As I sit down to type this, the Fall/Halloween season (the most wonderful time of the year) is officially in full swing. Over here at Hell Broke Luce, the tried and true statement of “everyday is Halloween” defiantly isn’t without merit, but the month of October will always be special. The constant sight of pumpkins, falling brown, orange, yellow and red leaves (not to mention the smell of said leaves!) and seasonal decorations everywhere will never fail to liven the spirits. Naturally, the best part of all, it’s the time of year where seemingly everybody celebrates all things horror, what with haunted houses and other attractions of that nature, the plethora of genre related programming on TV all month long, and of course, horror movie marathons. While it’s true that I watch these types of films pretty much on the daily, I’m sure other hardcore genre fanatics will agree with me when I say that there are certain films that fit the aura of the season so well they demand an October viewing. Jean Rollin’s 1973 masterpiece The Iron Rose is one of those films. Considered by Rollin himself to be his strangest film, it certainty does seem to be an anomaly in his filmography, most notably due to the fact that there are no vampires to be found. It’s been called by many to be Rollin’s most “personal” film, a labor of love for the filmmaker that has the tendency to polarize many viewers, and even some Rollin fans. Then there are others like myself whom hold the film near and dear, ranking it as one of Rollin’s very best, as it not only showcased that Rollin didn’t need vampires to fall back on, it’s a shining example of his uncanny ability as a filmmaker to take an incredibly simplistic concept and create something truly original.
After meeting at a wedding reception, a young and girl and boy (Françoise Pascal and Huges Quester (billed as Pierre Dupont) referred to simply as “The Girl” and “The Boy”) make plans to spend the following day together. After meeting at the train station as planed, the two go on a bike ride through the town, eventually ending up outside the gates of a massive cemetery. Although The Girl is hesitant at first, the two decide to take a walk through the grounds. When the two come to one of the many crypts they decide to venture down into the tomb for a little rendezvous, although when they reemerge they realize night has now fallen and they’re unable to find their way out of the cemetery. The more they try to find an exit and the more they fail, the more their imaginations begin to get the better of them as The Boy becomes overtaken by fear under the guise of anger while The Girl’s emotions regarding the situation cause her behavior to become increasingly erratic.
On the surface, The Iron Rose (La rose de Fer) is as minimal as a film can get, yet leave it to Rollin to take an idea as simple as “two people lost in a cemetery” and have it go places you’d never have imagined it to go, gradually taking a turn for the bizarre, and in pure Rollin fashion there’s a lot more going on thematically than one might expect by simply taking the film at face value. With a film like this, in order to become fully invested in the characters and their situation the performances have to be strong, otherwise we’d be left with a great looking, but ultimately uninteresting film. Thankfully, Rollin struck gold with Quester and especially Pascal. Quester’s increasing fear about the dilemma the two are in masked by machismo and anger provides an interesting role reversal as it was originally The Girl who was fearful and he who was the calm and collected one, and the anger was authentic as apparently he was quite the difficult young man on the set, but it’s Pascal who easily steals the show, and to think, Rollin originally didn’t want her for the part! The more the film progresses it’s her performance that makes it so fascinating, as her character becomes overwhelmed by the cemetery, and she begins to feel a strange “connection” to it and it’s underground inhabitants. The odder her behavior gets, she carries the task of getting across the majority of the films themes, delivering numerous poetic monologues, musing on various topics such as love, life and death, or more specifically, metaphorically questioning who is really “dead” or “alive”, stemming from the feeling of alienation by way of societal pressures and standards. These speeches would make it appear that accidentally being trapped in the cemetery has “liberated” her in a way, culminating in mesmerizing dance through the cemetery and the films unforgettable final frame along with Pascal’s equally unforgettable delivery of the films final line of dialogue.
No offence to Pascal and Quester, but I think even they would agree that the real star of the film is the cemetery itself. With a setting like that, atmosphere comes with ease, and Rollin uses every aspect of the cemetery to his utmost advantage. The majority of the cemetery seems to be all but abandoned as it’s obviously very old, with the gravestones, gates, crypts and statues being covered by weeds, vines and other assortments of dead plants, which only piles onto the already morbid vibe the place gives off, but it’s also an interestingly laid out cemetery with a number of sections featuring beautiful gothic architecture and stonework juxtaposed with a series of graves consisting of nothing but crudely built wooded crosses that are hardly stuck in the ground. The way the film is lit makes every little surrounding seem imposing, especially the shots which give off an idea of the sheer size of the cemetery. Rollin’s taste for the surreal is on display as well with a sequence of a clown putting flowers on a grave which is unsettling in it’s oddness and the now famous shot of Pascal slowing raising a skull up to her face, as well as his knack for romantic imagery steeped in the macabre in the form of Pascal and Quester embracing on a pile of bones in an open grave, and of course there’s the shots of Pascal on Rollin’s favorite beach near Dieppe, France. Sound design is also essential in effectiveness of the film, with the focus being on the natural sounds of the environment such as the scuffing of feet against stone and gravel, the breaking of a headstone, and the sound of an old creaking and decrepit fence or the opening of a door to a crypt with some occasional goose bump inducing vocalizations popping up for good measure. Actual music is used sparingly, but when it is, it‘s with great effect. The films beautiful piano theme will haunt you for days.
The Iron Rose finally got the visual DVD treatment it deserves this past January via Redemption as part of it’s Rollin remaster series. The remastered print is phenomenal (the previous ones were ok but talk about an upgrade!) and it’s great to see and hear the film looking and sounding as good as it does. Along with the new transfer we also get a short introduction from Rollin himself (filmed in 1998 I believe), and interviews with Françoise Pascal and Rollin collaborator Natalie Perrey who also has a brief cameo in the film. The Pascal interview is a real treat as she not only tells some cool stories about the making of the film (including anecdotes about Huges Quester’s bad attitude) but recalls a phone conversation between herself and Rollin before he passed where she told him, much to his excitement about the fan base The Iron Rose had acquired throughout the years as he apparently had no idea. She seems like a real cool chick. While brief, the Perrey interview is a welcome addition and an informative watch for fans. Perrey echo’s the feeling of many that the script for The Iron Rose was Rollin at his “purest”, the “real” Jean Rollin as she puts it. Not a bad package for a film that was a massive critical and financial failure upon it’s initial release. Not that Rollin was a critical darling beforehand but the reception to this film was exceptionally harsh. As is the case with so many great films it took some time for people to truly realize what a gem it truly is. Rollin in general is an acquired taste, and this film perhaps more so than any other in his catalogue, which is understandable. It’s true that there’s a good chance your patience will be tested, but if you stick with it I believe you will find it to be a very unique and rewarding experience. Like the majority of Rollin’s films, there’s really nothing else out there quite like it, and I can safely say that out of all of his works, The Iron Rose is my personal favorite.