La Vampire Nue Review
Folks, this review, as long overdue as it may be, has something of a curse attached to it. I originally wrote it some time ago and then, through either mishap, oversight or idiocy, managed to erase it completely. I was then tasked with having to rewrite the damn thing, which I find is never a welcome proposition and one that I put off for a spell. And then, with the mischievous devilment that only a genuine gremlin in the machinery could cause, the second rather reluctant review was somehow erased as well. Drink? Drugs? Split-personality? Or just plain careless stupidity? I don’t know … but this is now the third attempt at providing the BD of The Nude Vampire with some coverage. Personally speaking, if the text ahead miraculously vanishes before you read it I wouldn’t be at all surprised. What follows, if it survives, will sadly not be as grand as originally intended.
After we took a salacious gander at Jean Rollin’s Fascination a short while ago, are you ready for a soupcon more of that unique French naughtiness, capped-off with a smattering of lip-smacking, swinging 70’s vampirism? Of course you are. Well look no further. For those who were fascinated by Rollin’s avant-garde, but narratively stronger Fascination or his more personal odyssey in Lips of Blood, we can now examine the antics of a nude vampire or two in, um, The Nude Vampire, or La vampire nue, hailing from 1970, which comes to us courtesy of cult genre label Redemption and throws up a whole shebang of crazy images in an ambitious but chaotically concocted Fantasy/SF/Horror bunk-up.
This is certainly a lesser film than Fascination, lesser even than the other three entries in his classic canon – The Shiver Of The Vampires, The Iron Rose, and the aforementioned Lips Of Blood – that have also now been released on BD, but there are still many fans for this as well as Rollin’s other, far less substantial collages of flesh, blood and half-elegant, half-ramshackle symbolism. And, in many ways, The Nude Vampire, which is a bit of a misleading title to be honest (it should be called The See-thru Vampire), is one of his most far-reaching and mindboggling projects, at least in terms of ideas and concepts. He meddles with the science of human evolution and he potters around with the notion of beings from another dimension sticking their oar in like a tribe of renegade Gallifrayans. These aren’t really the sort of sparks that people expect to find blossoming from a Jean Rollin vampire flick. But then Rollin was a maverick that didn’t let either genre traditions or cinematic conventions interfere with his own peculiar brand of dream-weaving.
His vampish endeavours took the bloody baton from Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) and the moody eclectics of many others in the gothic titan’s mean and moody 60’s oeuvre, including Planet of the Vampires and Black Sabbath, combining their hyper atmospheric visual ambience and sensual proclivities with the more bold and in-yer-face graphic nudity and sex appeal of Hammer. But the result of such a mishmash was utterly distinct from either, and would actually go on to influence some of the more lurid and flamboyant properties of the British studio horror staple.
As far as contemporary modern-day vampire films go, The Nude Vampire was going to set the visual style and contemporary vibe for Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, neither of which were anything special and marked a severe downward spiral for the beloved House that dripped Blood. Elsewhere, there was Jose Ramon Larraz’s compellingly savage Vampyres and from America, the quick-buck but eminently enjoyable exploitationers of Count Blackula and the superb Robert Quarry double-bill of Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga, as well the trendsetting Carl Kolchak TV movies and series about the determined supernatural investigator, The Night Stalker. All of these entries made considerable efforts to move with the times and to bring a largely gothic creature into the vibrant 20th Century. They were pulsing, lively, hip and bound-over by the fashions of the era. Count Yorga was the most startling, imaginative and atmospheric before ‘Salem’s Lot delivered some unforgettable jolts, especially for television, in 1979, and the world then embraced bloodsuckers as being either nomadic survivalist gangs (Near Dark and The Lost Boys) or yuppie predators (Fright Night). But these were still all very conventional and the complete antithesis of what Jean Rollin wanted to convey with his brooding and sensuous take. His story takes a skewed path into SF – which was an area explored somewhat in Satanic Rites – and even foreshadows Robin Hardy’s seminal The Wicker Man in terms of the idea of cultish religion colliding with rational thought and, visually, with the image of men wearing creepy animal masks. This last startling element is also somewhat reminiscent of the ghastly Irish spook yarn, unearthed by Peter Underwood, about sailors donning animal heads in order to terrify a crewmate to death, especially when the story pretty much opens with a mysterious young woman being pursued through the cobbled streets at night by a gang of men all adorned with these eerie papier-mâché animal heads and antlers.
The film commences with an unexplained scene of this young woman, hooded in velvet, having some blood drained from her arm in some sort of hidden laboratory by equally hooded medicos. This woman then seemingly gets away from the establishment that has been keeping her and tries to outrun the “animal-heads” who have been sent out after her.
Witnessing this skimpily attired girl being harassed by such an odd bunch, one of whom is armed with the tiniest revolver this side of Lilliput, Pierre (Olivier Martin, Rollin’s real-life brother) tries to intervene. But his rescue attempt fails when they are converged upon by the quirky pack and the girl is apparently shot dead. Pierre makes his escape (via some reasonably impressive climbing skills, it should be noted) but comes to the conclusion that the girl and her killers were somehow connected to the shady private club that his wealthy father presides over. Suitably intrigued, Pierre determines to infiltrate the secret organisation, despite threats from his father Georges Radamante (Maurice Lemaitre) and demands that he stay out of what he doesn’t understand. But once inside, he discovers a crazy society of well-heeled snobs who put on similar velvet hoods and then indulge in a deadly game of Russian Roulette. Further mystery and horror is thrown up when the girl he saw being murdered reappears and drinks the blood from the wound of one of the surprisingly game suicides. Then when his own number comes up and he is to be next in line for a bulle through the brain, Pierre fights back and flees from the madcap club and, together with his trendy friend Robert (Pascal Fardoulis) decides to investigate the decidedly freakish activities that his father’s scientific business has become involved with. Moreover, he has become mesmerised by the girl who apparently cannot die, and this dangerous obsession leads him into a battle between his father and his dastardly cohorts and a strange cult of otherworldly denizens led by a benignly cosmic Michel Delahaye, a battle that takes place in a remote old chateau in the countryside and, ultimately, down upon Rollin’s favourite pebble-strewn coastal cove. The girl is, of course, a sort of vampire and Radamante is seeking to unlock the secret of her immortality for his own selfish gains. But you have to give Rollin some kudos for aiming for the stars with a series of final revelations.
It is all very amateurish. The dialogue is risible, the performances often wince-worthy, especially from Delahaye, Lemaitre, and his two chief partners-in-crime, both crusty old curmudgeons who look ridiculous scampering about the chateau and firing useless bullets into the undead, and the narrative moves in fits and starts, bristling with ideas but totally unsure how to present them with any coherence or impact. There are elements of Eyes Wide Shut with the elite and secretive masked club that Pierre sneaks into, and there is more than a hint of vintage Doctor Who about the SF shenanigans and the inclusion of powerful beings that appear to be from some alternate reality. Esoterics and unearthly wisdom are spouted, but it is all just gobbledygook. To be fair, Rollin knows this and very wisely he tells his queer tale in a far more literal and visual manner. Things happen and characters react. Mood is the key factor in all this and, if nothing else, Rollin maintains an atmosphere in which, quite seriously, anything can happen.
As illogical and surreal as all of this is, it is apparent that Rollin had seen what Hammer had done with their vampires throughout the previous decade and he had particularly relished their push towards the sexualisation of the undead, and the evocation of the darkly sensual allure that their spell could evoke. But whereas, up until this point, Hammer had been content to simply thrust heaving cleavages at the screen, he decided that he wanted to tear the bodices away and reveal what rested beneath. Curiously, as time went by and Rollin’s erotica found its niche, Hammer, themselves, felt that they were getting left behind in such stakes and began to sell their vampire films much more on the promise of nudity and the always winning lure of lesbianism. This is down to Rollin having the courage to be more explicit and provocative on his side of the Channel.
Although he had already experimented with the genre, or rather his twist upon it, with The Rape of the Vampire, a pure art-house experiment that actually caused a lot of controversy and even audience disturbances, this was to be his first colour adventure into the decadent world of the sleazy undead. And the most astonishing facet of this, considering the nudity that is on offer, is how deliberately un-sexual much of this imagery actually is. Women regularly bare their breasts, and one extended scene in which Pierre’s ill-fated buddy, Robert, paints a picture of his naked black model boasts some of the most lingering nipple close-ups that you could ever wish to peruse. But, for the most part, the nudity is a visual aside, a simple reference point upon which to focus when the plot goes for a leisurely meander. There is no actual sex in the film at all. The ladies, which include the Rollin speciality of two attractive twins (played by his regular double-act of Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel), almost all find an excuse to reveal their ample assets, with two complete newcomers during the final siege of the mansion casually and ritualistically disrobing to the waist for seemingly no apparent reason whatsoever. Although I think you’ll be pleased that they did.
The use of ornate old mansion houses and their lonely and unkempt grounds, is exceedingly well played. Rollin loves his long shots of flamboyantly staged activity, such as processions and garish juxtapositions. There is the terrific image of the twins appearing at either side of a balcony, then disappearing behind glass doors (with a weirdly fearful clatter, too) only to reappear on the ground level, the vantage point upon which we have been standing all along, and in unison from another pair of doorways. This is very akin to some live-action cuckoo-clock. It is something that somehow seems to capture the sense of a more illicit episode that could have occurred to young Alicein Wonderland. What next, a bloody rabbit running late for a very important date? Another surprisingly effective shot comes when the members of the rival cult, those who seek to protect the vampire, loom atop the ruins of an old abbey and emerge from in-between the dilapidated stone columns that supported a roof that is no longer there. As Rollin holds the shot from a wild high angle looking down, the gathering grows in number and then moves off, by torchlight, as one single unit. Visions of Cartier simply wandering down well-lit corridors or across stone walkways in that see-through orange negligee are also wonderfully engrossing, even though they are, at the end of the day, merely the result of decorative direction. Without a doubt, such dreamy longeurs featuring the beautiful vampire moving through the amazing realm of neglected opulence would seed the minds of other filmmakers, for similar moments would also infuse Dracula AD 1972 and Count Yorga, Vampire. Technically, the film looks superb and this is down to cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon’s wonderful eye. Yes, it is all haphazard and you get the impression that Rollin has shot his film in places that he shouldn’t have been and when nobody was looking, but there is a delicious visual sense that is undeniably Euro-chic.
The fluttering shadows of the animal-headed henchmen seen on the walls as the vampire tries to escape. The coloured hoods seen during the blood-syphoning prologue, strangely reminiscent of birds. The marvellous off-kilter angles with which the architecture is captured, or the simplistic yet mesmerising use of languid camera movements that just follow characters from basically static positions. The ghastly-cum-sexy twins, both with their faces now scalded, advancing upon a female victim through a higgledy-piggledy graveyard. Radamante’s casual control over the pair as he forces them to idolise a leopard-skin draped over his bed. Much of the visuals make no sense, but their imagery still lingers in the mind.
He seems to thrive upon creating a darkly magical ambience, caressing the mystery that his cockeyed plot revolves around. The vigour of his imagination is dimmed only by his lack of budget, but just think about the direction that he was taking his story in. His theme is all about the next step in human evolution, that the vampire girl and her kind are a mutated form of mankind, a clearer, purer and more resilient and even more spiritual creature. It is almost as though Rollin was experimenting with his own breed of X-Men! Now, you would never have expected that from the little Frenchman who loved his girls to wear deadly golden nipple-cones, schoolgirl socks and Greco-Roman armoured skirts.
To go any deeper into the plot would be both pointless and an endeavouring to find meanings, allegories and observations that simply aren’t there. Rollin loved the notion of lovely young female vampires, or even quasi-vampires as we have here, cavorting about in arty-farty surroundings and assuming an aura stylishly nonsensical menace. He wasn’t necessarily fixated with the horrors that these characters were capable of though – and to this end the few killings are not fang-filled. He was just in awe of their spectral qualities and innate sensuality. His male characters in The Nude Vampire actually have a little bit of credence. The father and his cronies have a definite agenda, even if their execution of it is a tad undercooked. The wacky trans-dimensional vamp disciples, too, have a strong(ish) motivation for interfering. But the whole thing hangs together more by luck than by design, although it is a neat subversion of the form that posits Radamante and his scientists as the true villains and the vampire as the victim. Ironically, it is they who are draining away her blood … and not the other way around.
Interestingly, the film’s fabulous original artwork was designed by the cult Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) artist Philippe Druillet, and it is possibly the most sensational poster for a vampire story ever conceived. I’ve placed an image of it in the review. However, even though it does a decent job of conveying what happens in the film, it does, inevitably, make you think that you are in for a profoundly gothic tale of infernal desire and horror … which isn’t quite what you get.
As you’d expect from a Jean Rollin flick, The Nude Vampire is an acquired taste. It skirts around the notion of cult worship, of human experimentation and of the central conceit of vampirism, but this is no horror film in any conventional sense. Rollin never actually made any proper “horror” films as you would expect to see them. It is tempting to say that Tony Scott’s uber-stylish sexual vampire flick The Hunger, from 1983 and starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie, stems from the same vogue of visual excess, overtly emotive imagery and dreamy surrealism but this wouldn’t be fair to either Rollin or Scott. The Gallic fantasist was painting the screen with his own skewed artistry more to please and captivate himself than to stimulate anybody else, so his films, even this early amateur effort, have a more personal feel to them. They are far less commercial. But what is most fascinating about his early productions is how weirdly influential they could be to the broader range of the vampire genre. It is perfectly easy to dismiss his films as being whimsical examples of titillating surrealism, but if you actually take the time to watch them you may find that there is, in fact, a lot more going on than first meets the eye. Certainly other filmmakers have taken notice, even if just of the potent, miasmic imagery … and of the enhanced seductive qualities of the vampires, themselves.
Nobody else made films quite like Jean Rollin. And whether you love him or loathe him, it is great that these fantastical curios are now making the transition to Blu-ray to be appreciated in something of a new light now that vampires have become so tired, boring, clichéd and downright overused in every conceivable capacity. I mean his vampires don’t do what you expect them to do today, let alone back when he first unleashed them.
Wacky, bizarre and daft it may be, but there is a glimmer of brilliance to The Nude Vampire that creeps in despite the fanciful predilections of its creator, the dire performances of the cast and the concessions made to a budget that probably wouldn’t stretch to a bottle of cheap French wine nowadays.