Jean Rollin is a little-known French horror film director who is an acquired taste, even for hardcore horror fans. While he directed his first feature back in 1968, only a handful of his films ever made it across the Atlantic, and then they were recut, retitled, badly dubbed, and thrown out on the video shelves for curious clientele to discover and mostly dismiss. A few of his films became relatively well-known in the States, like The Grapes of Death, Fascination, and The Living Dead Girl, but by-and-large, he has been ignored not only in the U.S. but across the globe.
It wasn’t until UK-based Salvation Films started releasing his films in the mid-nineties that horror enthusiasts were truly introduced to Rollin. The American branch of Salvation, Redemption Films, released many Rollin titles, with typically lurid cover art, but the boutique company didn’t have the funds to give the films the treatment they truly demanded. But now, Kino-Lorber, a major company with a rock-solid history of releasing superior versions of unique horror films, has teamed up with Redemption and will be releasing up to several dozen Euro-horror films in the coming year. And they have chosen five Jean Rollin films to be first.
The Nude Vampire is Rollin’s second feature film and his first in color. The story is about a rich man called Radamante and his cronies who have captured a young woman who drinks blood and is immortal. They keep her locked away from sunlight and human contact, only bringing her out to subject her to more cruel experiments and an occasional feeding. An entire suicide cult has grown up around this girl, and rich patrons who contribute towards the experiments meet on a regular basis. One of these patrons is randomly chosen to sacrifice him- or herself to the vampire so that the experiments on just how and why this girl is immortal can continue. Unfortunately for Radamante and the cult, his son, Pierre, accidentally runs into the girl and is smitten with her. Pierre soon discovers that his own father is connected with the girl, so he begins to question his father. As his investigation into the mysterious blood-sucking nymph brings him ever closer to unraveling Radamante’s secret and exposing his bizarre experiments, Pierre’s father must take drastic measures.
The title The Nude Vampire is much more exploitive than the film. In fact, the vampire referred to in the title never appears nude; rather, she is wrapped in a gauze-like material that, while certainly see-through, tends to cover much more than one might expect. But I guess "The Scantily-Clad Vampire" wasn’t lurid enough for a title, so Rollin opted for something a bit more dramatic. That being said, there is quite a bit of nudity in the film, by several different–and quite lovely–actresses. Rollin readily admitted that while he didn’t care much for filming sex acts (ironic, as he made several hardcore porn films in order to finance his horror titles), he did view the female body as a work of art and modeled his filming of the female form after classic Renaissance paintings. One notices that a good many of the nude shots are of women in various poses and standing still, as if she is a sculpture or a painting instead of a model being shot on film and capable of movement.
While most of Rollin’s work is classified as "horror", that isn’t necessarily true. Rollin’s films aren’t scary in the least bit. But they are dreamlike, surreal, and sometimes just plain weird. The French have a word they use to refer to films such as these: le fantastique. And The Nude Vampire stays true to form. Chock full of beautiful but strange set designs, garish color palettes, and late-60’s wardrobe design, it sometimes leaves the viewer pondering the meaning of certain scenes or sets. For example, twin servants (the real-life Castel twins, Catherine and Marie-Pierre, who would appear in many of Rollin’s films over the years), wear some outrageous outfits, including one which is a cross between a Roman Centurion and a medieval torture device. In many scenes, cult members wear papier-mâché animal masks, including a bird with a huge beak, a rooster with bright-red wattles, and even a deer with huge antlers! While there is a decent explanation for the wearing of masks, it doesn’t come until near the end of the film, so the viewer is left to wonder what all this mystery is about. But that’s Jean Rollin. Being French, Rollin certainly is aware of the concept of mise-en-scene, or the arrangement of literally each piece of set design as being purposeful. So, for example, the crazy plastic baby dolls with clocks in their stomachs, purple feathers in their crotches, and stacked together in a jumble as if in an orgy, may not mean much to the viewer, but absolutely serve a purpose…we just sometimes don’t know what that purpose is, other than to subvert the viewer’s perception of reality.
Color also plays a vital role in Rollin’s films. At the same time that the great Mario Bava was displaying his expert use of color and well before Dario Argento would break new ground with Suspiria, Rollin uses vivid, almost lurid color throughout the film. The end result is usually a vibrant and visually stimulating piece of film, and even though The Nude Vampire is Rollin’s first film in color, he shows in this film that he has already mastered the use of color.
Being shot in the Europe of the late sixties, the inclusion of a couple of offbeat and psychedelic dance scenes are a must, and Rollin is no different than any other European director of the time. With costumes prefiguring Madonna’s breast cones by nearly two decades, the dances are both erotic and outrageous, and always entertaining.
There are a few inconsistencies that prove Rollin was still learning his craft. Observers who watch closely will catch a few fun goofs such as corpses that blink and some minor continuity glitches, along with a hilarious conversation between two goofy scientists near the end of the film who attempt to explain the film but only muddy the waters further. There is even one character, the leader of the vampires, that wears slacks and a turtleneck, but also a cheap white cape. It’s as if Rollin said, "Put this cape on…now you look mysterious." Many scenes are overly long and could be improved with the application of some basic editing. But as I said before, Rollin is an acquired taste; his fans come to expect these kinds of inconsistencies. It’s not so much about story as it is the dreamlike and bizarre quality inherent to all of Rollin’s films. It’s style over substance.
So if you have a little patience and enjoy stylish Eurohorror from the late sixties and early seventies, then this film will be right up your alley. Kino-Lorber has also seen fit to package the film very nicely, including a new HD transfer of the film from its original negatives as well as French and English trailers, interviews with Rollin himself as well as others involved in the film, and a deluxe, 20-page booklet written by the guru of Eurohorror himself, Tim Lucas, of Video Watchdog fame. There is also the choice of a dubbed English soundtrack or the original French soundtrack with English subtitles.
The Nude Vampire was released in late January and is readily available at many retail outlets and online stores on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as on video-on-demand at Amazon.com.