It hardly needs to be pointed out that the DVD revolution has been a boon for fans of European horror. Where once we had to make do with grainy bootleg VHS copies of the works of Argento, Fulci and Bava, now we can pick up beautifully transferred copies of pristine prints of uncut versions. Life is good. What has also followed is a massive increase in the availability of films by the less commercially successful, more niche-oriented directors – I’m thinking particularly of Jess Franco here. Franco, through sheer volume of work alone, retains the crown of king of erotic horror. But he does have a serious competitor, whose films are finally becoming easily available on disc. I refer here to Jean Rollin.
Like Franco, Rollin operates on a shoestring budget, and has moved back and forth between relatively mainstream exploitation (to coin an oxymoron) and outright porn. There are even instances where who directed what film can be confusing (as in Virgin Among the Living Dead, where Franco’s original film was reworked later with zombie footage shot by Rollin). The peak of Rollin’s creativity was the 1970s, which saw the release of his erotic vampire films (Lèvres de sang, La vampire nue, Requiem pour un vampire and so on). His films are characterized by striking pictorial beauty, economical but nonetheless effective surrealism, and rather perfunctory (at times, it would seem, improvised) plots and dialogue. One of his best, 1979’s Fascination, was released by Redemption at the end of October.
Fascination is not, strictly speaking, a vampire tale, at least not in the supernatural sense. But there is plenty of blood being drunk all the same. Set in 1905, it tells the tale of Jean-Marie Lemaire, a rather dapper thief (but not a gentleman thief – social class is very precise and very important in this film) who flees his confederates and takes refuge in an apparently deserted castle. There he meets two women (Brigitte Lahaie – here moving from porn into legit roles – and Franca Mai). He thinks they’re at his mercy. In fact, he’s at theirs. They are members of a group of bourgeois women who gather at the castle to drink the blood of a sacrificial male.
The film is an exercise in striking beauty and fetishist detail. The opening shots are of a woman’s elegantly-sleeved hand caressing the pages of an ancient tome. We then cut to the eye-popping image of a well-dressed bourgeoise standing calmly in the middle of a slaughterhouse floor. It is here that the film’s driving theme of gender reversal begins: the women are brought here by men who believe themselves to be in authority, the goal being a prescribed anti-anemia treatment of bull’s blood. But the women clearly perceive the situation to be something completely different. Over and over again, male characters are doomed by their cockiness and their presumption of power. When Lahaie is marched off to a barn by the gang of thieves, the hero thinks she’s doomed. In fact, the gang is, and this scene leads to one of the most striking moments in European horror: Lahaie’s emergence from the barn clad only in boots and dark cloak, and wielding a scythe. Has there ever been a more literal fusion of sex and death on screen?
The tensions in the film are also fascinating. The conflict is explicitly presented in terms of gender (as already noted), and along class lines. So Lemaire is both the dominant male in a patriarchal society confronting women and contemptuously assuming them to be beneath him, and a member of the excluded class going up against the bourgeoisie, and here he feels inferiority and resentment. The women are then both the oppressed rising up and the dominant class literally sucking the life out of lower classes. Working out that contradictory dialectic is a, dare I say it, fascinating exercise in itself, and one that the film very openly invites.
A treat for the senses and for the imagination, Fascination is thus a lesson in just how much can be done with very little.