When was the last time that a horror movie made you cry? I don't mean tears of laughter, nor do I mean the childish tears of fear that some of us got as 8 year olds witnessing the horrors of Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time (though for some of us, that explains a lot). No, I want you to think of the last time a horror film, due to its emotional intensity, its pathos, and its masterful depiction of basic human tragedy left you with literal tears standing in your eyes as the final credits rolled.
I've seen a lot of horror movies, and over the many years that I've been watching my beloved fear flicks, I can think of only two times that this has ever happened to me--and BOTH of them were after watching Jean Rollin's 1982 Gothic MASTERPIECE, The Living Dead Girl.
We open with a group of blue-collar workmen clandestinely delivering a load of chemical waste to an illegal dump site in rural France. While one of the workmen (whose uncanny resemblance to a young Art Garfunkel gave me pause) sits outside drinking wine, the other two cart a barrel of industrial by-products down to an underground storage space. After stacking the chemicals haphazardly on some other rusty barrels down there, one of the workers tells the other that the tunnels connect with an old family crypt further on down, and that they could make some quick cash by robbing the graves and selling the jewelry the rich folks were buried with. Desecrating aristocratic graves while right next door to a stash of dangerous chemicals...what could possibly go wrong?
The sweaty Frenchmen find their way into the crypt, which though abandoned for years still has a set of torches burning on the walls. (Of course this is not so strange if you consider that Rollin is ALWAYS more interested in an interesting visual than in logical sense, and the visual IS striking.) They break open the two coffins they find and start looting, though the younger of the two is briefly startled by the incredible beauty of the girl in his coffin, who died a couple of years ago. (Again, the lack of rot probably has more to do with Rollin's quest for a good visual than with the preserving agents of the chemical fog, so it's best just to go with it here.) Then a mild earthquake hits, knocking over one of the barrels of toxic waste and setting up a thick smoke-machine fog that quickly floods the whole crypt. It's the kind of thing that you just KNOW is not going to end well.
And end well it doesn't. Catherine Valmont, the beautiful corpse (played by the stunningly ethereal Françoise Blanchard), is somehow revived by the chemical fog, and instinctively sits up to meet her defiler and GOUGES OUT HIS EYES with her claw-like nails, which one can assume continued growing after her death (like they do). The special effects here are frankly bad, but the scene is so gory and the violence so shocking that it's easy to overlook. The other workman has meanwhile taken a nose-dive into a puddle of acidic goo, so he's out too. When Garfunkel comes down to see if his amis are all right, Catherine sticks her fingers in his throat and makes a meal of his arterial spray! A strong opening, and uncharacteristically gruesome for a Rollin flick.
*, but Rollin's goal was obviously just to get the dead girl up and about, and having accomplished that he kicks the story into gear with his trademark visual flair. Long-range shots of Catherine in her bloodstained grave clothes wandering listlessly across a sunlit field are classic Rollin, and just absolutely breathtaking. Catherine is spotted by bickering American couple Barbara and Greg, and Barbara takes a few pictures of the girl before she vanishes.
*I think there is an explanation for this, though admittedly more poetic and fairy tale-oriented than a traditional horror trope; it has to do with Catherine's connection to her cousin Hélène, about which more will be said shortly.
Catherine wanders to the expansive castle that was once her home, now abandoned and up for sale. She stumbles blank-faced through dust-covered rooms, sniffing the air and running her fingers along furniture, as if her body remembers things that her mind cannot yet grasp. Somehow Rollin magically invests the images here with a pathos and delicate emotional texture that dialog would likely destroy, as we feel the nostalgia inherent in the dead girl's return. One particular shot where Catherine absently rocks an antique rocking horse--a horse that was doubtless her own plaything in life--just brims with emotional portent.
A female realtor arrives to show the house to another American couple (the presence of invading Americans seems to be a theme here, though I haven't quite thought that one through yet), and they barely miss crossing Catherine's path as she heads upstairs to her old bedroom. Once there Catherine finds an old picture of two young girls smiling in each other's arms, and as the realtor locks her in downstairs Catherine flashes back to her youth, when she and her cousin Hélène swore eternal love to one another and sealed it with a blood pact. "I'll never leave you. I'll always love you," the two girls swear. "If you die first, I'll follow you." Again, the way Rollin films these scenes--all soft focus and brilliant light, suggesting a halcyon past of happy days and innocent love--if you've ever been a happy innocent kid with a best friend, it just hits you, and hits hard, right in the heart.
Next we see the grown-up Hélène (Marina Pierro) in her swanky city apartment, looking wistfully at the same picture that spurred Catherine's flashback (a nice bit of visual exposition by Rollin--no dialog required). It is she who has put the castle up for sale, and reminded by the photo she calls the house, hoping to catch the realtor there. When the phone rings Catherine--whose jerky motions and stiff limbs tell us her motor skills are not what they used to be--knocks the receiver from its cradle, then opens a music box sitting nearby, a relic from the girls' shared past.
Hélène recognizes the tune immediately, and gasps, "Catherine?" Again, in a lesser film you might wonder how Hélène would know it was her cousin, who after all was supposed to have died two years hence, but Rollin's visuals in the flashback and his uncanny ability to invest image with emotion, it totally rings true--or at least it did for me.
Catherine does not reply, so the shaken Hélène quickly gets in the car to head out to the castle and find out for sure who was on the other end of the line. Meanwhile the perky young realtor has called her boyfriend for a dirty weekend at the hitherto-abandoned chateau. The horny young kids quickly get down to business in the parlor, leading to some of the sexay artistic nudity you expect from Jean Rollin. And the realtor is one hot little Eurobabe, it has to be said.
The kids' coitus is interruptused by Catherine playing piano in the next room, and when the boyfriend goes to investigate, he gets his jugular perforated by the dead girl's talons. He stumbles back into the room where his nubile girlfriend awaits, then tilts his head back and lets loose with pulsing arterial spray all over her naked flesh! Again, the effects on the wound leave something to be desired, but the visual of the beautiful, naked girl slowly being covered with blood in an artistic, explicitly sexual way--that's just trademark Rollin, and if you can't get behind it, you'd best just get off the bus now.
Catherine makes short work of the screaming, blood-soaked realtor, who expires on the front steps in a gorgeous Gothic image: sprawled naked on the stone steps, the house looming over her in shadow, Catherine in blood-streaked grave clothes waiting to feed. Just beautimous.
Hélène arrives shortly thereafter to discover the carnage on the steps and in the parlor. She's about to call the police when she hears the tell-tale music box again, and stumbles in shock to the conservatory where she finds Catherine sitting at the piano naked. (ANOTHER gorgeous image--seriously, there are long stretches in this film where I just want to screengrab EVERY FRAME.) When she tries to speak to Catherine and gets no response, Hélène surmises her cousin must have brain damage, and her family said she was dead just to cover it up. Seeing from the blood around her mouth and on her discarded clothes that Catherine is responsible for the killings, Hélène briefly considers calling the police--but remembering their love for one another, their blood pact as children, Hélène decides instead to drag the bodies to the crypt and flee with Catherine, protecting her as much as she can.
Once in the crypt however Hélène discovers the other bodies and the empty coffin, and the terrible truth dawns on her--Catherine is a living dead girl. Catherine comes down to the crypt, obviously suffering, and through her actions Hélène discovers that her cousin needs living blood and flesh to ease her pain. Re-enacting their blood pact, Hélène cuts her own wrist and allows Catherine to take nourishment from her, setting the stage for all the tragedy to follow.
After trying and failing to feed Catherine with a slaughtered dove (another strong image that Rollin has used before, heavy with poetic meaning), Hélène begins procuring food for Catherine through other means. She lures a female motorist to the chateau, and after a tense, uncomfortable "seduction" scene locks the hapless woman in the crypt with Catherine, who graphically tears her guts out and feeds on her pulsing blood! While the woman screams Hélène covers her ears upstairs, wracked with guilt but unable to allow her cousin to suffer the torments of the dead. It's a powerful emotional scene, showing that Hélène intends to honor her pact, no matter what the cost.
"I was fine--just fleeting sensations. Death would have quietly taken me back...You wanted to entice me back to the world of the living! Look, I'm surrounded by corpses! I made this into a charnel house!" This makes it clear that, more than the chemical waste in the barrels, it is Hélène's inability to let go of Catherine's memory, her basically selfish desire to keep her beloved cousin alive rather than mourning and allowing her to pass into death, that has brought Catherine back to this world of suffering. A powerful sentiment, and emotionally true, I think.
Still unable to let go, Hélène goes into town in search of another victim. Using the old "your boyfriend is hurt--come with me and I'll take you to him!" ruse, she brings a voluptuous young lady out to the crypt and ties her to one of the stone supports. When Catherine, writhing in hunger pains, still refuses to kill the girl, Hélène takes a knife and saws at the nude victim's stomach, hoping the sight of blood will make Catherine's instincts take over. The girl screams, like any torture victim--and it becomes apparent that Hélène has become the real monster.
Barbara and Greg show up and Hélène must go out and deal with them, which she does in a shocking and brutal way, cementing her place as sympathetic villain. Meanwhile Catherine unties the victim and tells her to go back to the village and tell them all what she has seen. Catherine then tries to drown herself in the castle lake, but Hélène sees her and pulls her out, in anther stunning, almost Pre-Raphaelite composition from Rollin. This sets up the absolutely incredible ending--an ending of such pathos, such beauty, such shocking violence, and such real, deep, palpable human tragedy, it would be criminal to say anything more.
The Living Dead Girl is doubtless the most narratively coherent of the Rollin films it's been my pleasure to see, and also the most emotionally powerful. Despite the low-budget nature of the special effects and the sometimes suspect acting from many of the leads (most specifically Carina Barone as Barbara, who is seldom even remotely believable), the sheer power of the visuals and artistry of the storytelling carry this flick past my logic centers and straight into my heart. Françoise Blanchard as Catherine is a blank slate for much of the film, but I believe that is by design--it's only as she comes more back to "life" that she shows emotion, making the film's denouement that much more powerful. Marina Pierro as Hélène comes off fairly flat most of the time, but as I said before, Rollin's compositions and visual poetry more than do the job for her. As usual with a Rollin flick, if you get caught up on the narrative logic and the effects, you're kind of missing the point--and here it's worth shutting off the critical logician in your noggin to bask in the gorgeous tragedy on display.
The Living Dead Girl is a work of high art--a fairy tale, a parable, a classical tragedy, a meditation on mourning, and quite simply, a masterpiece. It's also, probably obviously, one of my favorite films, period. If you haven't seen any Rollin, this is an excellent place to start; if you have seen Rollin but haven't seen this film, you're missing a staggering achievement. Off The Thumb Scale, naturally. One for the record books.
P.S.--It's always risky reviewing a film you personally have unconditional love for, and I know there are those out there who don't share my view. Still, my whole goal here is to say what I think about the films I see, and this is what I think about this one. If you don't agree, I can respect that--just be sure to change the subject if it ever comes up in conversation with me. Otherwise, there'll be a rumble! ;)