Jean Rollin is a director that elicits very strong opinions on either side of the Love-Hate continuum. I make no secret of my Rollin superfandom–his films have a painterly quality that I think is just gorgeous to watch, and the low budgets and lack of narrative sense don’t bother me in that context. The development of his personal visual vocabulary since 1968’s “Rape of the Vampire” has balanced consistency of vision with a willingness to explore and expand upon themes of tragic love, isolation, sexual fluidity and the supernatural. It’s difficult for me to dub Rollin’s work as “horror cinema,” as the horror elements seem to me to be a conduit for him to explore larger issues within the context of a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, personal landscape.
So, why select 2002’s “Fiancée of Dracula” as my inaugural Rollin movie review post? Well, there are a couple of reasons–Number The First, I feel the need to prove that I do, in fact, watch movies made after 1972, and Number The Second, I admire the fact that Rollin is still producing fascinating films this late in his career (unlike, say… Dario Argento).
“Fiancée of Dracula” traces the story of a beautiful and mysterious woman who is being held captive (or is she…?) by an order of nuns who are slowly being driven mad by her proximity. Isabelle (played by alternately languid and mad-eyed beauty Cyrille Iste) has a psychic connection to Dracula, and his shadowy minions are conspiring to free her so she can become his bride. Simultaneously, an elderly hypnotist and his brash young assistant are attempting to track down these supernatural creatures, referred to as “Parallels,” and free Isabelle from her fate.
These Parallels include the dwarf Thibault, his lover the Vampire Woman, a creepy old couple, and the Ogress. The character of the Ogress is particularly poignant–by day, she is a madwoman, dancing carelessly at the foot of a crumbling tower. By night, however, she slinks around in a black nightgown and EATS BABIES. That’s right internet–hott Eurobabe baby-eating action. She just might be my ideal woman. *sigh* But yes–onto the poignancy aspect… All of the supernatural creatures in this film appear in a weakened state.
The dwarf is physically disadvantaged, the Ogress relies on others to bring her food as she slowly starves in a cave, and the Vampire Woman is portrayed not as a sentient creature, but as a beautiful sleepwalking corpse, driven by her unnatural thirsts and heedless to the dangers of sunlight.
Rollin veteran and all-around Eurotrash royalty Brigitte Lahaie appears as an elegant She-Wolf, summoned as a Master of Ceremonies for a ritual human sacrifice. I’m telling you, this lady is what Tracy Lords should have been–a former porn starlet who has parlayed a career in off-beat roles where she appears classy, mysterious and sensual. Brigitte, the Tenebrous Empire loves ya.
The madness of the nuns who are holding Isabelle captive is portrayed in an interesting, highly symbolic fashion. There are smoking nuns, a spastic nun with a stick-and-ball toy, and even a gypsy bellydancing nun! It’s noteworthy that these are images are a nod to the artwork of Clovis Trouille , and in fact, two of his paintings appear in the film. “Reve Claustral” is prominently displayed in the townhouse where the nuns live, and this painting (the name of which I’ll track down at some later date when I’m feelin’ Researchey) is given its own close-up.
Rollin’s signature imagery is present throughout, with the grandfather clock appearing on the Dieppe beach during the climactic scene. This type of self-reference might be cringe-worthy in the hands of a less personally-motivated director, but here it feels as if it’s linking this piece to Rollin’s existing body of work.
There are so many unexpected moments of beauty and magic in this movie that I could screen-cap and blather for much, much longer. The overall effect of watching this film is of nostalgia for a supernatural past that never existed but is slowly dissolving. It’s tragic to watch the fading monsters and know that the present day world is just outside of the universe of this film, threatening to erase this strange land.