This dreamlike quality – urgent, impossible to paraphrase – found its most exquisite expression in ‘Requiem for a Vampire’ (1971) now re-issued on the Redemption label. The plot is the stuff of adult fairytale. Two girls (Marie Pierre Castel, Mirielle D’Argent) – delightfully but inexplicably dressed as clowns – are fleeing armed pursuers in a shoot-out cum car-chase. Abandoning their vehicle and a dead comrade, they eventually take refuge in an apparently abandoned castle, only to run into a cross-dressing un-dead wannabe (Dominique Toussaint,) a dominatrix (Louise Dhour,) some minions who say “Argh!” and, climactically, the last living vampire, who has bats clinging to the lining of his cloak. There are a few more ins and outs to allow for erotic interludes and a bit of blood-letting, but that’s largely the shape of it.
Baldly summarized, the story sounds more like the premise for a rock video than a cinematic masterpiece, but that is to reckon without Rollin, who imposes hypnotic, long-breathed rhythms upon this slight, shadowy narrative. As you watch, a series of strange, private moments blossom in front of the camera, all the more pungent because of the vast loneliness that surrounds the hunted girls as they plod on foot or putter on motorbike towards their fate. (A loneliness deepened by silence in a virtually dialogue-free first act.)
The celluloid crackles with sensuous surfaces – the wind blowing through the long, tussocky grass of an old cemetery, the glittery fabric of the clown costumes, the hard, flinty stones of the abandoned castle where they sojourn, and above all the ebbing and flowing of tension in the girls’ faces, with their wide eyes that are more animal than human. Rollin was a filmmaker who worked by instinct and inspiration, and here he finds magic more or less wherever he points his camera.
It all feels so fresh, light, transparent, and yet a fog of impenetrability hangs around the characters, especially the human ones. When asked who they are, the story the girls blurt out about killing a man at a New Year’s party where they were performing as clowns leaves no one much the wiser. We learn a little more about the vampire and his acolytes.
He is trying to initiate his followers into the un-dead state, but his dwindling powers make this a slow, gradual process and his coven is a marginalized and embattled. There are parallels between captors and captives. The girls live in an eternal present, the vampire in an eternal past. No one in the film seems to have a future.
This evocation of a lingering, posthumous existence, an existence where the past is more tangible than the present, permeates Rollin’s work and perhaps accounts for his enduring love of vampire stories. (That, and of course the endless opportunities they afforded him to have pretty girls bursting out of their negligees.) He offers no horror in the ordinary meaning of the word, just sadness, wonder, lyrical eroticism and a nebulous sense of doom.
Those immune to the appeal of Rollin’s haunted universe will find much to quibble with here. They’ll point out that the last vampire’s costume looks as if it came off the peg at the local fancy dress shop and that those bats hanging from the vaults of his crypt are fruit bats, not vampire bats. All this is true.
But for lovers of Rollin, these shortcomings only add to the charm of his cinematic world as he fashions something deeply personal and unique from the makeshift and second-hand. On the whole, you get the feeling that if he’d been given ten times the budget he would have made exactly the same film, just with better bats.
One minor complaint about this DVD re-issue is that it dispenses with a dungeon orgy added by Rollin at the urging of his producer. You might well ask whether a film that already has several sex scenes and some nude flagellation really needs an orgy as well, but these particular writhings are accompanied by a stunning passage of psychedelic organ music, so they’ll be missed on that score. Otherwise, this release from Redemption offers a beautiful transfer of Rollin’s finest dream.