Two beautiful young girls dressed in clown costumes are involved in a car chase. While their male driver is shot and killed, the two lasses manage to avoid capture but get lost while evading their pursuers. They end up taking shelter in an ancient castle only to be confronted by the last vampire on Earth and his cronies. The two girls are quickly captured and forced to do the vampire’s bidding until he is ready to make them vampires as well.
This was Jean Rollin’s fourth vampire film and it was also his favorite. It is perhaps my favorite of his vampire films as well. To be sure, one must have patience to enjoy a Rollin film, and this one is no different. Requiem for a Vampire could test most viewers as it can be ploddingly slow, especially the first 20 minutes or so when there is shot after shot of the two protagonists wandering about lost in the French countryside. There are no more than a half-dozen very brief lines of dialogue in the first 40 minutes of the film, Rollin instead choosing to direct in the style of his favored silent serials. There is plenty of evidence to support the obvious shoestring budget, including hilarious fake bats and even more fake vampire fangs (one female vampire’s fangs are glued to her bottom lip so when she moves her mouth there is an obvious gap between fangs and mouth). There is even an inexplicable scene where someone’s hand is on the edge of the shot that should have been remedied before filming was completed.
Many film historians point to his debut feature, The Rape of the Vampire, as a nonsensical and surreal masterpiece; this may be true, but if Rape is surreal, it is unintentionally so. As Rollin’s first feature, he and the others were complete amateurs and worked with the additional handicap of not having a screenplay, causing Rape to be more than a little off-kilter. But in Requiem, these absurdist elements are present throughout the film, elevating it from simply surreal to an example of Dadaism. Why do the girls explain to the vampires that they have come from a New Year’s party when it is clearly summer? And why did leaving this party cause a car chase and shootout? Why would they burn their dead driver and only means of transportation once they made their escape? And how, if this was all unplanned, did they stash extra clothing and a motorbike in a rundown ruin? These are just some of the questions that come to mind in just the first ten minutes of the movie, questions that can try the patience of all but a few diehard film fans.
But for all of the complaints viewers lodge about Requiem for a Vampire (it’s cheap, it’s boring, it makes no sense), I find myself vastly entertained by the film. By this time, Rollin had developed a repertory of filmmakers both in front of and behind the camera and had developed his own sense of style. Story was never a strength for Rollin, but lighting, cinematography, and scenery were. While many viewers complain that the first 20 to 30 minutes of the film are boring and redundant as the two young ladies roam about the French countryside, I can’t help but think these people are missing the point. The lush, green fields and forests of summertime France are simply gorgeous and Rollin captures that beauty perfectly. The juxtaposition of two clowns in full-face makeup wandering through these fields lends a very surreal atmosphere to these scenes.
But Rollin was also a master at set design. In Requiem, Rollin deftly and expertly manipulates every part of the film to create his own world, mastering the very French art of mise-en-scene. The lighting is as sumptuous as one might expect. As usual, the costumes are quirky and brightly-colored, but Rollin’s real strength lay in his use of lighting. The interiors are filled with garish blues and greens with the dungeon scenes literally bathed in blood-red gels. The lighting and use of different colors to highlight certain objects on a set reminds one of Mario Bava’s lighting techniques. And while the daytime shots are beautiful because of the countryside and ancient castle ruins, another strength of Rollin is his nighttime lighting, a highlight in Requiem. Maybe it was no accident that Rollin’s next film, The Iron Rose (1973) was shot almost entirely at night.
Of course, it would not be a Rollin film without gorgeous European women who shed their clothes for little or no reason. With Requiem, Rollin ups the ante with plenty of full-frontal nudity and soft core sex, including nude women being burned, whipped, and raped during the dungeon scenes. With hard core pornography becoming more acceptable in France, Rollin probably had no choice but to increase the sexual quotient of his films in order to compete in the market.
Requiem for a Vampire is many things. Some claim it is dull and monotonous, its storyline is threadbare, and sections of the film betray its low-budget. But Requiem is also a poetic and beautiful film, with gorgeous scenery, fantastic sets, and unique lighting. Others simply watch for the more prurient content. But no one can argue with one simple fact: Requiem for a Vampire is quintessential Jean Rollin.
Kino-Lorber and Redemption have again teamed up to give us Requiem in either standard DVD or Blu-Ray, loaded with features that include an introduction by Rollin, plenty of interviews, original trailers for Rollin films, and a 16-page booklet written by Video Watchdog Tim Lucas. For more information, see www.kino.com.