In the pantheon of horror directors, there are those whose names only become known to a relatively small yet fervent cult of followers. There are also those whose work transcends the narrow category in which it would seem to have been relegated--it becomes much more than that, especially to those in the aforementioned group. Jean Rollin was one of these. Controversial, possibly misunderstood, yet always intriguing; he and his work have long fascinated fans of exploitation horror. Yet now, it is only his work that remains, as Jean Rollin himself passed away Wednesday at the age 0f 72, after a long illness.
I first came across his work the way I think many fans did, via the bizarre yet beautiful 1978 zombie flick The Grapes of Death--known in his native France as Les Raisins de la Mort. Unusual, beguiling, and rightfully described by many as dreamlike, it remains in my opinion one of the all-time underrated horror films. There is much of Argento in it, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is some Rollin in much of Argento's work. I will not endeavor here to put him in the same category as the Italian master of the giallo, but he certainly deserves a lot more credit than he really got.
Of course, much of the Rollin stigma derived from the subgenre of what some might call "Euro-sleaze" that he spent much of his career working in. Softcore (and in some cases, even hardcore) pornography, mixed with horror, is certainly not everyone's cup of tea--especially amongst the mainstream movie-going public (at least in what they'd comfortably admit). Rollin was not always picky with what he worked on, only that he kept working. But we can forget titles like Sodomania or Anal Madness (although that's undeniably a hard title to forget), thanks to memorable films like Fascination (1979), Demoniacs (1973), Lips of Blood (1974), and of course, Living Dead Girl (1982).
"Euro-sleaze" though much of it may be, one cannot deny that it transcends such a limiting stigma. There is true eroticism to his work, mixed with creeping terror, and he achieves a somnambulistic sublimity on occasion that even the most jaded critic would have to acknowledge. While he may not have been among the giants of horror cinema, it is also not hard to understand why his work has accumulated such a loyal following. You will simply not find films like Grapes of Death being made today, and that is a real shame.
Rollin was passionate about film, looking for any way into the business, even going back to his teenage years in France during the 1950s. By age 15, he was writing screenplays, and by 16 he had already taken his first job doing menial work for a local studio. This led him eventually to directing--first documentaries and industrial films, and finally telling the stories he wanted to tell.
He began his sojourn into horror in 1968 with The Rape of the Vampire, already setting the tone for the rest of his career, blending sexuality and the macabre with aplomb. And yes, as the years wore on, he began to take on more questionable projects, veering beyond the erotic and into the pornographic, which he admitted arose sheerly out of the need to keep working. And so work he did, and he can hardly be faulted for that. The man continued making movies right through the 1990s, and was in the midst of a comeback as of late that include The Night of the Clocks (2007) and the forthcoming Mask of Medusa.
We've lost one of the most interesting figures in the history of European horror this week. I will always identify him with The Grapes of Death first and foremost, as I think many American fans might--and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it to honor the memory of Jean Rollin by checking it out. It really is one of the most unique films in the entire zombie subgenre, and will give you a greater understanding of the man whose work must now live on in his place.
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