The most recent Jean Rollin films to make their Blu-ray debut from Kino and Redemption Films mark a significant departure for the filmmaker. Forced by financial exigencies to eschew the timeless fairy-tale quality of his early-’70s vampire films, Rollin sets these more politically inflected (infected?) films squarely in the present day. Without entirely abandoning the atmosphere of off-kilter surrealism that dominated his earlier films, Rollin proves equally adroit at fashioning emotionally affecting and thematically resonant modern-day morality plays, films that bear comparison with the works of emerging genre visionaries like George A. Romero and David Cronenberg. With its high-rise setting and emphasis on sexualized violence, Night of the Hunted would provide an ideal double feature with Cronenberg’s Shivers, while The Grapes of Death is often compared to Night of the Living Dead, owing to its shambling hordes of pseudo-zombies, the Romero film it most closely resembles in theme and approach is in fact The Crazies.
Both films are linked at their most literal level. Each features a protagonist named Elisabeth, and taken together as a matched pair, the films provide a thoroughgoing critique of the dehumanizing and destructive forces unleashed by (post)industrial capitalism. The Grapes of Death opens with the mechanization of agrarian vineyards and prominently features that emblem of the Industrial Revolution: the locomotive. Night of the Hunted culminates by invoking the routinization of wholesale extermination during the Holocaust via cattle cars and incinerators. The creatures in these films aren’t Romero’s reanimated dead; they’re normal people slowly dying from an incurable disease, a fate that all too easily could befall any of us. The films derive their terrible poignancy from examining the ineluctable process by which their victim-killers’ humanity is progressively leached away.
All is not allegory in these films though. Rollin hasn’t lost his eye for evocative landscapes, whether the desolate boulder-strewn highlands of The Grapes of Death or the sepulchral windswept office park in Night of the Hunted, where the real-life Fiat building doubles for the “Black Tower,” a high-rise asylum for the psychically impaired. Nor has Rollin foresworn his deliberate, dreamlike pacing. Rollin’s films are without exception unhurried (those less enamored of his style might say plodding), but The Grapes of Death unreels at the slackened pace of a traumatic experience, precisely mirroring its protagonist’s journey to the end of a particularly bloodcurdling night.
Introduced aboard an uncannily deserted train carriage, Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and her friend are suddenly attacked by Kowalski (François Pascal), a laborer from a nearby vineyard who’s been exposed to a toxic experimental pesticide, which causes creeping mental and physical rot to slowly consume him. Eluding Kowalski, Elisabeth escapes on foot, Rollin spending a disproportionate amount of screen time tracking her across a fog-shrouded bridge and into barren stretches of stony outcroppings. Elisabeth’s harried flight is equally an ascent, escaping ever upwards toward what ideally should be Olympian heights of health and rectitude. Only the blight is on the vine as well as in the inhabitants, a state of affairs that works as an ironic parody of the health-hungry sanatorium patients in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
As in The Crazies, the locals, driven mad by consuming pesticide-polluted wine at the recent harvest festival, act out their most violent promptings against those nearest and dearest: An infected father impales his daughter with a pitchfork in a misguided effort to save her from contamination, while a devoted brother nails his sister to a door, then decapitates her, all the while moaning, “Lucie, I love you!” Intimations of incest abound, and it’s unnervingly unclear whether these urges are brought on by the contagion or merely let loose by it. Then, too, there are intriguing linkages between the film’s storyline and Euripides’s play The Bacchae, wherein the revels of the wine god Dionysus lead to similar tableaux of derangement and disfigurement. The Grapes of Death concludes with a finale that neatly reverses the twist ending of Night of the Living Dead, drenching survivor-turned-avenging-angel Elisabeth in a quite literal bloodbath.
The Grapes of Death is the first mainstream Rollin film to feature erstwhile porn actress Brigitte Lahaie, who had been in one of his pseudonymously directed hardcore films. Rollin would use her again the next year in Fascination, before giving her the lead role in Night of the Hunted. With her teasingly inscrutable features betraying a mix of allure and estrangement, Rollin felt that Lahaie bore more than a passing resemblance to horror icon Barbara Steele. Accordingly, Rollin felt free to indulge his cinephilia with the seemingly unmotivated moment where Lahaie appears like an apparition in a shimmering white gown accompanied by two Great Danes on a leash, which is meant to evoke the similar introduction of Steele’s character in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
Night of the Hunted opens with a nod to Robert Aldrich’s scorching pulp send-up Kiss Me Deadly as distressed damsel Elisabeth (Lahaie) darts into the middle of a dark road, waylaying the car driven by Robert (Vincent Gardère). Taking her home with him, Robert quickly discovers that Elisabeth suffers from a virulent type of short-term memory loss, a condition the film explores through exchanges of poetical, quasi-phenomenological dialogue: Immanence is all, identity merely an unstable construct. The body has its own forms of knowledge, moreover, and Elisabeth and Robert soon make love. Because Night of the Hunted was made on the budget (and instead) of a porno film, Rollin finds novel ways to integrate the handful of softcore scenes: in the first, sex is epistemology as well as carnal communication; during later scenes, communion invariably breaks down, giving way to aggression and violent death. “Body horror” here attains to new levels of philosophical sophistication despite the often awkward and downright hurried staging. Sometimes with Rollin, the viewer’s imaginative participation is required in order to fully “flesh out” scenes.
Elisabeth is eventually recaptured by sinister Dr. Francis (Bernard Papineau) and returned to the “Black Tower.” There she’s reunited with the other patients (or is that inmates?), including her friend Véronique (Dominique Journet) and former roommate (Catherine Greiner). Accidentally exposed to a radiation leak that’s slowly killing off their brain cells, these people have been rounded up and confined by the authorities so as not to alarm the general populace. Robbed of their memories, some of the patients amuse themselves by supplying others with ever-changing, fictitious backstories. Rollin plumbs the pathos of transient human relationships in the scene where Elisabeth leaves her roommate, promising to return as soon as possible. Once alone, the roommate becomes overcome with the certainty that Elisabeth in her absence will forget how to find her way back. Out of desperation, the woman decides to kill herself rather than confront solitude.
But the most strangely moving scene arrives with the film’s ambitious and ambiguous finale: Reunited at long last, Robert and Elisabeth both have been rendered shuffling, mindless automata by the blindly destructive mechanisms of modernity. The pair stumbles away from the camera in a long shot that Rollin seemingly holds forever. Traversing a thin sward of grass, a kind of viaduct that spans the busy train yards below, they seem fated to irretrievably disappear into the composition’s vanishing point. And then, as if by pure chance, their hands reach out to each other. Despite Dr. Francis’s assurance to Robert that his patients’ mental state resembles plants more than animals, just maybe an inkling of human consciousness remains.