Monday, May 28, 2012

The New Jean Rollin Discs from Kino Lorber/Redemption

The newest batch of DVDs and Blu-Rays from Kino Lorber and Redemption hit stores this week (May 29th) and I am happy to report that all three are absolutely exceptional releases. I have written my thoughts on The Rape of the Vampire, Requiem for a Vampire and The Demoniacs on numerous occasions, so I will just be posting on how these new discs look and sound here as well as offering up some thoughts on the numerous extras. Since all three of these titles were available as part of Encore's incredible box-set collections the big question I am sure most hardcore Rollin fans will have is are these new discs worth the upgrade and I can absolutely answer yes, especially in the case of The Rape of the Vampire and Requiem for a Vampire.

The Rape of the Vampire: Rollin's first film has never looked that good on home video, even Encore's print suffered from a number of issues, so seeing the film so lovingly restored on Redemption's new disc is a real pleasure. Rollin's confrontational black and white debut can now finally be enjoyed via an incredibly vibrant and sharp looking print mastered from the original 35mm negative. Image and detail are sharp throughout and, some minor-print damage aside, The Rape of the Vampire has never looked more glorious or seemed more relevant.
The original French-language soundtrack (presented with optional English subs) is also consistently strong, although some small occasional issues due to the original low-budget production remain. The inventive score from Yves Geraud and Francois Tusques is presented really particularly well on the disc allowing viewers to appreciate just how strong it is.
Extras on the Encore collection included an audio commentary from Rollin and interviews with Jacqueline Seiger, Alain Yves Beaujour and Francoise Tusques. Sadly none of these are available on Redemption's new disc, but some splendid new supplements have been made exclusively for this release including a weighty documentary on the making of the film by Daniel Gouyette (which features informative and moving interviews with Rollin, Jean-Denis Bonan and Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) a video introduction by Rollin, an interview with Jean-Loup Philippe and an alternate (clothed) version of a scene. Rollin's excellent two early short-films Les Amours Jaunes and Les Pays Loin are also on the discs and a wonderful essay by Tim Lucas is featured in the extra 16 page booklet (this is also a part of the other two discs as well).
While the missing extras from the Encore release will make fans wanting to hold onto that version, this edition of The Rape of the Vampire is without question the most essential one and is highly recommended.

Requiem for a Vampire: A framing issue hurt Encore's otherwise splendid edition of Requiem for a Vampire, which contained a Rollin commentary, some alternate scenes and interviews with Louise Dhour and Paul Bisciglia. This new version corrects the framing problem (presenting the film in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio) and offers up a additional interviews with Rollin, Natalie Perrey and Jean-Noel Delamarre. The Dhour interview is ported over from the Encore set, although the commentary track is not.
You'll feel like Pony Castel and Mirielle d'Argent are in the room with you while watching Redemptions new disc. Requiem for a Vampire has never been more intoxicating than in this spellbinding new print that brings out Renan Polles brilliant photography tremendously well. Rollin's film has never felt moodier or quite as dazzling as it does with this new disc. I am jealous of newcomers who will get to experience it this way for the first time (it's a far cry from my first experience 15 plus years ago with Something Weird Video's Caged Virgins VHS cut).
Redemption have offered up two-audio tracks (original French and English dub) and both mono mixes sound as good as they can. Pierre Raph's essential score is balanced well with the spare dialogue and has never sounded better.
While the supplements aren't as exhaustive as some of Redemptions other new Rollin discs, the picture quality of this Requiem for a Vampire make it instantly the go-to disc for this mesmerizing title.

The Demoniacs: Of the three new releases in The Cinema of Jean Rollin collection, I would say the least revelatory is the new disc of The Demoniacs (simply due to the fact that the film looked so splendid via Encore's box-set). Redemptions new BD does offer up some additional detail and Jean-Jacques Renon's stunning photgraphy has a renewed clarity that is quite breathtaking.
Encore's set was among the lightest, extras-wise, of their collection with only a commentary by Rollin, some deleted scenes and an interview with the great Willy Braque on hand. Redemption's new disc is, again, missing the Rollin commentary (and Braque's chat is gone as well) but a number of new extras are here including additional deleted footage, two cut sex-scenes and interviews with Rollin, Jean Bouyxou and the much-missed Perrey.
This new disc for The Demoniacs probably sounds the best of the new releases with the mono-French track (again with optional English subs) sounding quite clean and balanced.
The Demoniacs is being presented as an Unrated Extended Cut. Being included, for the first time, is a brief bit of dialogue and an extended sequence of the stunning Joelle Coeur ravaging herself on the beach at the end of the film (these extra bits do not included the explicit closeups offered as an extra on the encore disc).
While the new disc of The Demoniacs is not quite as eye-opening as The Rape of the Vampire and Requiem for a Vampire it is still an essential release and a no-brainer purchase for Rollin fans, especially those that don't have Encore's set.

Thanks to Kino-Lorber and Redemption for continuing their amazing The Cinema of Jean Rollin collection. Be sure to buy these releases and continue to show your support. The next collections are due in late August...the titles, The Living Dead Girl and Two Orphan Vampires!


Monday, May 21, 2012

Ben Haggar from Breakfast in the Ruins on The Escapees (A Guest-Post)

One of my absolute favorite spots on the net is the incredible Breakfast in the Ruins, a film blog run by a really terrific writer named Ben Haggar. I was really excited recently to hear that Ben was going to contribute a guest-post for Fascination and today I am thrilled to present it! So here is Ben's excellent new look at one of Rollin's less-discussed films, the very intriguing Les Paumees Du Petit Matin (The Escapees). Thanks so much to Ben for contributing this very fine piece and I hope everyone will head over to Breakfast in the Ruins after reading!

With the renewed interest in Jean Rollin’s work that has followed in the wake of Kino/Redemption’s reissue campaign and FindersKeepers soundtrack releases, now seems as good a time as any to lavish some attention on what I’d consider to be perhaps the most overlooked item in his catalogue, 1981’s Les Eschappees, aka The Runaways, aka The Escapees.

Long written off as a minor film, ‘The Escapees’ remained largely unseen for many years, only seeing release on Region 2 DVD from Redemption in 2008, seemingly after they’d long cleared their vault of everything else Rollin-related. Even Tohill &Tombs, in their landmark study of Rollin’s work in ‘Immoral Tales’, seem lukewarm on the film, praising the opening and closing scenes and the way the relationship between the central characters is developed, but largely writing it off as a ‘failed thriller’, concentrating on the problems Rollin encountered with proposed co-writer Jacque Ralf, and noting that the film ‘drags woefully’ (Immoral Tales, p.160).

Perhaps this general lack of availability and critical enthusiasm – together with the lack of fantastical or exploitation elements – has tended to make the film a bit of a hard sell for casual fans. Despite all this, I would still consider ‘The Escapees’ to be an essential Rollin film. Though as flawed and idiosyncratic as anything else he lent his name to during the ‘80s, it is still a singularly personal piece of work, invoking all of his key concerns as both a director and a human being, and gaining a particular poignancy through its investigation of what happens when the fantastical world he created in his ‘70s horror films makes the painful transition to the drab and impoverished reality of marginal French life in which those films were actually produced.

It’s certainly hard to imagine a more quintessentially ‘Rollin-esque’ opening to a story than the one found here, as two troubled girls (Laurence Dubas and Christiane Coppé) make their escape from the stifling confines of a particularly oppressive psychiatric institution, united in their search for … who knows what? Adventure, beauty, companionship? Above all, the mysteries of ‘the real world’, of which they know little, despite extrovert Michelle’s claims to the contrary. With a little tweaking, we could almost be watching an unfilmed prequel to ‘Requiem for a Vampire’, but rather than entering a fairytale world of chateaus and vampires, Michelle and Marie now find themselves lost in altogether more mundane circumstances.

Recalling the bleak visual sensibility of the previous year’s ‘Night of the Hunted’, Rollin’s camera captures suburban France at its most dismal and overcast, as the girls undertake their journey through freezing dockyards, rainsodden woods and motorway scrubland. Colour only enters proceedings when they stumble upon Maurice’s travelling show - a threadbare troupe consisting of a couple of exotic dancers and a faded fairground stage-set, who set up for business in a car graveyard near an unnamed port town, performing to a weather-beaten audience of workers, sailors and transients.

The poverty-stricken sadness of Maurice’s show and its patrons is beautifully evoked (presumably because the production itself was pretty poverty-stricken), with the dancers performing to tacky canned music, just in front of the train tracks, where anonymous carriages roll on into the night. Conjuring the most forlorn kind of faded funfair seediness, the scene puts me in mind of the Graham Greene quote immortalised by the Mounds & Circles weblog: “Seediness has a very deep appeal; it seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost”.

Although functioning as a simple and affecting tale in its own right, ‘The Escapees’ can on another level be read partly as a extended metaphor for its director’s struggle to realise his more outré visions amid the crushing banality of the world outside his head – an interpretation that the film at times seems to explicitly acknowledge. Certainly, the monologue Maurice delivers to the two girls in defence of his show could scarcely be any more on the nose when it comes to drawing a self-reflexive parallel between the plight of the film’s characters and the way that Rollin viewed himself and his collaborators in the ghetto of porno/horror filmmaking;

“Everyone here is an artiste. A true artiste. And what you see here is theatre. The theatre of the street. The original, the most beautiful. […] Look at my fairground stall, the sailors arguing… it is the great mystery of the fairground show.”

Although impossibly hackneyed by conventional standards (despite the increased realism, Rollin’s gift for naively stilted, unnatural dialogue scenes has not deserted him), the wider resonance of Maurice’s monologue, his exultation of a grand mystery within what any ‘respectable’ citizen would deem a squalid, tacky and dangerous situation, is moving indeed.

There is a certain warmth and romanticism to the way in which Rollin presents Maurice’s show that echoes through the whole film. The drunken crowd remains polite and respectful (for the most part), and a jovial, inclusive atmosphere reigns, even as sexual favours are bought and sold, and as the men invade the stage and lift the dancers above their heads in celebration. The party atmosphere only dissipates when the police arrive, and the crowd abruptly vanishes into the night.

Throughout its run-time, ‘The Escapees’ seems to evoke nostalgia for a kind of human warmth that has been lost from the modern world of wealth and respectability; a warmth that can now be found only amongst misfits and petty criminals, in places where progress fears to tread. Thinking back, this is a theme that can perhaps be traced throughout Rollin’s work, in the comfort his characters seem to find in the old, the derelict, the abandoned – only now the chateaus and cemeteries have been replaced by the community spirit found at Maurice’s show and, later, in Louise Dhour’s docklands bar.

The scenes in Louise’s bar struggle with that particular brand of awkwardness that often afflicts inter-character scenes in Rollin movies, but here too, it’s a convincing sense of warmth and belonging that shines through, anchored by a superb performance from Dhour herself as the matriarchal proprietor, drawing her small ‘family’ of damaged runaways around her as she reads the tarot and imparts advice, sharing an implicit understanding that they all basically share the same history, the same dreams. (A formidable vocalist, her rousing performance of the nautical ballad ‘La Mauvaise Priere’ is a real highlight too.)

It’s perhaps not the most original scenario ever conceived, but again, the simple empathy of Rollin’s approach to his characters gives it a comforting power that’s hard to deny. Until the quartet of decadent rich folk enter proceedings at the film’s conclusion in fact, it’s notable that ‘The Escapees’ is a drama in which the on screen action consists almost entirely of people being kind to each other, as the girls receive unquestioned courtesy and generosity from almost everyone they encounter. The film’s only real antagonists are poverty, social inequality, the law, and the unfortunate constraints of reality itself.

Like all of Rollin’s films, ‘The Escapees’ is an unapologetically sentimental work, thrown together in what can often seem an inexcusably slapdash and fragmentary manner. The earthbound setting perhaps draws undue attention to these perceived imperfections, and the film’s drifting pace, unconcerned with narrative urgency, may prove a bit of a stumbling block for some viewers, just as newcomers to the director’s work might find it hard to deal with the way the characters suddenly lapse into poetic reverie at every opportunity, giving voice to their dreams and fears into stilted, quasi-symbolist fashion.

That the film never even secured a release when it was initially completed is hardly surprising in the face of such wilful eccentricity, but now that we have the privilege of viewing Rollin’s films at our leisure, it would take a hard heart indeed to sneer as Michelle flicks through a picture book, telling Marie of shells shining on the ocean floor and pirates with their cutlasses, or as their friend Sophie announces that her forthcoming journey will take her far away, to unknown adventures. Like the ‘outsider’ and neo-primitive artists Rollin admired so much, his blunt manner of communicating his characters’ inner feelings bypasses the cynicism of any receptive viewer. As fans, we allow him to get away with bungling and pretension that would have us guffawing at the work of any other filmmaker – we can implicitly understand the honesty and depth of feeling he has invested in his characters, and the wider meaning of their plight, and we have no choice but to drop our critical guard accordingly.

Whilst Rollin is often written off as a ‘naive’ filmmaker though (even using the word in a positive context himself in describing films like ‘Requiem..’), his perceived amateurism shouldn’t obscure the fact that much of his technique is still extremely effective. In particular, the experience gained through nearly fifteen years worth of zero budget, shot-on-location filmmaking (has ANY Jean Rollin film ever boasted enough money for a purpose-built set?) had by this stage given him an incredible gift for capturing the emotional resonance of his locations – a skill which is utilised more clearly than ever on ‘The Escapees’.

Seemingly shot over a series of bleak and freezing dawns, the early morning scenes set in and around the docks have an incredibly evocative, sleepless feel to them - a girl slipping out of nightclub door hugging a leather jacket around her, rusty machinery, broken milk bottles and sailors lounging on the wharf watching cargo containers being lifted aboard ship. Whilst the film strives to keep the location fairly anonymous, these images effortlessly capture the transient world of every industrialised port city, from Hamburg to Yokohama, and the way Rollin is able to pull such deep associations from pretty much nothing at all helps highlight his strange, instinctive genius as a director, the surroundings in his films speaking to us as eloquently as his characters’ more direct flights of fancy.

As in ‘Night of the Hunted’, the sudden lurch into sex/violence footage that takes place in the final ten minutes of ‘The Escapees’ is strange and deeply uncomfortable, and, as is often the case in Rollin’s films, the motivation behind its inclusion is uncertain. Was he obliged to insert some salacious material into what would otherwise be a terminally un-commercial film, or was he just including it out of habit by this stage in his career? Or, more interestingly, was he shifting the tone for deliberate effect, to shock and repulse us just when we’d settled into the groove of a modest, heart-warming little film? Despite their tawdry explicitness (instantly upsetting the balance of what would otherwise be the one Rollin film you’d perhaps be able to sell your uptight world cinema fan friends on), the scenes featuring Brigitte Lahaie and Jean Philippe Delamarre as one half of a pair of duplicitous bourgeois couples who trick the girls into accompanying them home are still horribly effective in their own way. By this stage, our identification with Michelle and Marie is so strong that the very thought that they might not make it to the ship that awaits them at the harbour at 4am is unthinkable… and the fact that their fantastical voyage is halted by an invasion of sleaze and gore of course adds a further tragic resonance to the self-reflexive message Rollin seems to be trying to convey in this film.

The struggle between romanticism and realism in Rollin’s later films is nowhere more apparent than in the desperate need we feel for these girls to embark on their journey. Of course stowing away on a naval vessel bound for parts unknown is by any yardstick a pretty bad idea for a pair of young women, but from their own naïve point of view, it is the only possible course of action: to keep moving, to always be ‘elsewhere’, to try anything to escape their dismal surroundings. As Michelle says at the start of the film, “It doesn’t matter where. Elsewhere. There are always elsewheres everywhere.”

At first I thought ‘The Escapees’ and ‘The Runaways’ were pretty bland, utilitarian titles for this movie, but the more I think about them, the more perfect they seem. Michelle and Marie aren’t simply ‘escapees’ from the institution at the outset - their entire lives are focused on escape – from loneliness, from social norms, and from the confines of reality itself.

In one sense, their escape attempt proves futile, as venality and lust leave them more trapped than ever. On the other hand though, isn’t it a *direct* way out of the cold world around them that they’ve been seeking all along? By rolling out the ol’ ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ ending, isn’t Rollin essentially echoing the unsettling final message of many of his best films (Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, to name but a few), encouraging his characters to welcome death with open arms, as an opportunity to step beyond earthly banalities and embrace a kind of eternal mystery..? What are his films after all, if not a celebration of mystery, and what greater mystery can there be than that which lies beyond the veil?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Only the Cinema's Ed Howard on Lips of Blood (A Guest-Post)

***Today I am very pleased to present this guest-post from Ed Howard, one of the best writers on film and music around. Ed runs the terrific Only the Cinema, a blog that features some of the most incredibly absorbing and intelligent writing on film imaginable. I have followed Ed's work at Only the Cinema since he started it back in 2007 and his work is always extremely inspiring. I was thrilled recently when Ed wrote his first piece on one of Jean Rollin's films and I am grateful that he is sharing his new look at Lips of Blood here today! For more information on Ed, please visit his terrific Only the Cinema and comments, of course, are always welcome here. Thanks to Ed for doing this and I hope other writers who admire the cinema of Jean Rollin might consider offering up a guest-post as well!***

Jean Rollin's best films use B-movie horror plots and low-budget production values as portholes into an eerie, unsettling dream world that ultimately has little to do with typical blood-and-gore horror movies. This is especially true of Lips of Blood, one of the director's finest works, and one of his most dreamlike and abstract. The film is a slow, sensuous study of the power of memory and the lure of childhood fantasies, a feverish dream of a film that chronicles a quest that's as much mental as physical.

Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) is at a party when he sees a photograph of a ruined castle that triggers a previously suppressed childhood memory or dream. He comes to believe that he's been to this castle as a boy, and that he's forgotten it for some reason; his childhood is a blur to him, and he's long felt disconnected from the stories that his mother (Natalie Perrey) has told him about his forgotten boyhood. The photograph instantly opens a path into his memories, stirring up images of a dreamlike night that he spent in the castle, watched over by a beautiful young girl (Annie Belle) dressed in white. He'd repressed the memories of the castle and the girl, but now that they've entered his mind again, he becomes obsessed, fixated on discovering the castle's whereabouts and trying to locate the girl.

Frederic is haunted by this dreamlike memory, and the film is all about the power that this fixation has over him. At the party at the beginning of the film, he compliments a girl on her perfume, prompting her to pointedly respond, "scents are like memories; the person evaporates but the memory remains." In Frederic's case, the memory too had evaporated for twenty years, but now it's wafted back up into his senses, and he begins seeing the mysterious girl from the castle everywhere. He goes to see a movie — the poster outside is for Rollin's The Nude Vampire, but the theater's actually showing The Shiver of the Vampires, suggesting how intimately connected all these gothic vampire fantasies are — and the girl appears in the theater, beckoning him to follow her. She leads him to a crypt, where Frederic unwittingly releases a quartet of creepy vampire girls (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel, Anita Berglund, and Hélène Maguin) who shadow him throughout the rest of the film, continually intervening to rescue him from the mysterious forces that seem intent on stopping him from locating the castle or the girl who dwelled within it.

The film moves at a typically lethargic, dreamlike pace, blending gothic horror imagery — bats and graveyards and vampire girls clad in gauzy robes — with a weird conspiracy thriller vibe. A photographer (Martine Grimaud) who tries to tell Frederic about the castle winds up dead, another woman poses, unconvincingly, as the girl from the castle, and a mysterious assassin tracks Frederic through the night, while the vampires stalk around the fringes of the plot, fading out of the shadows. Rollin's films have often been comparable to the surreal quest narratives of his contemporary Jacques Rivette, with worse acting and more nudity, and nowhere is that comparison more relevant than here. Rollin renders the city as a quiet, nearly unpopulated stage, pools of colored light highlighted in the darkness, shadows cast large and threatening on stone walls as Frederic wanders around the city, searching for answers and chasing phantoms through the streets.

The film feels like a loosely connected series of set pieces, with Frederic's frazzled state of mind creating the sense of disorientation and confusion that dominates his increasingly desperate journey. He begins to doubt his own sanity: the girl from his memory, or his dream, pops into being and blinks out of existence just as suddenly, leading him through the night, eventually guiding him directly to the answer he seeks, the location of the castle from the photo. Meanwhile, the vampires attack and kill random people, baring their uncomfortable-looking fangs and bloodying their mouths on the necks of their victims. At one point, the Castel sisters disguise themselves as nurses in order to rescue Frederic from the mental hospital where he's been locked up by his mother, who seems to know something about all these secrets and mysteries.

Indeed, Frederic's mother provides the obligatory burst of exposition that suddenly explains the story towards the end of the film, setting up the fantastic final act in which Frederic confronts the true nature of his reawakened memories. He's found what he's been searching for, and in the final ten minutes of the film Rollin adopts a tone of lunatic celebration, reveling in the embrace of the supernatural and the bloody. The supernatural is rarely to be feared in Rollin's work. The supernatural is, instead, erotic, alluring, haunting, beautiful, a fixation for Rollin just as the castle becomes for Frederic. There is thus an air of real melancholy in the final act's confrontations between vampires and vampire hunters; Rollin's sympathies are obviously not with the men with their stakes, menacing these girls, but with the vampires themselves, so young and lovely and sensual, retreating in fear before the men. The vampires are the real victims, not to be feared or hated but desired, respected, adored, just as Frederic desires the girl from his memory, who is, of course, also a vampiress, using her power to lure him back to her, to get him to set her free.

Rollin makes the embrace of the supernatural a cause for celebration here, particularly in the ecstatic coda, in which the long-imprisoned vampire relishes her newfound freedom, taking pleasure in the sensuality of nature. Together, Frederic and his vampire love run along the striking, apocalyptic, by now very familiar beach that so often symbolizes the pathway between worlds in Rollin's work. It's here that Frederic embraces his fate and is reborn, and in the finale — at once gloriously silly and wonderfully romantic — the lovers sail off together in a coffin, heading off into a new undead existence together.

***Lips of Blood can be ordered on DVD and Blu-ray here***