We’re stuck in the land of dreamy, seventies soft-core vampire erotica and, for some, it will be a surreal journey into nostalgic titillation, but for others, it may well prove to be a tediously wrought, emotionally threadbare and frustratingly horror-light experience that they will never want to repeat.
It’s 1979’s Fascination from Gallic fantasist, Jean Rollin. There’s no middle ground with this guy. It’s love him, or loathe him.
Although Jean Rollin has his share of admirers, it has always seemed to me that he has courted the vitriol of yet far more. Most genre-fans that I grew up with, and most critics that I read in those wonderfully wayward years of my film-corrupted youth all seemed to agree that his films were, by and large, utter rubbish. Ultra low-budgets and banal, nonsensical plots were bolstered by languid sensuality, pretentious art-house imagery, and often ill-fitting sex scenes. But fully-fledged Horror Films they most definitely were not. When I prowled the video libraries and car-boots sales as a teen out looking for shock, outrage and depravity (of the celluloid sort, you understand), films like Lips Of Blood, The Iron Rose, The Nude Vampire andShiver Of The Vampire would occasionally surface with lurid, often foreign-worded covers and I would fall for their hormone-ensnaring combination of apparent sex and bloodletting all too often. But the resulting movies, despite the presence of copious and beautiful breasts and plentiful scenes of tastefully shot lesbian writhing would leave me utterly unsatisfied in terms of gore, thrill or sensation.
Part of the problem with Rollin’s impact upon a field that took in Hammer and Amicus, George Romero and Dario Argento, the advent of the Video Nasty and the more upmarket and legitimate offerings like The Omen, Alien and Poltergeist, not to mention classy throwbacks such as John Badham’s lavish retelling of Dracula and Dan Curtis’ exciting TV movie of the Count’s exploits, starring Jack Palance, or even the sassy LA equivalent of Count Yorga, Vampire was that he lacked the same visceral bite, or the ability to generate genuine thrills or chills, or any cogent sense of suspense. Thus, when marketed as “vampire films” which was the hallmark of his oeuvre, his productions would, invariably, come up short because they just weren’t what people wanted. They had none of the spark, the wit, or the performances and the sheer “punch” that was being delivered by the horror and action/exploitation movies of the times … and these were the things that lined the shelves of those often seedy corner-shop enclaves that, during this crucial era, acted as better doorways to another dimension of sight and sound than anything Rod Serling could have summoned. Thus, appealing to the ever-demanding horror devotee was a terrible blunder that Rollin’s films continually seemed to make, and it was often a case “once bitten, twice shy” when it came to the punters. Rollin’s name became synonymous with tacky, faux-arty-farty dalliances with sex and death. They were adolescent fairytales that swooned with nude ladies pouting and sighing amid castles and ruins, playing with the concept of the supernatural but actually providing little or no fantastical excuse.
They seemed terribly amateur. And there was something else that made them easily dismissible by us in those days … they were French.
Whereas the Italians were exploding the hearts and minds of the ghoulish with devilishly regular aplomb, courtesy of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Joe D’Amato, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi amongst many others, French Cinema of the fantastique was regarded as a critical paradise by the intelligentsia, but nothing more than a wasteland to any true horror-fan. So, I guess that we really should have been a helluva lot more charitable to Rollin for, at least, dipping his toes in the bloody pool and seeing what bobbed-up to the surface.
After a tentative culture-shock of experimentation with 1968’s incendiary Rape of The Vampire, he found his niche for trippy, bloodstained erotica, and never really left its cosseted confines afterwards.
His series of overtly erotic fantasies was actually quite a comprehensive study of sex-whipped macabre and, barring an ill-conceived and shamefully laughable attempt to nudge his way into the trend for flesh-eating dead-heads with 1981’s exceedingly poor Zombies Lake (which did, at least, manage to provide that geek-fetish of Nazis from beyond the grave, though sadly little else in a bewilderingly boring potboiler) and 1982’s much better The Living Dead Girl, pretty much all-inclusive. Though the decadent, blood-licking bourgeoisie who populated his gothic tales were as far removed from traditional vampires as could be, he seemed to be endlessly enraptured with the trappings that surrounded their more infamous cousins in literature and gothic film, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla through the misty vapours of Universal’s backlot to the resplendent theatrics of Hammer’s heaving, blood-spattered cleavages. Yet in Rollin’s hands, the very notion of vampirism was merely an avenue through which to explore the conceits, glories and cataclysmic beauty of death, itself. That he found the gateway to this dark and miasmic dimension through the image of lusty, naked young ladies is something that should be admired rather than shunned.
Essentially, you need to appreciate the atmosphere and stimulating imagery he evokes far more than any plot element. His films tend to be mere excuses to bewitch and deflower via smoke and mirrors, and his frequent penchant for castles, graveyards, desolate beaches, clowns, wine and candles is usually a nice little brand motif. But Fascination breaks the mould to tell a far more deliberate story, with a steadier pace, far fewer splashes of the needlessly avant-garde and, for a kick-off, none of the sandy coves and chilly-looking surf that add a bracing outdoor zest to many of his productions.
In a typical nod to the tropes of European folklore, a stranger finds himself at the threshold of a mysterious mansion which, of course, serenades the multiple shades of the Brothers Grimm, Bram Stoker, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast, and that unsung gem of surrealism, Harry Kumel’s Malpertuis. He is Marc (Jean-Marie Lamaire), and he is on the run. Having just swindled a group of fellow, gypsy-like ne’er-do-wells out of a leather satchel full of gold pieces – proving that there’s no honour amongst thieves - this debonair, defiantly Aryan cock-of-the-walk decides that this would make a good sanctuary until the heat dies down. When he enters the opulent chateau, he finds two sexy chambermaids whom he attempts to assert some control over, intending to have some fun until nightfall supplies him with a potential getaway from the gang who are lying-in-wait outside. But, even though he is armed with a gun and a mercenary attitude, Marc soon begins to feel as though it is he who is being subjugated by the dangerously alluring couple, who taunt and mock him provocatively. They claim that they are the first members of the staff to come back to the chateau after a spell away, and that they are awaiting the Marchioness and the rest of the servants, who will be returning soon. But, before then, his old chums put the pressure on and what tentative allegiances have been forged with the two women are put to the test … with sex, treachery and death doled-out in equal measure.
And when the alleged Marchioness, Helene (Fanny Magier), does eventually arrive, she brings with her some companions who are revealed to be prized guests with somewhat bizarre pleasures and a rather sinister variation on a dinner-party seems to be on the cards. And, if hadn’t already guessed, Marc learns that he may well have picked the wrong place to hole-up. It’s going to be a long night.
Starring French porn star Brigitte Lahie, who has since become something of an icon for pseudo-arty Eurotrash, and Franka Mai as the central lesbianic fiends Eva and Elisabeth, Fascination is actually a rather naïve attempt to address the subject of vampirism in a whole new way. Rollin approaches the theme from a completely oblique angle, which isn’t unusual for him anyway, using the desire for blood not as a metaphor for supernaturally empowered sexual politics or inherent predatory motivation, as the majority of both classical and neo vampire tales do, but viewing it as an obsession that can be fostered by means other than falling prey to a creature of the night. Here, the desire for blood is attributed to the quirky vogue that was something of a noble rage at the turn of the 19th Century. Ladies of aristocratic breeding were being informed that imbibing of the life-juice was a good cure for anaemia. Some of them, however, took to this trend with considerably more gusto than others … and went looking further afield than the local abattoir’s stock of ox-blood to get their fix. Rollin’s curio has an underground movement of the nouveau riche forming a clandestine cult of gore-guzzlers. They are not vampires, you have to understand … they just love the taste of blood. And they definitely enjoy taking it by force, although they will probably still be quite polite about it.
There are a few slayings in the film, and several of these are done with a wicked scythe from the barn. But don’t go expecting lots of claret to be sprayed all over the place as it is viciously swung around – these are decorative offings and not at all gratuitous. The one extended act of violence occurs when a mid-coital killing is committed with an all-too-obviously retractable blade thrust into a belly. Rollin would film scenes of carnage throughout his canon, but these acts were not the reason d’être of the enterprise, unlike his Italian or American contemporaries who positively thrived on spreading the grue. When someone dies in one of his movies, they do so in almost orgasmic ecstasy. It is slow, operatic and frame-indulgently amateurish with expressionistic longeurs that many po-faced viewers could possibly empathise with, themselves.
Rollin is often lumped-in with the likes of the Spaniard Jess Franco who is, undoubtedly, another slapdash purveyor of flesh and blood but also someone who has considerably more fun making bottom-of-the-barrel movies from hell. Whereas Franco has limited artistic aspirations and is, on some levels, more entertaining because of this – see 1971’s Vampyros Lesbos, for example - Rollin clearly has thematic ambition beyond the desire to simply ladle excess at his audience ... though this can act against his erotic adventures by making his imagery in-between the bouts of breast-baring appear more risible and pretentious than he probably thinks he is being. He isn’t in the market to make full-on grindhouse vampire flicks, preferring to cast an eerie and provocative spell over the proceedings and to tantalise his audience with visions that owe more to visual poetry than to pumping sex ‘n’ death. How successful he is at this rather depends upon how much you can avoid being swept up by the sight of dazzling and voluptuous vixens stroking each other at the expense of seeing anything else he stages for the screen. Many people just wish he’d cut to the next saucy bit, ignoring the eloquence he is attempting to create with his ribald mood-piece tableaus.
But in this regard, Fascination breaks away from his usual giddy path to play things in a pretty linear fashion. There isn’t a great deal of story going on here, but at least there is a story. We aren’t going to believe that Elisabeth, embittered with Eva for seducing Marc, has actually fallen in love with the intruder one iota, but there is a definite momentum, albeit a painfully slow one, to the misbegotten rogue’s predicament as he falls under her spell. The dialogue is often arch and comical, full of cod ominous portent. But even if the performances aren’t as bad as in other Rollin films, they are still carved out of antique wood. Marc's former gang are especially terrible. The ladies are all breathtakingly gorgeous though, especially the dirk-wielding country-lass turned bandit, and the air of a production that may well have snuck into a rural mansion-house whilst the owners are away for the weekend is pungent and enticing. Sticking a pair of highbrows on, you could even argue that his story, which is loosely inspired by Jean Lorrain’s Symbolist short story Un Verre de sang, is an accusatory stabbing at the heart of aristocratic decadence, a sort of Roman holdover of orgiastic indulgence that uses the local peasantry as nothing more than disposable fodder. Well, you could … but you’d probably be giving Rollin rather too much credit.
Fascination has some wonderful imagery to commend it. A body drifting in a rowing-boat in the moonlit moat that surrounds the chateau. Naked bodies rolling together in the dreamy light from an open fire. A not-so-vulnerable kidnap victim exposing and caressing her breasts to appease her pistol-packing captor. And, of course, there is the undeniably awesome image of Lahie’s scythe-wielding Eva advancing across the wonderfully narrow bridge towards her intended target … and directly towards us. And the subsequent execution committed with her left breast symbolically exposed like some prosaic and operatic vamp from the underworld. Move over Death, here’s Brigitte … and if you don’t mind me saying so, she makes the proposition of stepping over into the afterlife far more appealing.
Basically, it is impossible to fully recommend Kino/Redemption’s BD of Fascination, nor any of Rollin’s horror movies for that matter, to anyone other than devoted fans. The tone is whimsical and slight, often with the technical expertise of a college home-video, the outrage is slowly perpetrated and surprisingly tame, and the atmosphere created is never one that actually reaches out to embrace you with the requisite shivers that such a gothic-shock premise would lead you to expect. I doubt that newcomers, weaned more on Blade, Underworld or, God help us, the Twilight saga will find much of worth, but there is still the chance that someone out there will be pleased to discover some of the soporific magic that Rollin was able, possibly by accident, to bring to his flesh and blood show. Tony Scott was certainly influenced by his woozy, surreal style and sensual underpinnings when he helmed the slow and moody vampirical observation, The Hunger. And Grace Jones’ 80’s MTV-claret-sprayer, Vamp, also nods to Rollin.
Fascination is probably the most accessible, yet still appreciably out there introduction to Jean Rollin’s “vampiricon”. His 1978 The Grapes Of Death may well be his most coherent and conventional film, however, and even if that title is not yet mooted for a release on Blu-ray, it may be best seeking out a DVD of it just to make certain. But Fascination is certainly worth a look if you don’t mind your horrors restrained and sultry.
If I’m totally honest, this sort of thing was done much better by Jose Ramon Larraz with the great Vampyres (1975), Harry Kumel’s Daughters Of Darkness (1971), and even the notorious trio of garish Hammer romps, The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire and Twins Of Evil, all of which broached the same enigmatic and beguiling subject matter. But it is also unfair to compare his work to these other offerings because Jean Rollin is after a different effect. He wanted to put erotic dreams on the screen, and found that he had to wrap such things, however tenuously, around a plotline, whilst the makers of those other examples had stories in mind, first and foremost, and just wanted, or needed to spice things up with copious nudity and bloodletting. Sexy female vampirism isn’t exactly a hard-sell when it comes to movies, and you can be tacky, teasing or arty with it. Somewhere in the middle of this dangerously sensuous limbo, you’ll find Jean Rollin.
Like the sanguinary cuisine that the story is based around, Fascination appeals only to those who possess certain, ahem, taste
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