Friday, April 3, 2009

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: Le Raisins de la Mort (The Grapes of Death) 1978

Undoubtedly one of the most pivotal films in his entire canon, 1978’s Le Raisins de la Mort (The Grapes of Death), stands as one of the most visceral and flat out entertaining films Jean Rollin ever created. Trading in the poetic nature and sometimes deliberately slow pace of many of his earlier films for a bloody fast paced exercise in terror, The Grapes of Death is quite unlike the typical Jean Rollin film, and yet it stands as one of his most perfect creations, and absolutely the film he needed to deliver in 1978.

Rollin had been stuck in the financially driven ‘Gentil-Xavier’ period for three long years, and in The Grapes of Death you really get a celebratory sense of an artist finally back to work. Often referred to as one of the only true French gore films, The Grapes of Death finds Rollin dusting off his creative shoes and making his most infectiously alive work since The Demoniacs nearly five years before.

Rollin called The Grapes of Death his “first traditional, almost conventional, production” in his introduction for the film in Virgins and Vampires. This was due to the fact that the film had, “solid finances” for a change, “special effects by Italian experts” as well as “a complete crew under the guidance of great director of photography Claude Becognee." Rollin would also credit much of the film’s success to star Marie-Georges Pascal, whom he would recall delivered a very “moving” performance in the film.

The Grapes of Death, a film centering a group of people infected by some badly contaminated wine that has turned them into terrorizing zombie like creatures, was shot in particularly rough circumstances. Rollin told Peter Blumenstock in Video Watchdog 31 that it was “shot in a deserted mountain region” in France “called Les Saivennes” and that “it was so incredibly cold” that they had to build special protection for the camera just so it would operate correctly. Rather than hinder the film (although it did hurt the special effects) the cold seemed to work for the production, and it finally only adds to the oppressively chilling atmosphere Rollin and his cast were going for.

The Grapes of Death feels like one of Rollin’s tightest pieces, which makes the director's admission that it was “the first film where I didn’t use a shooting script” all the more surprising. It is a credit then to Rollin and his crew that the film feels so economical and remarkably put together. There is nothing rambling or loose knit about this film. It has a purpose and it achieves it beautifully.

If the astonishing pair of The Iron Rose and Lips of Blood could be considered elegiac tone poems, then The Grapes of Death is a gritty fast paced horror novela. Rollin said that he wanted to capture the essence of many of the disaster films that were popular at the time. The film typically linked to The Grapes of Death is George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), but Rollin’s film has much more in common with the wide open claustrophobia of Jorge Grau’s underrated Let Sleeping Corpse Lie (1972) than Romero’s closed in shocker. This relation to Grau's masterful work has been noted before, most noteably by Shane M. Dallman and Nigel J Burrell.

While The Grapes of Death has its foot firmly planted in the Zombie genre, Rollin said that he “wanted to get away from the usual zombie fare” and with the film he does this quite admirably. Centering on madness with a strong environmentally conscious message, Rollin’s zombies “have retained their consciousness” and they finally “suffer because of what they are”, a fact that makes them far removed from both Romero and Grau’s original works, and later zombie fare by the likes of Fulci and Mattei.

While Rollin has called the gory horror in The Grapes of Death more “intelligent” than "gratuitous”, it is the film’s sometimes-shocking effects that are most often remembered. While they all suffer from a perhaps smaller than needed budget, they still manage a real visceral impact. This is especially true of the show stopping crucifixion and decapitation of pretty Mirella Rancelot that stands as one of the most iconic and unsettling images in all of Rollin’s filmography. It’s the kind of jaw dropping moment that only the best and most pulverizing horror films can deliver.

The Grapes of Death has a lot more going for it than the effects though. As mentioned the late Marie-Georges Pascal delivers a fine lead turn, and the photography of Claude Becognee gives the film a strangely hypnotic and suitably unwell feeling throughout its slim running time. Becognee’s photography and Rollin’s images are also matched well by the eerie electronic score of Philippe Sissman. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, but Rancelot’s blind victim is very well played and seems a clear forerunner to Cinzea Monreale’s unforgettable Emily from Fulci’s The Beyond which was still couple of years down the road.

Despite all of its many virtues, perhaps The Grapes of Death's most important moment comes just over halfway through when the ravishing Brigitte Lahaie is introduced. Lahaie, who would soon become the ultimate face and body of Jean Rollin’s cinema, has a relatively small role here but she makes the most of it. Simultaneously erotic, mysterious and terrifying, Lahaie is mesmerizing in her few scenes. One moment in particular recalling Bava’s legendary Black Sunday marks itself as one of the film's most ingenious moments.

While Rollin would have to make a few more Gentil-Xavier productions in the couple of years following The Grapes of Death, the film successfully pulled him out of his artistic slump. A popular success with some critical support, The Grapes of Death has become one of Rollin’s most well liked films. Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog 31, while noting some of the film’s faults, said The Grapes of Death contained “believably chilled performances” and that “Rollin’s uncanny knack for finding picturesque locations” helped “to convey the film’s atmosphere of imminent apocalypse.” Shane M. Dallmann would grant the film an excellent review later in Video Watchdog 89 where he called The Grapes of Death “a strong, solid” entry in the zombie genre. Dallman’s review of the film is one of the best written and fans of the work should definitely search it out.

The Grapes of Death is available on several DVDS throughout the world. The Region 1 Synapse version I have is commonly regarded as the best, and it contains a terrific 30-minute interview with Rollin and Lahaie. Unfortunately the film itself is not talked about much, making one wish for a more specific special edition somewhere down the road.


Keith said...

Great post. I hope you are doing well. I've been reading all your postings whether I always comment or not.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Great review.

I agree that it is one of Rollin's tightest pieces, if not THE tightest.

I love and adore all his films, but many are flawed, nonetheless.

GRAPES is an exception, though. It hangs together beautifully, is aesthetically rich, but is not story-blocked or ludicrous.

I wonder if Encore will do a 3-disc box of this? Any idea?

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks guys, I love the film and hope my post did it at least partial justice. Phantom, I don't know if Encore is planning one. I really wish they would though as a specific special edition would be incredible.