The first feature film made by the late Jean Rollin was 1968's The Rape Of The Vampire, a bizarre black and white 'melodrama in two parts' (according to the on screen text that appears at the beginning of the movie - and it does have two distinct parts) that was originally intended to be nothing more than a collection of additional footage that producer Sam Selsky (credited on screen as $am $elsky) intended to splice into a film he had acquired entitled Vampire, Spawn Of The Devil. This was basically just the French dubbed version of 1943's Dead Men Walk, which starred George Zucco which was too short to hit the requisite ninety minute feature length running time Selsky knew would be required to get anything out of this picture at the French box office. Rollin was employed as an editor at the time and accepted Selsky's offer to pad out the American film, but this project soon took on a life of its own as it became increasingly bizarre and ultimately fairly surreal. When Selsky saw what Rollin had done, he was intrigued with what the first time feature director had turned in on such a low budget and he decided to give him the freedom to extend his thirty minutes of footage into an hour and a half long feature film independent of Vampire, Spawn Of The Devil - and thus was born The Rape Of The Vampire.
Why the history lesson? Well, knowing how the film came to be makes it a little easier to forgive its flaws and to appreciate its oddly disjointed narrative and bizarre atmosphere. Despite the fact that this was Rollin's first feature, it's got loads of ambience and tone, but the storyline is more than just a little bit surreal. The first part of the film follows a psychiatrist named Thomas (Bernard Letr) who heads out into rural France with two fellow doctors to investigate the claims of a quartet of beautiful women who reside out there who insist that they are centuries old vampires spawned by rape in the time of Louis XV. These four women, who are able to wander around in the sunlight unharmed but who do drink human blood, are at the beck and call of a man they refer to as the Lord of the Manor (Doc Moyle) and they worship a pagan statue placed oddly in the middle of a field. Shortly after Thomas and his companions arrive, a crowd of armed villagers decide to get rid of the four women and launch a small scale war against them, pinning them down inside their castle. Thomas figures they only way he can help make it out this situation alive is to have one of the women turn him into one of their own and after she obliges, they head to a familiar rocky beach for the showdown.
The second part of the film picks up where the first part left off with the arrival of the sexy and exotic Vampire Queen (Jacqueline Sieger) arriving in time to witness the aftermath, finding the four women she was looking for dead. Disheartened, she decides to force a doctor (Jean-Loup Philippe) to help her find a cure for vampirism while the dead are brought back to life and mad science runs amuck which all leads to a strange and macabre wedding inside Paris' infamous Theatre du Grand Guignol.
So when you consider that the film was shot in two parts, with the first part finished without much regard to any sort of follow up, you can understand why the second part of the movie makes due without the characters from the initial storyline. This doesn't mean that the second part will make any more sense, because it won't, but it does at least partially explain the environment which birthed this beautiful disaster of a film. Even when the film is making little to no sense, Rollin's expert command of imagery runs rampant throughout the film ensuring that the visuals do indeed go a long way towards making up for the improvised and very surreal storyline. Even when the narrative is going in a few different directions at once and never really finalizing any of them, we're treated to shot after shot of stark black and white imagery that really suits what little story there is. Gorgeous shots of run down cemeteries, strange laboratories, beautiful women and eerie settings are all wonderfully framed and lit and help to pull us in to this fever dream of a movie. Periodically pretentious and almost always disjointed, The Rape Of The Vampire isn't a 'good' movie as far as storytelling goes but it is a beautiful looking film that undoubtedly charts the course on which Rollin would travel in almost all of the pictures he made later on in his career. As frequently silly as it all is, you can't help but get pulled in...The Blu-ray:
The Rape Of The Vampire looks excellent on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Presented in 1.66.1 widescreen and mastered from the original 35mm negative, there are some minor specks here and there but no seriously distracting print damage. As seems to be the norm with these Kino releases of Redemption titles, there hasn't been a ton of cleanup work here so expect to see very minor print damage throughout, mainly just specks here and there. The elements used were obviously in great shape, however, and the healthy bit rate ensures that this movie looks excellent in high definition. The contrast looks very strong here, despite a few spots where the original photography lets the whites get a bit hot, while black levels are strong throughout. Detail is vastly improved from previous standard definition presentations as is texture and skin tones - the image is consistently sharp and shows good shadow detail in the darker scenes. All in all, this oddball little low budget oddity looks excellent on Blu-ray - Rollin's fans should be suitably impressed.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is a French language LPCM 2.0 Mono track with optional subtitles provided in English only. This track would seem to be about as good as it's going to get, as parts of the movie were obviously dubbed in post and the movie was made on quite a low budget. There's a little bit of hiss here and there but it's not all that distracting unless you're overly susceptible to such things. The dialogue is generally pretty clean and clear and there are no issues with the levels, which are properly balanced throughout. The score sounds quite good, it's a very effective piece of work and enhances the film a lot, and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.Extras:
The extras start off with a great documentary entitled Fragments Of Pavement Under The Sand which is basically comprised of interviews with the late Jean Rollin as well as with Jean-Denis Bonan and Jean-Pierre Bouyxou. More than just a retrospective look back at the director's debut feature, this also gives us some insight into what the French film market was like at the time, specifically the market for horror films. Of course, the documentary also covers how the film came to be and how it was originally intended to pad out a film that producer was importing and wanted more footage for, but additionally we learn about the director's intentions with the picture and what it was like to be involved with the film. This is a very well put together piece and quite a valuable addition to the disc. It runs almost twenty-four minutes in length and is presented in HD. This is complimented nicely by two standard definition interviews carried over from the European Encore Filmed Entertainment DVD release from a few years ago, the first of which is a four and a half minute interview with Rollin who talks about films that influenced him as well as his obsession with vampire, the second of which is a nine minute piece with Jean-Loup Philippe who talks about his experiences working with Rollin as an actor in a few of his films.
Also included on this disc is Jean Rollin's very first short film, Les Amoures Jeunes, which clocks in at just over ten minutes in French with English subtitles and is presented in a decent if slightly beaten AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p high definition transfer. The film takes place on the very same beach that appears in the feature and which Rollin returned to so often throughout his filmography. Shot in 1958, this one is pretty odd but it sure looks fantastic from a technical perspective with so much emphasis put on capturing the natural beauty of the area. Sadly, there's no Rollin commentary provided for this short, which is a shame as it would have been nice to hear his thoughts and memories on this first project of his. Also included is a second short, Les Pays Loins, which runs just under sixteen-minutes in length and was directed by Rollin way back when in 1965. It's also presented here in a black and white 1.78.1 AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen transfer and it tells the story of a man and a woman who find themselves in an alternate world. No one speaks their language, and they're obviously scared, wondering how they got here and how to get away. It isn't difficult to pick out some of the 'Rollin touches' in the movie such as the decaying architecture, the gothic churches, and the strange sexual inferences, as you definitely get that sense of emptiness and that other worldly look that has made his work so fascinating for so many of us. Watch for a truly odd scene with a band of black musicians about half way through - it seems out of place but then again, maybe it's supposed to. The film is also presented in its original French language with English subtitles.
Rounding out the extras for the feature are a two minute alternate scene (a more subdued version of what happens in the operating room), a trailer for the feature and trailers for the other Rollin films that Kino/Redemption have offered up on Blu-ray so far - all in high definition. Rollin himself provides a quick three minute HD video introduction for the film and inside the keepcase is a booklet of liner notes from Video Watchdog editor in chief Tim Lucas, which provide some welcome background information on this picture as well as for Requiem for A Vampire and The Demoniacs.
The Rape Of The Vampire is a strange movie even by the standards of Rollin's admittedly strange catalogue of work. While it's not the film he'll be remembered for it's a fascinating debut picture that definitely foreshadows what would come later in his career and it's one which established fans will definitely get more out of than those new to his work. The only black and white feature he ever shot, it's a beautiful looking picture with some great compositions and memorable set pieces and Kino's Blu-ray debut for the film is an excellent release through and through, with a great transfer and a lot of interesting supplements. Highly recommended.