Friday, May 3, 2013


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.
The Grapes of Death is, along with Night of the Hunted, the newest addition to Kino Lorber Redemption The Cinema of Jean Rollin line.  This release has been particularly anticipated by Rollin fans due to The Grapes of Death popularity and the Blu-ray doesn't disappoint as it is one of the best of the series so far. 
Boasting an extremely good looking print with vibrant colors and rich dark tones, The Grapes of Death feels even more vibrant and visceral than ever before.  This new disc is, visually, quite a step up from the still fine Synapse disc from a number of years ago and it is well worth the upgrade. 
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. 
Pascal's terrific performance feels even more vital than ever and watching her in High Def one can absolutely recognize that she was one of the great actors Rollin ever got to work with.  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.
I suspect that The Grapes of Death will be one of The Cinema of Jean Rollin's biggest sellers as it fits in well with our current Zombie crazed culture, even if it is fairly far removed from the likes of The Walking Dead and Resident Evil.  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 different from both Romero and Grau’s original works, and later zombie fare by the likes of Fulci and Mattei. 
One of the best things about the new Blu-ray is that, due its darker tones, the gory effects have never played quite so well.  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, as does the legendary Brigitte Lahaie, 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.
The Synapse disc is absolutely worth holding onto as it trumps this new version in the way of extras (although the long chat with our much missed Rollin and the Tim Lucas liner notes are both very valuable new extras on the Blu) but otherwise this new disc is the way to go.  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. 
-Jeremy Richey, 2013 with elements taken from my original 2009 post on The Grapes of Death-