R.I.P. Jean Rollin

Jean Rollin died December 15, 2010. The event hardly made headlines, and in one sense that was logical as could be. How noticeable after all is the death of a seventy-two-year-old film director whose movies were invariably low-budget and barely distributed?

Yet to vampire fans, Rollin had proved himself if not a giant, certainly a unique and difficult-to-forget voice. What he lacked in funds, he made up for in a startling imagination that eschewed formula or expectation. Who else would have a vampire female emerge from a grandfather clock to ravage a bride on her honeymoon? Or portray the affair between a jester dwarf and a beautiful vampire he loves? He made a serial killer movie, in which the murderer was a beautiful woman wearing a long black cloak (and little else) while wielding a scythe!

His full name was Jean Michel Rollin Le Gentil, born November 3, 1938 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. The son of an actor, he went into the arts, including writing and ultimately film direction. One series of stories eventually became one of his last films–“Two Vampire Orphans” about a pair of girls blind during the day, but who explore the night and all its myriad strange creatures while hunting for blood.

For those familiar with his films, twin girls were familiar territory. Sometimes the pair were vampires, others merely the servants of same. But they could usually be found somewhere amidst the undead in the French countryside — usually in the vicinity of an old château with a large graveyard nearby (one advantage of making vampire movies in Europe — castles are many times easier to come by). Other motifs tend towards the more subtle. Diaphanous gowns pop up again and again, but so do beaches. In “The Fiancée of Dracula” a young woman is tied to the remnants of a pier at low tide. As the water comes in to drown her, she is magically transported to Dracula’s hidden tomb. The climax of another film shows two vampire brothers hunting down a girl and feeding upon her at the beach — then dissolving as the sun rises. Another shows a strange bacchanale of vampires, a cruel carnivale of sorts watched over by the Queen of the Undead. Less common, but still to be found, are hints of incest between siblings — most explicitly in a film many regard as his masterpiece, “Lips of Blood.”

Love and cruelty suffuse Rollin vampire films, which sounds as if they wallow in sadism but not at all. Rather, the two seem complementary poles of life, the best and worst of what can be experienced. A man discovers the beautiful woman he dreamt-of as a child is in fact a vampire. Despite the urgings of his vampire-hunting mother, he frees her and joins her in the night. They set sail in a coffin to some remote island where they will feed on shipwrecked sailors. In another film, the love of a vampire proves overwhelming, intoxicating and far beyond that of a mortal man. A newlywed bride takes a path that leads to her death, and we’re not at all sure she would choose otherwise. Another lover of yet another vampire will not leave her as she is destroyed–together they perish in agony. But while all of this sounds horrific, in practice the images and flow end up poetic, romantic, even eerily beautiful. Rollin’s films feel as often as not like dark fairy tales, whose fairies need to make you bleed now and then.

One has to wonder at the sensibility that created such poetic yet lurid films, full of beautiful imagery amidst blood and fangs and nudity (both male and female, albeit mostly the latter). In interviews Rollin described a “wonderful” childhood in which he grew fascinated by early French cinema. When asked to identify his style, either in writing or directing his reply usually began with “I don’t know.” Maybe that had to do with the fact that no one had ever done stuff like his ever before, and certainly no one has managed to do it since. In terms of budget and subject matter, he most obviously harkens to such cult classics as “Count Yorga, Vampire!” and “Lemora” yet with a eye and ear more akin to Roman Polanski or Stanley Kubrick. With a cast of porn stars. Even that fails to convey the odd flavor of a Rollin vampire flick.

When you read more of Rollin’s life that same sensibility seems what got him through a lot of frustration and travails. He didn’t even get to finish his first film. Not one of his movies was a hit. Many of them ended up as genteel, interesting porn (albeit none of his vampire movies). His books never became best sellers. Yet he always had his fans, whose numbers have steadily swelled over the decades. One wonders if, in the wake of his death and the upsurge of interest in the genre, DVDs of his films might start selling more than ever before.

If so, the temptation to imagine him rising from the grave to receive some applause is a pleasing, if macabre one.

By david

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.


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