Above: The Iron Rose
The early films by Jean Rollin are different pockets of the same world. The stretch of beach near Dieppe acts as a portal connecting these pockets, which are populated by vampires, clowns, wide-eyed innocents, and the generally inexplicable. Watching them, we’re caught in the midst of waking dreams, all springing from the same mind. When mention is made of a “Jean Rollin film,” these early films are the ones that people think of first. The creations of a dreamer who is wrapped in a reverie, letting ideas and images affix themselves to celluloid as they wish. Like many films, they reflect their maker; someone intoxicated by mystery, surreality, and the bizarre. Unlike other filmmakers, who are able to simply (or, more likely, not so simply) spin out variation after variation of their established prototype, Rollin had to rise from his slumber. The films he made after being awaken may not necessarily resemble what we think of as “Jean Rollin films” but they still reflect the man that made them.
Early on his career, death, the passage into the unknown, was something to be fascinated by, something that calls, something that tugs on you. Dreams can be addictive. The big sleep promises nothing but time to dream. Think of the lovers pushing off in a coffin at the end of Lips of Blood (1975). Or the couple exploring the cemetery after hours in The Iron Rose (1973). When confronted by the unbelievable, the only reasonable response is to take it at face value. This romantic notion is personified by the figure of the vampire, naturally. But the romanticism is tempered on occasion; tedium overwhelms the everyday for the undead cousins in Shiver of the Vampires (1971).
With such a distinct touch, it’s easy to tell when Rollin wasn’t fully engaged with what he was filming. The extended sequence of sexual assault in Requiem for a Vampire (1971) feels like it was shot by the cold and clinical eye of Herschel Gordon Lewis. These shots are perfunctory. Included because they must; staged and edited with the halfhearted effort that requirement calls for. The sequence lacks the spark of life that surfaces in a later sequence where Marie-Pierre Castel is flogged. While before, Rollin’s imagination remained as inert as Castel under the whip of contractual obligation, in this case he’s got something of substance to grasp. The shots of the flogging are brief, with more time spent on the shots in-between of Mirielle d’Argent pleading with Castel. Tears stream down both their faces in a literal instance of hurting the one you love in order to save her.
Glimpses of the man can be found even in the films he refused to take credit for. In a genre littered with films that can be, putting it politely, “shoddy” and “incompetent”, Rollin’s Zombie Lake (1981) stands out. It contains nothing that feels out of a “Jean Rollin film,” nothing that expresses his unique approach to the supernatural, yet at this point in his career, it reflects the filmmaker he had become: a journeyman, professional and proficient enough to complete a film with as little effort as needed. His job was to shoot the film given to him, and that’s what he does. It’s his complete disregard for any “standards” that is the film’s sole distinguishing feature.
Zombie Lake isn’t a film created by a man who doesn’t know what he’s doing; something untrue for more than a fair share of cinematic failures. It’s a film by a man who simply doesn’t give a shit. While the errors in the film are such that would be obvious, and correctable, on set, Rollin just doesn’t care (a shot that features some of the lighting equipment and just about the entire camera crew is the most glaring example of a correctable “error”). When a women’s basketball team arrives at the lake, the first thing they do is start bouncing a volleyball back and forth. Shots of them splashing around in the lake, the water only reaching their knees, are intercut with underwater footage featuring them treading water. Nonsensical, illogical events are used throughout Rollin’s film to add to the dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere, but in this its merely the result of the type of production. These errors ultimately don’t have any effect on the quality of the film. It is what it was always going to be; a fact of which Rollin was well aware. He says in an interview with Peter Blumenstock in Video Watchdog #31, “I never took this project seriously. […] (Howard Vernon) knew what type of film he was appearing in, and I knew what type of film I was directing, so we had a lot of fun.” Rollin’s unconcern towards the quality of the material and the “play it by ear” nature of the production (Rollin was hired a day before the shoot started, replacing a no-show Jess Franco) shows in the finished film. It’s a film ambivalent to its own existence.
By the time of Zombie Lake’s production, Rollin had made more “Michel Gentil” and “Robert Xavier” films (the pseudonyms he used for his hardcore and softcore productions) than films under his own name. Gone were the romantic figures of the undead. In their place, (the then as now) in-vogue zombies, shambling husks of what once was; possibly similar to Rollin himself. The zombies of Zombie Lake, and near-zombies of The Grapes of Death (1978), are sources of carnage, not the wonder and possibility of Rollin’s vampires. Somehow, he found a way to bridge the chasm between his first films and the Gentil-era films with The Living Dead Girl (1982).
The Living Dead Girl is perhaps Rollin’s most beautiful film (not having seen his entire filmography, it’s unwise to say with complete certainty). It’s a film filled with tenderness and aching, qualities you normally don’t expect in a zombie film, but just the sort of thing at which Rollin excels. In one of his most out-of-left-field non-sequiturs, some men are stashing toxic waste in the titular character’s family crypt when she is resurrected. After dispatching with the polluters, Catherine wanders back to her old house, where memories begin to surface. She’s soon joined by her friend Hélène, and they attempt to deal with the situation in which they find themselves. Catherine tries to understand what she is and why she’s returned. Hélène is focused on figuring out how to hang on to what she thought she had lost: someone special who was once a source of beauty and awe, but is now a perversion leaving only a wake of destruction. No matter how much Hélène wishes it to be true and tries to make it so (luring victims to the house for Catherine to feed on), holding on to the past is not an option. Nor does the past necessarily want to be held on to, as Catherine’s pleas to return to the grave demonstrate.
The man who made Zombie Lake and The Living Dead Girl wasn’t the same man behind the Shiver of the Vampires and Lips of Blood. It was a man hardened by the realities of the business, the facts of life. A dreamer waking to life as a cog in the system. Despite the differences, the later films still reflect the dreamer. Momentary daydreaming bleeds through the fabric of the film. No matter the circumstances, when the challenge presented itself, he always made a “Jean Rollin film.”