesus Franco would adopt that style at the turn of the 70s. The only films that have ever lived up to the stereotypical criticisms of French cinema as a whole were films in the Rollin vein, and by and large most French critics hated those because they aren’t proper films. George A. Romero brought us violence with a message, Mario Bava gave us violence with blinding style, Rollin pretended he had both and waited to be treated like cinematic royalty. He wasn't and today he's barely remembered at all...for once, justice was served.

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