A French filmmaker of experimental but tasteful sleaze, Jean Rollin made his directorial debut with 'The Rape of the Vampire,' a micro-budgeted movie which originally began as a short for another similarly-themed feature. It shows many of the gaffes and missteps of an amateur production, from the stilted performances to the unintentionally hilarious dialogue. But this shouldn't come as much of a surprise since a majority of the crew, including the actors, had never worked on a movie before. And in spite of the several glaring faults, 'Rape' still makes for an intriguing watch — a bit out of curiosity's sake, another for understanding the controversy it ignited when it originally premiered, but mostly to witness the beginning of a filmmaker who had yet to reach his stride.
Objectively, there's little to appreciate in the film and can be easily dismissed as a confusing mess of melodrama. Seen from an understanding of Rollin's history, 'The Rape of the Vampire' is an important entry in his canon, displaying many of the themes he would later explore and perfect in future projects. Already coming from some experience as a director of short films, Rollin tries to work within a typical narrative structure, something which he ends up abandoning or minimizing in several of his later films. It's a bizarre fantasy fable told in two parts, the second half being the longer of the two, about a psychoanalyst and his two friends (Bernard Letrou, Solange Pradle and Marquis Polho) visiting a dilapidated château where four sisters live and believe they are vampires.
As the story progresses, filled with a variety of corny clichés which apparently have the trio questioning the possible existence of the undead, it becomes clear Rollin struggles to maintain coherence and logic as his desire to be more visually expressive takes greater demand. There are many curiously illusory images that often seem unconnected but manage to make the film all the more fascinating. We can see the director developing his craft, touching on themes about vampires as lonely souls, and hinting at a style that would become uniquely his. By the end of the first part, Rollin is also able to have us start questioning the four sisters as sad delusional women in need of treatment but turned into outcasts by the nearby village. And he does this beter through the visuals than in the dialogue.
Part two, subtitled "Queen of the Vampires," explores another of Rollin's ideas, one of a secret underground society of vampires. The group is led by a vampire queen (Jacqueline Sieger) with an agenda that's humorously never explained. As in part one, Rollin attempts at a coherent narrative involving the three friends from the first half learning more about the bloodsuckers, but it sadly falls apart and turns into somewhat of a distraction from where Rollin real talents lies. And again, we see the director's interest in erotic horror fantasy as the vampires reveal their thirst for blood equals their lust for physical satisfaction. It's not quite as graphic and explicit as in his other films, but the makings of his artful approach to the genre are fairly clear. They're also not meant as insightful images like typical art; they are simply pretty and fascinating to look at.
Similarly interesting in the second half of 'Rape' is Rollin sharing his love of classic American movie serials. In the friends' dealings with the vampire queen, the story carries a strange sense of mystery and adventure, with car chases, secret experiments, a fight of good versus evil and the villain's strive for world domination. The narrative, too, generally feels episodic as the good guys win one small part and the bad guys win another, going back and forth until the very end. Of course, this is all disguised beneath a collection of odd gothic imagery mixed with pop art enthusiasm and avant-garde cinema. 'The Rape of the Vampire' ultimately shows the makings, however amateurish it may appear, of a filmmaker who improves with time, especially when he comes to the realization that he doesn't really need a set-in-stone script to be wildly interesting. Experimentation is really his forte.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Rape of the Vampire' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo and music.
The package also includes a glossy 16-page booklet with a lengthy essay on the films of Jean Rollin by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog entitled "The Bizarre Melodrama of Jean Rollin" with a variety of photos.
Jean Rollin's directorial debut makes its way to Blu-ray with a great-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, mastered from the original 35mm negative. Considering its micro-budget origins and age, the film appears to be in excellent shape and condition, displaying a picture that's consistent and stable throughout with a thin layer of grain. Admittedly, definition and resolution can waver somewhat, but it's nothing too distract and originating from the source. The 1.66:1 image shows excellent fine object details and textures in clothing, hair and the surrounding architecture. Contrast and brightness is very well-balanced with lots inky rich blacks in the background and strong visibility of background information within the shadows. On the negative side, dirt and white specks are ever present while banding in certain scenes tends to distract.
Kino Lorber releases this bizarre vampire tale with an uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack that generally satisfies but is mostly riddled with a variety of issues. As is the usual case, the biggest issue is with the constant hissing in the background, which becomes a predominately nagging presence during the windy beach scenes. Although vocals are clear and audible at all times, the voices of actors have a distracting raspy quality, and the ADR work seems to create lip-sync issues. This problem extends to the experimental jazz music of Yvon Garault, exposing a great deal of crackling and clipping in the upper frequencies. Despite exhibiting a decently detailed clarity in the instrumentation, the mid-range is noticeably flat and severely strained. The lossless mix has some mild bass to it, but it's mostly anemic as well.
The package from Kino Lorber doesn't quite compare to the two-disc limited edition from Encore, but it's still a nice and welcomed set of upscaled featurettes.
Jean Rollin made his directorial debut with 'The Rape of the Vampire,' an oddly structured film about a secret society of vampires. The low-budget, very amateurish feature is not one of the better films from Rollin, but it can be appreciated as the early form towards his signature style of lyrical gothic imagery mixed with avant-garde pop-art and classic American serials. The Blu-ray comes with very good picture quality considering the production's history, yet the audio fails to impress much. Kino Lorber provides a healthy collection of supplements, making this Blu-ray package very enticing for fans.