Monday, May 6, 2013

The Rape of the Vampire (1968)

Despite the fact that Jean Rollin is one of my favorite filmmakers I haven’t written much about the late, great Frenchman on here. In fact, the only film of his I’ve covered since starting up this site is his minimal masterpiece The Iron Rose (1973) which happens to be my personal favorite film of his. Over the last decade or so there’s been a renewed interest in Rollin’s work which is a great thing of course, even better that he lived long enough to see just how many admirers his films had so naturally there’s been a good amount written about Rollin in both print and on the web. There’s even a fantastic blog dedicated to man. Much like the recently departed Jess Franco and other masters of the fantastique, Rollin’s films, for better or worse depending on the viewer as Rollin’s unique surreal style, a style that is entirely his own, is most certainly an acquired taste, forever alter you perception of cinema and what can be achieved within the medium. Personally speaking, it was altered for the better. Rollin’s debut feature film The Rape of the Vampire is certainly one of, quite possibly his most bizarre film, yet its also one that leaves one of the strongest lasting impressions, and it rounds out my Rollin top 3 along with the previously mentioned The Iron Rose and Requiem For a Vampire (1971).

Thomas, a psychoanalyst along with friends Marc and his wife Brigitte travel to a small village in an attempt to convince 4 sisters living in isolation in a remote chateau who believe they are vampires that they are not vampires but rather suffering from severe delusions after experiencing years of persecution and abuse from the superstitious villagers. This attempt ends in disaster when the villagers storm the chateau and during the ensuing melee Thomas finds out the sisters are indeed vampires when he is bitten and turned. All the chaos prompts an intervention from the Queen of the vampires, who at a nearby hospital is conducting research on her kind, while Thomas, now resurrected as a vampire, works with another doctor at the hospital whom the Queen has taken captive to quickly discover a cure for vampirism.

The Rape of the Vampire (Le Viol du Vampire) is a strange film even by Rollin standards. It’s defiantly the epitome of a just go with it type of situation, whether or not is resonates with you is a completely different story. By now it should be pretty common knowledge among Rollin fans that one, The Rape of the Vampire is actually two short films spliced together in order to make a feature length film and two, very early in the shoot everyone managed to somehow lose their scripts and the majority of the film was improvised, something that is very apparent very early on in the film. While there actually is a plot to be found in the midst of all the oddness on display, it’s as thin as can be, narrative cohesion obviously wasn’t what this film was going for, yet in no way is that a hindrance to the experience at all, in fact its quite the opposite. The very loose structure works very much in the films favor if viewed as a stream of consciousness piece brought to the screen which is basically how the film plays out. The term “dreamlike” is often used when discussing Rollin (so much so that it’s become a bit cliché) and do forgive me for once again going to that well but that description couldn’t be more fitting for a film such as The Rape of the Vampire, what with the sheer randomness of the situations and the way Rollin presents everything.

While Rollin’s subsequent films would feature extravagant and highly unorthodox candy colored lighting, The Rape of the Vampire stands out in Rollin’s filmography for being shot in black and white, although its almost immediately apparent that Rollin was a master at both mediums. The black and white photography works wonders for the film, especially during the first segment, which is the more “classic” feeling of the two. Even with this being his first film, Rollin’s genius at not only finding the best shooting locations but getting the most out of them no matter the low budget is on display, most notability in the form of the 4 sister’s chateau, with the black and white especially coming in handy during the interior shots, which combined with the lighting during nighttime exteriors, along with Rollin’s showcasing of the surrounding wooded areas of the chateau give the film a very gothic horror-esque aesthetic. The second segment is the more contemporary (well “contemporary” for 1968 anyway) even featuring a delirious free jazz score, yet there’s also a slightly futuristic element to it as well considering some of the sci-fi aspects Rollin enters into the proceedings. This abrupt change in tone may be a bit jolting for some but it makes perfect sense when taking into consideration the films free-form style.  While not as overtly atmospheric as the first segment of the film, the second is by no means any less otherworldly, which goes back to the way Rollin has everything play out, the “dreaminess” of it all.

Another well known yet nonetheless always fascinating tidbit of information regarding the film is the story of its initial theatrical release. When the film was first released in May of 1968, it was during a time of intense social unrest in France, complete with general strikes and student protests. Then president Charles de Gaulle even fled the country! To say the audience reaction to The Rape of the Vampire was unkind would be the understatement of understatements. Apparently a surreal arthouse vampire film isn’t what French filmgoers were expecting when they paid for their ticket, nor was it what they wanted to see during such an intense time period as riots broke out in the theatres with the seats even being ripped from the floor. Quite the reaction for a debut film. The Rape of the Vampire isn’t exactly the best place to start for Rollin newcomers, in fact it may even be a challenge for those already accustomed to Rollin’s one of a kind style, and its liable to scare first timers away from the mans work forever, yet despite all that its an important film that should be seen by all Rollin fans and those with an interest in his work at some point.  Its defiantly a film for the most adventurous of viewers but its an adventure that’s well worth taking if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

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