Saturday, February 14, 2015
A Review and Essay on Jean Rollin's Rape of the Vampire (1968)
The year is 1968. At the time, Paris was an unpleasant place to be, due to the May revolution. Strikes and riots were going on, and theatres were shut down, but all over the city, there were a very select few movies shown-Jean Rollin's Rape of the Vampire being the most infamous. Financially, it was a huge success, given it literally had no other competition. The film was far from popular, however. Parisian audiences couldn't make heads or tails of it, leading to multiple rewatches, and even equally baffled cinema employees thinking the film's reels were out-of-order, leading to some accidental temporary alterations in some theatres that just left people even more mind-boggled! During these tough times, people wanted something light and entertaining to see in theatres, but what they got instead was an artistic vampire movie that just served to piss them off even more...
In the countryside of France, there lives four allegedly vampiric sisters. A psychoanalyst named Thomas, and his friends Marc and Brigitte, travel to the town in order to find out the truth behind these women. Both men believe that the sisters are only human, and simply insane due to the fantasies of the townsfolk, however they're at odds over their methods. While Marc just thinks the sisters should be in an asylum, Thomas strives to cure them of their mania. Things go terribly wrong when vampires turn out to be more real that either of the two thought...
Rape of the Vampire is an odd movie, but rarely did I ever find it that confusing. The plot is pretty simple, but very thematic (which I'll elaborate on later). It was originally a thirty minute short film, designed as a backup film for a separate feature, but Rollin soon after created a second part to the movie, creating a whole that would meet the standard theatre runtime requirements.
The second part follows on from the events of the first story, and expands greatly on them, with this pastoral, near Gothic vampire tale quickly becoming a more clinical and scientific story. While there are new characters, the old cast returns, which is rather an impressive feat, considering almost all of them died at the end of the first part. This doesn't come across as cheap, thankfully, as there's a good reason for these resurrections. Neither does the gap between filming the two parts affect anything, unlike, say, Monster A-Go-Go.
While the first part is self-contained, the second follows directly on from it, building story on its climactic events as it develops this world more. The two-sections mesh well with each-other, with the varied genre styles complementing each-other. Unfortunately, the second part's plot is too big and too frayed to come together well in the end.
In the second part, we got a lot of sub-plots, but not enough explanation behind them, and no resolution to a lot of them at all! Why did the vampires bodysnatch Brigitte, then turn her into a vampire? If they were doing it to lure Marc, why? Why is there a vampire revolution against the Queen, and for what reasons? Are they self-loathing at what monsters they are, or is this just an old-fashioned power struggle? Why was the Vampire Queen raising four women to think they're vampires? Why does she not continue pursuing this plan even though one sister is still alive, she brings another back from the brink of death, and the other can easily be resurrected? Come to think of it, what did happen to that resurrected bitch vampire sister? There are too many of these plot holes, and they sink whatever attempt at story Rape of the Vampire was trying to tell.
Then we get to the finale, which is just a bit of a mess! A mess of bongo drums, sudden weddings, tapedeck vampire brainwashing, and vampire free-for-alls with no context. This totally sinks the film, but following it, we get a better-ish ending. On one hand, it's a tragic and poetic conclusion that fits naturally for the two characters, but on the other hand, if vampires don't die from starvation, they're a couple of idiots.
One really annoying part of the film is the torture scene. It's the only part of the film that comes close to being pretentious, given its stupid and pointless imagery! I can justify many things that happen in this film, even the swordkill versus gunshot wound fatality prognosis concerning the bitchy vampire sister, but this I won't let slide! Why in the hell is the vampire woman suddenly transported between Dieppe beach, and a tiny greenhouse, as she's being whipped?! And why is sunlight hurting her when it doesn't affect vampires in this movie?!
The characters are a mixed bag. Some are written decently, and have well-defined character arcs, but others aren't established quite so well, and there therefore lacking. None suffer worse from this than the blind sister. She's horrifically mutilated, then possibly killed offscreen, but then a bit later on, we see that no such thing happened. The hostile townspeople never caught her following the loss of her eyes, and she's been roaming around, as loopy as froot. Unfortunately the film ditches this subplot, and the character is seemingly exited from the film in a confusing scene (the implication is that she's drowned, but she could easily escape from this situation), then never seen again until the final minutes, where we get an even more confusing scene.
The locale in Rape of the Vampire are quite good! The manor is suitably Gothic, while the antiseptic vampire clinic is a nice counterbalance. The effects in this movie are pretty bad, unfortunately, and they detract from the film. Black-and-white usually makes Boscoe's chocolate syrup look like blood, but in the case of Rape of the Vampire, whatever was used just seems like paste. Especially bad is the eye-gouging scene, where fake blood is just spread over the actress' face.
Rape of the Vampire was shot in a very short period with a very small budget (to the point that the only available extras were the crew), by a cast and crew who were all new at the industry. With this in mind, it's surprising just how well put together everything is! Like I said, and will say again, things aren't perfect, but I certainly appreciate the effort that went into this film!
Jean Rollin's direction here is very good, as is the imagery, and we get a few stylishly shot scenes, such as the dizzying twirling scene, or the moments involving Mark and Brigitte in the wide empty field, which look fantastic. Unfortunately, while the film's direction is very good, the editing is very choppy.
On first glance, the film's score is a terrible clangy mess, but its eclectic and chaotic feel actually fits the movie rather well!
The acting here is decent. Nothing great, save for Jaqueline Seigner, who amusingly overacts as the Queen of the Vampires. She steals the movie, and is by far one of the best things about it! I also like Nicole Romain, who plays the deliriously insane blind vampire. One performance I just found plain bizarre was the weird Quasimodo/Cousin Itt town servant, who seemed too over-the-top.
Overall, Rape of the Vampire is potentially an acquired taste. You might not gel to it at first, but come the end, you may have found a new film for your Vampire collection!...Or at least you would if fucking Redemption DVD's didn't overcharge so goddamn much for their bloody stock! I paid forty dollars for my copy of this movie, and that was through a cheaper seller on eBay! It was even more expensive direct on the site! Fucking Redemption!...
Now, essay time! Does Rape of the Vampire have any true meaning to it, or is it just pointless waffle? Definitely the former! While the damaged plot doesn't allow for its themes to be taken and concluded to their fullest potential, they're still very present, and I'd like to take the time to discuss them. Now, before I start, know that I'll be piecing together in my head certain plot elements that are implied, but not quite explained properly (such as what the vampire rebellion wants), so if you're wondering why I show confusion at above listed plot holes, then proceed to explain them here, that's because of my efforts in finding answers through implication and guesswork, and not because I'm a confused idiot.
The first and biggest themes in Rape of the Vampire are of tradition and folklore vs. science. Not only do we have psychoanalyst Thomas and the villagers, and their differing opinions on what the four vampire sisters are, as well as the ethical conflict between Thomas and Marc, but we also have the Vampire Queen and her efforts in creating a scientific clinic devoted to fully understanding and controlling the living dead. Science trumps traditionalism in the end, but it also leads to the downfall of everyone in the movie, from tainted blood supplies, to failed cures.
Now, why are the four vampire 'sisters' being kept in that house? Well, from the perspective of the townsfolk, they're doing a service by keeping these near immortal monsters prisoner, while the Lord of the Manor (the mayor?) seems to be the only one of the townspeople aware of the true reasons behind the sisters.
The true reason behind the plan seemingly becomes apparent due to several plot points, as well as late in the film when the Queen of the Vampires has a speech about her plans for the future. She wants to build her ranks with those chosen for immortality until her kind is able to dominate the world in a sea of blood (figuratively). Perhaps the reason behind her raising the four vampire sisters, from making them believe all of the traditional vampire weaknesses work, and in deluding them into thinking they're vampires from hundreds of years ago, is an experiment. A long experiment designed to further determine the nature of vampirism, and how members of its kind can be controlled.
All of this leads to one goal-Brainwashing. When the experiment fails, the Vampire Queen sets out to achieve the creation of her 'chosen ones' by hybridizing the living and the dead in a way partially unlike vampires. She has them standing mindless in clinics, hooked up to blood drips, and constantly being subjected to a recording of the Queen's indoctrination. Whether its through the long game, or the short one, that's the Queen's ultimate goal on the road to taking control of the world.
Self-destruction and self-loathing are more of the movie's themes, which go hand in hand together here. There are vampires that hate what they are, and seek to find a cure. They rebel against the cruel regime of the current Queen, who is interested in nothing but conquest, mind control, and death. When the cure fails, they decide to wall themselves up, to spare the world from their violent hunger.
Onto some little things. There's one scene that some might take away as just pretentious nothing-When the blind vampire is playing Skittle bowling, with seemingly random cutaways to the pins falling down on the beach. This actually makes sense, however. The blind woman is just playing Skittles at her dreary home, but she's imagining herself at a nice beach as she plays the game.
Ok, that's all I have to say about Rape of the Vampire. It's one of Jean Rollin's best films, and he'd re-use certain elements and concepts in his later films, to neat effect (and nostalgic in the case of Fiancee of Dracula). Once again, I recommend it. It's one unique vampire movie...
This post is for Holly Horrorland's fourth annual Vampire Soiree.