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Blu-ray Review: The Cinema of Jean Rollin

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Based on their titles and descriptions, the films of Jean Rollin seem to belong firmly within the tradition of exploitative Euro-trash horror — flimsy stories and creaky effects cobbled together as an excuse for an abundance of blood and T&A. But Rollin’s films are infinitely more thoughtful and baffling than they may appear at first glance; in fact, his aesthetic is defined more by restraint than excess. The surreal trappings of Rollin’s films about vampires and cults are heightened by their deliberate pacing and poetic imagery.

In a move that will likely continue to enhance Rollin’s reputation among cinephiles, Redemption Films has teamed up with Kino Lorber for a line of Blu-ray releases under the banner The Cinema of Jean Rollin. Five of Rollin’s ’70s films have been released in this first wave and are available for purchase individually. The films are:

The Nude Vampire (1970)
The 20-something Pierre (Olivier Martin) stumbles upon a bizarre, unsavory secret society run by his industrialist father (Maurice Lemaitre), replete with a suicide cult, a captive woman and a series of experiments meant to extract the key to her immortality. Rollin’s first color film features some positively giddy uses of bright hues — the candy-colored liquids in the lab’s test tubes pop off the screen in this transfer — and some strikingly bizarre moments — an animal-head-wearing cadre chase an unfortunate woman as the film opens, plunging us into this alternate reality. Perhaps most interesting is the way the film subverts its own expected genre; The Nude Vampire seems pretty clearly to be about the powers of vampirism, but takes a turn toward science fiction in its final act.

All five releases present their films in 1080p, 1.66:1 transfers. The Nude Vampire features the aforementioned excellent colors — bright pinks, yellows and reds all are remarkably vibrant. The elements show some slight damage, and the image is not always the sharpest, but it has a pleasing, film-like look overall. All five films are afforded mono audio, and here, the quality is rather poor, with persistent hiss and the French dialogue coming off hollow. Effects and music register as overly sharp. An optional English dub is also presented.

Extras include an archival two-minute introduction by Rollin along with a 20-minute interview. Actress and long-time Rollin assistant Natalie Perrey is featured in a brief interview, and trailers for all five films are included. A substantial booklet with notes on Rollin’s career and the five films by Tim Lucas is included in each release.

The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)
Newlyweds Isla (Sandra Julien) and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) interrupt their honeymoon to stop by the castle home of two of Isla’s cousins, whom she hasn’t seen since they were children. Unfortunately, they’re a day late, as the caretakers inform them both died the night before. Isla is inconsolable, but she soon finds solace in the arms of a predatory lesbian vampire (Dominique). Antoine becomes desperate to leave the castle and get on with their honeymoon, but soon enough the cousins (Michel Delahaye and Jacques Robiolles) have returned, transformed from vampire hunters to vampires. The Shiver of the Vampires is often unabashedly campy, making it somewhat of an outlier compared to these other releases.

The transfer here showcases quite a bit of damage, seen in the persistent speckling, significant scratches, marks and tears. The image never escapes an inherent softness and low light scenes are often muddy and poorly defined. Overall, it certainly looks better than DVD quality though. The mono audio is decent. Voices are a little hollow and some light hiss is present, but everything is pretty clear overall. An optional English dub is included.

Another brief Rollin introduction is included, alongside a more substantial 40-minute interview with Rollin. Trailers and the booklet are also present.

The Iron Rose (1973)
A much more simplistic, stripped-down affair, The Iron Rose sees Rollin emerging as a filmmaker more confident in his own poetic imagery and less dependent on familiar plot devices. Dispensing with narrative almost completely, The Iron Rose is all about atmosphere — brooding, haunted, mysterious atmosphere. Unnamed lovers Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester pass by a nearly deserted cemetery in the daytime, enter and find an underground crypt for some privacy. But after they emerge, night has fallen and they can’t seem to find the entrance anywhere. As the man grows increasingly distraught, the woman seems to find herself at home. The Iron Rose is a perfect example of Rollin’s aesthetic — steeped in the unknown and obsessed with the past, but more engrossing than terrifying.

With this transfer, the opening credits show a fair amount of damage that registers as video noise, but things are much better afterward. The yellow and red of the pair’s clothing are nicely vibrant, and the image looks polished and clean. Fine detail isn’t abundant, but the transfer is pretty nice overall. The audio is solid, with mostly clean and clear dialogue, although abrupt increases in volume, like shrieking, tend to be a bit edgy. An optional English dub is included.

Extras include another Rollin intro, newer interviews with Pascal and Perrey, four trailers for The Iron Rose and trailers for the other films, an alternate opening title sequence in English and Lucas’s booklet.

Lips of Blood (1975)
Dream logic is a common occurrence in all of these films, but Lips of Blood feels like the product of a dream all the way through. At a party, the mild-mannered Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) sees a poster of a castle that forces him to confront a childhood memory of a night when he was lost and encountered a beautiful woman (Annie Belle). Soon, he’s plunged back into that world, as he wanders the streets at night and spots her again, unchanged and beckoning for him to follow.

Lips of Blood features a strong transfer, with excellent clarity, detail and sharpness in the majority of shots. Softness and muddiness creeps in on some low-light shots, but mostly, the transfer is clean and film-like, with only some light speckling showing up every now and again. Audio is reasonably clean and clear throughout.

A slighter crop of bonus material on this disc, with only a short Rollin intro and an interview with Perrey included alongside the trailers and the booklet.

Fascination (1979)
Probably the most straightforward and narratively traditional of all five of these films, Fascination stars Jean-Marie Lemaire as a roguish thief who betrays his partners and holes up in a chateau to escape from them. Convinced of his own charms and intelligence, he encounters two women (Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Mai) preparing the place for a gathering later that night. He’s sure he can have his way with the women easily, but his confidence is subverted as the power dynamics shift and the two women reveal themselves to be part of a cult — not vampires but attracted to the taste of blood nonetheless.

Similar to the Lips of Blood transfer, Fascination only stumbles in darker moments, where detail and clarity drop considerably. Otherwise, it has a pleasingly high-def look, marred occasionally by some significant but brief tearing, rippling and flaring that affects the elements. Audio is just fine, with a little crackle and hiss, but perfectly clear dialogue.

The extras here deviate from the interview-heavy portions of the other discs, presenting two extended soundless sex scenes filmed in case Fascination needed to be marketed as a softcore film (Rollin faced this kind of meddling often) and a profile of Rollin from British TV show Eurotika! Trailers and the booklet are also included.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.