Somewhere in a psychedelic, semi-timeless version of the French coastline, a casket containing two vampires locked in a lovers’ embrace drifts out on the receding tide. A few miles away, two women dressed as clowns have taken refuge in what they think is an abandoned château. The nighttime streets of a nearby town are haunted by strange figures in animal masks, hot on the trail of a beautiful woman in a flowing gown.
These hypnotic images populate the films of French director Jean Rollin, combining pop-horror imagery with personal symbolism to create a cinematic world unlike that of any other fantasy filmmaker. Through most of his life, Rollin’s work was largely considered too married to exploitation movie conventions to be considered “art” by mainstream critics, and too emotionally languid to be embraced by those seeking horror movie thrills.
Rollin’s filmmaking career began in 1968 with Le viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire), a film that debuted in Paris amidst political and civil unrest to a hostile audience that loudly decried it as nonsensical. Undeterred by the negative reaction–and perhaps inspired by having created something that violently stirred the passions of his countrymen–Rollin would go on to direct scores of films up until his death in 2010. While there are numerous pornographic features in his oeuvre (including titles like Disco Sex and Danish Positions) as well as some forays into more commercial grindhouse fare (the unjustly maligned Nazi zombie flick Zombie Lake is an example, but a defense of that is the stuff of another article), Rollin remains best known for his surreal, fantastical features tracing the activities of melancholy creatures of the night: vampires, ghosts, and zombies.
A striking characteristic of Jean Rollin’s films is that his use of horror iconography is only infrequently horrifying, in the strictest sense of the word. While a particular scene may sound like it’s been inserted for shock value, the way in which its events are woven into the meandering, logic-less plot changes its impact entirely. Explaining that La vampire nue (The Nude Vampire, 1970) features a scene in which a vampire laps the blood from a recent suicide might make it sound like grindhouse ghoulishness. This is not the visceral stuff of New French Extremity cinema nightmares like Martyrs, though–this lyrical, symbolic violence has more in common with the Surrealists’ use of violent imagery.1 In spite of the blood-drinking pursuits of Rollin’s protagonists, there’s very little in the way of body horror to be found. His undead are sensual, romantic creatures that are frequently delicate of mind and body. These movies attempt to evoke nuanced emotional responses with their mixture of romance, loss, eroticism, and tragedy.
Certain images and themes float through Rollin’s world, resurfacing from film to film and taking on different aspects as they are reused. Entire blogs are dedicated to discussing Rollin’s body of work, and a thorough examination of his symbolism is best left to book format. We can, however, begin to lift the veil on some of the director’s most significant themes by glancing at a handful of recurring motifs.
Vampires – Depending on context, Rollin’s oft-used vampires can embody disappearing aristocracy (Requiem for a Vampire, 1971, features a bloodsucker that is the last of his lineage), the inevitability of fate (Levres de sang/Lips of Blood, 1975, and its horde of vampire pursuers), or sadomasochistic love (Le morte vivante/Living Dead Girl, 1982).
There is a sense of sadness to Rollin’s vampires and even at their most violent, they exhibit weaknesses (to time, to the sun, to unrequited love) that make them far more sympathetic than a typical horror movie heavy. Clocks are often closely associated with vampires, deepening the symbolic importance of time and fate in Rollin’s world. It’s no coincidence that one of the most iconic images from his filmography occurs in Le frisson des vampires (Shiver of the Vampires, 1971) when a scantily clad female vampire emerges from within a grandfather clock to menace a young bride.
Mad Doctors – Another type of character that Rollin borrows from pulp fiction is the doctor of the “mad” variety. These threatening symbols of modern medicine are shown as driven to the point of criminality, often determined to unmake the mystery of the supernatural creatures at the center of a story. Men of science are shown stealing blood in La vampire nue, attempting to cure vampirism in Le viol du vampire, and running a nightmare clinic for victims of a mysterious sleepwalking sickness in La nuit des traquees (Night of the Hunted, 1980). These doctors’ insistence on applying the tools of reason to the stuff of dreams inevitably leads to dreadful consequences.
Remote Settings – Rollin’s films are set far from the noise and action of the city, in isolated and frequently old-fashioned settings. Beaches, with their endlessly cycling tides and cleansing ocean waters, are places of death and rebirth. Scenes of vampires risking exposure to the sun at dawn on the rocky shores of Normandy figure prominently in Rollin’s films. Centuries-old country châteaux hold terrible secrets and can be interpreted to symbolize the nobility of France’s past. These buildings are populated by strange and often supernatural characters who reflect the opulent decay of their surroundings.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all are Rollin’s cemeteries: overgrown with weeds, gates rusted and creaking, these cities of the dead are transitional places between the everyday world and that of the supernatural. Cemeteries are places where the living and the dead occupy the same space, a fact that Rollin uses for maximum symbolic impact. Characters arrange secret graveyard rendezvous, only to uncover secrets that appear in the form of treasures, gateways, or menacing monsters.
Female Bonds – Perhaps the trope occurring with the most frequency in Rollin’s films is the recurrence of closely linked pairs of women. While it’s tempting to connect Rollin’s female pairs to the doppelgänger tradition, in which a character’s double presages doom, these pairs begin their stories apart and are brought closer through the machinations of the plot. The joining of these women by some unbreakable bond–be it romantic love, sisterhood, or mutual suicide–is frequently a climactic moment in the story.
Relationships between groups of women are crucial to Rollin’s films. Even his most allegorical innocents and over-the-top femme fatales display a complexity of character that is unusual in the world of exploitation filmmaking. Rollin’s women experience longing, fear, jealousy, triumph, and a range of other emotions as they navigate their bizarre surroundings.
Fascination (1979) is the most vivid example of Rollin’s woman-dominated world. In this film, a group of women gathers at a remote château where a thief is hiding from his accomplices. The story turns the tables on the typical tale of a woman entering an all-male space and causing psychosexual havoc, casting the thief, Mark, in the role of Other in an all-woman world. The ladies of the house, whose vampirism will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read the preceding paragraphs, display a range of reactions to the intrusion, from lust to anger to apathy. Female social connections are displayed as cult-like in a way that mirrors the hard-boiled gangs of male-focused pulp fiction (whether those are criminal ones like the Mafia and Yakuza, militaristic ones, or simply the kind one finds in a corporate board room). It’s an interesting inversion, if not one that should be assigned pointed feminist significance.
1 Max Ernst’s collage novel Un semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness) contains several examples of murderous yet symbolic imagery.