Monday, November 16, 2009

Le Viol du Vampire (1968)

A bewildering fantastique film that showcases all of Rollin's
peculiarities that make some viewers hate his work and
others swear by it. In the good corner, we can marvel at his
superb eye for composition, his ability to invoke a strange,
semi-delirious gothic feel, his choppy editing that makes
the logical discontinuity in the narrative work, his strange
taste in music that somehow manages to carry even the
oddest scenes. In the bad corner, we have hammy acting,
over-the-top dialogue, inane sensibilities, and an
adolescent penchant for undressing women under just
about any circumstances one can imagine. Oh wait, move
that last one to the good corner.

The Rape of the Vampire is Rollin's first full-length feature
and it was based on his short film which now appears as the
first segment in this self-conscious melodrama. The story
goes that the producer was so impressed with that short that
Rollin apparently filmed on lunch money that he financed
expanding it into a real film. The result still carries the
stigmata origins although I am not sure whether this is a
good or a bad thing. As it is, the first segment is by far the
stronger one both because it does not attempt to make much
sense of what's going on, and because it succeeds in creating
this dream-like mood that works best with the subject matter.

And what is this subject matter? Well, there are four sisters
who live together in a ruined château. They may or may not be
vampires although they certainly think they are. One of them
thinks she was raped by villagers decades ago (and we see what
could be interpreted as either flashbacks or extemporaneous
visualization of their alleged past) and she is blind. Another is
afraid of sunlight, and all react violently to crucifixions. They are
all manipulated by a sinister old man who alternates between
admonishing them to kill newcomers that threaten their exposure
and groping their naked breasts. In addition, the four seem to
worship a bestial idol in the forest who speaks to them with a
disembodied voice.

The newcomers are three Parisians who have come to the
countryside to investigate the four sisters. They do not believe
in vampires. Thomas is a psychoanalyst who is determined to
free the poor creatures from their madness which he believes
has been induced by the superstition of the villagers who have
essentially driven the confused women insane with their religious
symbols and persecution. He is quick to demonstrate to the
women that crosses do nothing to them, that sunlight does not
harm them, and that even the blind one can actually see. He
takes all of this to be the rational proof that their vampirism is
nothing but a fantasy. When one of the women succumbs to his
charms, the old man orders another one to kill the Parisians, and
when that fails, he unleashes the peasants who brutally murder
all the women they can find, which unfortunately includes Brigitte
(one of the newcomers).

In the ensuing melee, Thomas asks his lady friend to bit him as if
she were a real vampire and when she does, he discovers to his
amazement that she is indeed one. All his ratiocination, all his logic,
all of his smug self-assurance that had driven him to pity them, all
of this evaporates in an instant as he stands in the middle of the
room, swinging slightly, with two punctures in his neck. It would
seem that he had been misled by his own preconceptions---by the
notions that society has for the vampire, notions as unreal and
incorrect as anything scared people would come up with to protect
their cherished beliefs. Ironically, in his attempt to free the women
from what he believed to be society-imposed insanity, his cure was
based on society-imposed blindness, and so little wonder that it fails.

The two manage to elude their persecutors and flee to the beach
but are shot in the back by Thomas's friend who is distraught by
Brigitte's death. This ends the first segment and the first 30
minutes of the film. What follows descends into gratuitous
exhibitionism, ill-advised sadism, and a somewhat mystifying
attempt to provide a backstory to the entire thing. What used to
be an elegy to ancient powers misunderstood both by peasants
and by those who wield them now turns into pedestrian schlock,
complete with medical experiments, a lesbian Vampire Queen,
an attempt to save the vampiric race by procreating with some
women specifically prepared for that purpose, and two idiotic
minions (the brunette dressed all in black, and the blonde
dressed all in white) whose incompetence is only rivaled by their
perpetual horniness.

Briefly, the Vampire Queen arrives on a boat and beaches on
the rough sands where the dead couple lies. She commands her
hooded cohort to grab the old man and pin him down to a slab of
rock. She then proceeds to sacrifice him, or at least that's what it
looks like, with her peering ominously at him, and then licking
what we should presume is his blood from the blade. She instructs
the leading minion woman to dismember the two corpses in order
to ensure that they do not come back to life and leaves. The woman,
however, fails to carry out her instructions because, as we shall later
find out, she is in rebellion against the queen.

Wouldn't you know it, the blood oozing from the dead old man
finds its way onto the naked (why?) corpses of the couple and
revives them. He is somewhat unhappy with the turn of events:
whereas resurrection is good, having to exist by drinking blood
does not seem that appealing. He and his lady companion also
decide to revolt although we are never quite told where they get
the clothes. At any rate, we are now introduced to a doctor who
runs a demented clinic under the supervision of the Vampire
Queen. He does not appear to be undead himself although his
trusted assistant certainly is: she happens to be the woman in
revolt. Said doctor also resents the fate of eternal bloodsucking
and has been secretly working on an antidote to the vampiric
bacteria (yes, we are told in the film that it involves some

In the meantime, the vampires abduct Brigitte's body from
the cenotaph and Thomas later discovers the apparently alive
former girlfriend in his apartment. He, of course, does not buy
her explanation (which amounts to claiming that he has imagined
their entire trip) but instead follows her to the hospital where he
finds her listening to an instructional tape while two (naturally,
naked) women stand behind blood-coolers sucking on long straws
(don't ask). He stops the tape and instantly kills Brigitte who is not
yet undead so she needs the vocal sustenance of her mistress.
Again, this guy is the instrument of destruction although this time
around he did it unwittingly, simply not knowing what an attempt
to free the unformed undead could do to her precarious existence.

Meanwhile, the doctors' plot is uncovered but nothing much
comes out of it, with the Vampire Queen staging a touching
ceremony to marry the renegade doctor to his assistant, although
she first has her minions strip (naturally) that assistant and whip
her mercilessly on the beach. Of course, the malcontents have not
actually bowed to her rule, and so the revolution explodes in what
looks like a shootout from a gangster film, which ends with lots of
undead actually dead, and the Vampire Queen poisoned. However,
when the doctor administers the antidote to his assistant, she dies
too. Apparently, removing the vampire from the human is impossible
without killing her in the process. Again we are told that the rational
can only doom a soul that has been exposed to the fantastic. Not
original by any means, but a nice touch nonetheless. In an ending
worthy of Poe, Thomas and his lady friend wall themselves inside a
cellar to await death:
they do not wish to feed on the living but are afraid that if they stay
free, their unquenchable thirst will eventually drive them to murder.
So they sacrifice themselves instead, ending their freedom in each
other's arms.

The Redemption DVD is atrocious. The glorious black and white
looks like it was made in the 1930s (and perhaps that was part
of the intent if not the lack of money), but that's not really the
problem. The scratches, the grain, and the noise, all contribute
to an essentially flat presentation that does not do justice to a
film that would have benefited from a luminous restoration.
The 1.66:1 aspect ratio (non-anamorphic) is the only bright
spot, so to speak. The French soundtrack itself is muffled with
occasional drops but at least it is not that distracting. The
barebones disc comes with an untranslated French trailer of
subterranean quality, and a worthless gallery of stills.
Unfortunately, since this is the only way to see this early Rollin
film (and see it you must), this DVD is the way to go. Better than
muddy nth-generation VHS copy, at least.

Fonts: Gotterdammerung

1 comment:

Lolita said...

Wow! This film certainly seems interesting! Funny that it is made the year of the Hays Code final death, too - the differences of erotica revealed on screen are pretty obvious when comparing films from 1967 and 1968!

At least the first 30 minutes sound professionally good, what with the psychology contra superstition twist and all - the rest seems really entertaining more for camp value!

Great presentation of this little French gem, I will have to look it up immediately!