Reviews & Commentary

The Rape of the Vampire (1968)

Also known as
Le viol du vampire (original)
Jean Rollin
Jean Rollin
Solange Pradel, Bernard Letrou, Catherine Deville, Ursule Pauly, Marquis Polho

Rape of the Vampire is French exploitation auteur Jean Rollin’s first feature-length film, for which he received financing after a producer saw Rollin’s short film of the same name. Rollin shot a second part, slapped it together with the original short and the result is what is reputedly the first French vampire film. Because of the strike and student protests in May 1968, French distributors froze new releases, which meant that Rape of the Vampire became the most successful French movie of that year. I’m sure Rollin would agree with Homer Simpson, that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “de” and “fault”.

The first part of the film — “Le viol du vampire” — concerns four vampire sisters, a camp old man who is using and/or controlling them, a psychoanalyst who wants to cure them (and his two friends), some peasants who want to kill them, and a mentally handicapped gentleman who — I don’t know really. And this is the coherent half of the film, which is a nice, circular little horror story underneath all the Rollinesque touches, ending with a narrative echo of the vampire sisters’ back story. If it wasn’t for the exploitation clichés, it would be clever. There’s something almost deconstructionist about some of Rollin’s directing and, especially, editing; where a pedestrian horror film would have a creepy shot of a mansion, Rollin gives you a montage of at least half-a-dozen Dutch angles. “You want creepy?” he seems to be saying, “I’ll give you creepy!”

The second part — “Les femmes vampires” — is altogether less interesting and less coherent. Most of the characters from the first part are brought back to life, and a whole slew of new characters are added to the mix along with a whole lot of pseudo-science and convoluted plot. Chief among these new characters is a vampire queen experimenting on vampirism — which will apparently, somehow make her rule the world — with the help of doctor who is secretly working against her. The doctor recruits the psychoanalyst from part one to help him cure vampirism, and the queen wants to — do some kind of performance art piece? I don’t know, there are lots and lots of characters and only hints of a coherent plot.

In Truffaut/Hitchcock, the titular masters agree that the job of a director is to bend time — to stretch or compress time so that it conveys the directors intentions in the best way possible. Compress the boring parts, and stretch the ticking-bomb situations. Rollin does this in a peculiar way (which is inexplicably common in exploitation film); he elides or compresses plot points and action beats so that he can get down to his real business: long shots of symbolic objects (oh, so many crosses), or of people walking from one place to another (atmospheric shoe leather, I call it). He’s like the anti-Hitchcock. Which actually does work for him some times; Rollin is in his element composing beautiful, static shots, and there are plenty of those in Viol du vampire, which at times almost makes especially the first part read as a subversion of horror tropes. But he falters (if not falls apart) when it comes to story; it’s strange how bad writers try to disguise threadbare, perfunctory plotting with over-written dialogue. Instead of focusing on his strengths, Rollin overloads his script with barely sketched-out plot-threads, pseudo-science, and fauxlosophic babbling.

The “Le viol du vampire” part of the film is a pretty and sometimes even interesting take on vampire films, whose story and direction have a subversive undercurrent, resisting and deconstructing the conservative, normalising tendency of horror. Its sympathies are with the Other, with the vampire sisters, who are used and misunderstood by the male characters; the sisters never really have any agency, going from being pawns of the old master of the manor to being the psychoanalyst’s science projects to, finally, being killed just when they have a chance at independence. Then the “Les femmes vampires” section undercuts all the interesting ideas in the first part by making the vampire queen a cartoonish villain, demonising the Other, and shifting its sympathies to the male doctors, who destroy the vampires to “save” them. I don’t know whether this conservative shift was enforced by his new producers, but it’s a shame to see Rollin undercut such a, for him at least, tight first part with such a mess of a second part.

Written by Kalle on Friday March 19, 2010
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1960s, jean-rollin, vampire

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