Four beautiful sisters inhabit a crumbling chateau, encircled by makeshift crosses. They believe themselves to be vampires, one believes herself to be blind, but not everyone is convinced. A young psychoanalyst arrives intent on curing them, convinced reason will win out over superstition.
“He has freed the vampires. He’s a dangerous madman.”
A literature and film buff from a young age, Rollin learned to edit during his time in the army and secured a role on the fringes of the French film industry following the completion of his military service. Having directed a number of shorts, his first feature came about in unusual circumstances, when a friend – Jean Levie – bought the rights to an old American move called Dead Men Walk (1943). At approximately 60 minutes, it was too short to distribute on its own so he suggested Rollin shoot a short to accompany it. The would-be director approached Sam Selsky, an American acquaintance living in Paris, for funding and he agreed, with the sole stipulation that the short should contain enough nudity to guarantee its saleability. As it transpired, Selsky was so pleased with the results he asked Rollin to resume shooting and Le Viol du Vampire – as a standalone feature – was born.
With hindsight, Rollin’s approach at that point could be questioned. The footage shot to the initial brief – frequently beautiful to behold – left much to be desired in narrative terms. The sisters backstory – which is referenced rather than depicted – could certainly have been elaborated, as could the attendance of the psychoanalyst (and his companions). At the outset they are seen talking to the ‘Lord of the Manor’, who is later seen giving voice to a bizarre icon the girls worship. Has he hired them, and if so, to what end? We will never know, because rather than address these apparent gaps, Rollin chose to adopt the serial format – which has a long, storied tradition in France, most notably in the work of Louis Feuiliade – meaning the film resets around the half hour mark and resumes as ‘The Vampire Women’, with significant changes to its cast, narrative and tone.
“Kneel. Kneel before your Queen.’
It seems that the four sisters have been tracked by vampire cult – I’m not sure of the correct collective noun – whose self-proclaimed Queen is none-too-pleased to learn of their demise. Indeed, the ‘Lord of the Manor’ – as with many others, he is not given a name – pays for his role in the siege of the chateau with his life. Unbeknownst to the Queen, his dripping blood resurrects the psychoanalyst and one of the sisters, who are taken to a lab by two of her crew to assist in experiments in reanimating the dead.
When discussing Rollin’s wider body of work certain words tend to recur – I’m thinking primarily of ‘poetic’ and ‘dreamlike’ – and we may get to those in due course. When discussing Le Viol du Vampire, the word which seems to recur most frequently is ‘incomprehensible’, and it’s easy to see why. In preparing this piece I found myself going back and fourth over dialogue, trying to differentiate plot holes from bad storytelling, from things I had simply missed. Why does the Queen instruct one of her lackeys to ensure two of the recently-deceased ‘stay dead’, to behead them, and then immediately resurrect one of the others? What exactly is her plan, and what is the ‘blood wedding’ of the final act intended to achieve? Again, we will never know.
To be fair, this is not the mindset I would ordinarily apply to Rollin’s work, preferring instead to be led away into the realms of the fantastique. In general terms I consider film to be a primarily visual medium and don’t need a neatly packaged, easily comprehensible narrative to enjoy the experience. I also understand that the influence of surrealism – particularly pertinent when we’re talking about Rollin – and other modes of expression can be at odds with what we might consider ‘conventional’ narrative. I’m not sure any of that is sufficient here though, and believe the narrative shortfalls to be principally the result of improvisation on ‘set’ – apparently the script was lost shortly after shooting had begun – and the peculiarity of resuming work from a position of narrative closure i.e the death of most of the principles. I think the latter is particularly problematic, because while the first ‘half’ feels like a formative work, the second feels rushed, episodic and at times amateurish. The giant bat, for example, in front of which the Queen sits, would not look out of place in a school play.
“We are all damned souls, haunted by our desires.”
All of this begs the question, why have I watched the film at least half a dozen times over the years, and why am I likely to be drawn back to it in the future? To be clear, Le Viol du Vampire was made on a shoestring budget by people with little or no filmmaking experience. It features a cast with little or no acting experience, who were required to improvise at least some of their scenes. The end result is widely considered to be incomprehensible. Be that as it may, there is actually a lot to enjoy here, especially in visual terms.
The film boasts a plethora of striking images, beautifully realised in black and white. The Queen licks blood from the blade of a dagger, the blind girl plays skittles outside the chateau and a horse-drawn hearse follows a vampire in clerical robes. Entire sequences haunt the memory, like the sisters fencing beneath spotlights which render their dresses transparent; like the resurrected couple on the beach at Dieppe, naked, smeared in blood, clinging to one another as they regain their senses. Rollin’s filmography is filled with such moments, and they were present from the outset.
In technical terms, inexperience can breed ingenuity and that seems to have been the case here, meaning we get all manner of unusual camera placements alongside elegant, albeit improvised, tracking shots. In fact, I’d suggest that Guy Leblond’s cinematography is the most consistently impressive aspect of the production.
With regards to those appearing in front of the camera, most seem to have been drawn from Rollin’s social circle, are spirited, beautiful and have little else by way of acting credits. The one exception is Jean-Loup Phillippe, who would go on to take the lead in Rollin’s brilliant Levres De Sang and Claude Mulot’s porno-chic hit Le Sexe qui Parle (both 1975). Curiously, his name does not actually appear on IMDB page for this film. Jacqueline Sieger, who plays the Vampire Queen, did not appear in another film as far as I can tell, and neither did Marco ‘Marquis’ Paulho, who has a sizeable role here as one of the psychoanalyst’s companions. Bernard Letrou, the aforementioned psychoanalyst, Catherine Deville, Nicole Romain and Solange Pradel all appeared in short films for Jean-Denis Bonan around this time. The latter also popped up in 1971’s The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay, as did Ursule Pauly, who we will see again when we look at Rollin’s second feature, La Vampire Nue (1970).
WordPress does not lend itself to footnotes, but the following were consulted in constructing this review:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombes and Cathol Tohil (1994)
Virgins & Vampires, by Jean Rollin (1997)
Rollin’s commentary track, which featured on the Encore release of this film in Holland
Tim Lucas’ liner notes, which accompanied the Redemption release on the film in the US.