I'd heard about the work of Jean Rollin for years before I actually buckled down to watch one of his movies. I knew about his obsession with female vampires, his strange, borderline surreal sensibilities, and his unwillingness to let such things as logic and narrative get in the way of a single beautiful image. I was intrigued, but not so much that I wanted to rush out and see all his flicks.
That is, until the Duke loaned me his Redemption DVD copy of Rollin's 1971 masterwork, Requiem for a Vampire.
Requiem is not your average vampire film. Though it clocks in at a spare 88 minutes, more than 40 minutes go by before any meaningful dialog is exchanged; up until that point it is for all intents and purposes a silent film with sound effects. The sets and cinematography are obviously shoestring-budget affairs, sparsely populated farmland or tourist areas where Rollin probably filmed without permission--and the makeup effects are almost childlike--rubber bats on wires, vampire fangs that, if real, would pierce the vamps' lower lips every time they spoke. But in the context of the movie, this weird, surreal, dreamlike movie, it all somehow worked for me.
The movie begins with a bang, literally, as someone shoots out the back window of a small French car which takes up the whole screen. As the glass falls away we see the shooting is being done by two young women while a young man drives in an apparently desperate getaway. Thrown into the action in media res, we don't know what they're running from, who's in the car chasing them, or why the two girls are dressed in motley satin clown suits and sporting full clown makeup. (?!?!?!) And we won't know for quite a while--if you can't go along with that, then you should get off the boat here, because it just gets weirder and more wonderful.
The driver is wounded before ditching the pursuers, and he tragically dies in the arms of his clown friends, his last words an enigmatic phrase, "The water tower!" I might have missed it, but I think no water tower is ever mentioned again, much less shown onscreen--why did he say it? Some childhood memory flashing across his dying synapses? A riddle that holds the key to understanding the whole film? Who knows? It's one of the many enigmas of RfaV, and like the others, best left unsolved.
The clown girls torch the car with their friend's corpse in it, then start on a cross-country trek that takes up much of the film's first half. Along the way they lose the clown outfits and don short skirts and knee-socks, while also styling their hair in braided pigtails. The word "ZANG" comes to mind. It's like pint nite at The Flying Saucer made an arty vamp film, and that is in no way a bad thing.
Along the way they trick a traveling lunch vendor away from his van in order to steal food, they wander into a graveyard where one of the girls slips into an open grave and is nearly buried alive by a startlingly inattentive grave digger. (Dude! LOOK IN THE GRAVE! There's a Eurobabe down there on the coffin!) Finally they discover an abandoned chateau/ruined castle. They find a bed with a large fur blanket, and the next thing you know they are getting all lesbonic on it. The post-coital tableaux with the two nekkid beauties on the fur-blanket is so beautiful and trashy at the same time, it's like a velvet painting of Elvis as Jesus. And like that painting, I wish I had this image on velvet on the wall of my den.
a rotting, hanged corpse in quite a shocking scene. Then in a nightmarish sequence they find other body parts strewn around the castle, culminating in a scene in the chapel that gave me genuine chills, as they discover what they think is a religious ceremony going on but discover to be a horrific tableaux of bones.
There is one living--or at least not dead--person in the chapel, though: a menacing vampish lady who's playing the organ. Another chase ensues; our young girls flee while pursued by the woman and some animalistic men who join her. In the end they are caught in the cemetery, explain their presence (some strange tale about being at a dress-up ball, hence the clown costumes, and knocking someone unconscious and fleeing to stay out of trouble--which doesn't explain the gunplay or why they didn't just go to the police, but still) and come face to face with a vampire--the Last Vampire, apparently, who wants them to help him keep his race alive.
This is a gorgeous scene, as the girls run through the graveyard enveloped in inky blackness, lit in such a way that you see only them--all the rest is dark. Then the lead vamp actually looks pretty creepy with some nice green lighting, and then he opens his cape to reveal--two rubber bats hanging from his armpits! The bats "fly" out and attach themselves to the girls' necks, and for the next few minutes they wear the flying mammals like corsages, enslaved by their wicked magic.
orgy of blood and sex, all lit with stunning red gels. This orgy scene goes on and on, and is very hot stuff. It culminates in one of the most jaw-dropping WTF/OMFG moments I've had watching a film in a while, as we see one of the love slaves writhing in her chains, and then the camera pans down to reveal the reason--one of the vampire bats from earlier, attached to her crotch! "Wild" doesn't even begin to describe it.
The story wraps up rather neatly, with one girl choosing to become a vamp and the other rebelling in an odd and arousing way, and the surprisingly stoic and merciful Last Vampire accepting his fate and setting the girls free.
If one is looking for plot holes, this thing is Swiss cheese. Why did the girls torch the car? If they're schoolgirls, why were they packing two guns that they use again and again like gangsters? Why didn't they go to the police? Where are all these love slaves coming from, out in the middle of nowhere?
But to dwell on such trivialities as plot cohesion is to miss the point. This film is surrealism, and is a visual feast. Rollin treats us to some great wide-angle shots wherein the actors are tiny specks in the larger painting of the lens, and gets some great effects--particularly one shot close to the opening when the girls in clown regalia are crossing the fields and a cloud passes over the sun, such that we can trace the shadow of it as it envelops and then uncovers the girls. It couldn't have been planned--that's just cinematic magic. In a similar scene later the girls are running from the men and half-vamp, and as they come across the huge barley field, the vampire party spreads out ominously on the hill above them. Just great, arty stuff, and I found myself entranced.
ZANG. This director wears his voyeurism on his sleeve with these shots, the aforementioned furbed, the amazing dungeon orgy, and a great sequence late in the movie with one of the girls running around the castle ruins in nothing but knee socks and pigtails (!!!). There's some whipping and a little (but not much) blood drinking thrown in too, so you know this guy's all about the pervyness.
I can see why people would think this boring, but I was enthralled. Like I said, there's almost no dialog until 40 minutes in; and strangely, once the talking started, I found myself wishing they had kept it silent--not because the dialog is bad (though it IS) but because I was so digging the purely visual trip. It didn't MATTER to me why they had been dressed as clowns and what the reason behind the gunplay was; I even stopped wondering about that water tower. I was just drinking it all in, silent movie style, and loving it.
Anyway, I give it 2.85 thumbs, leaning toward more. I definitely want to see more Rollin now, and I'm so glad I got to see this one. Great stuff, if you're in the mood for it, which I was. If you can throw yourself into it and surrender your eyes to the screen, it's quite rewarding.