Monday, September 20, 2010

Wendigo Meets FIANCEE OF DRACULA (2002)

Once again, Wendigo meets Dracula, and it should be a big moment, since this is the first time that Jean Rollin, the definitive director of French vampire films, has used Dracula in a movie. Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly, Dracula is probably the weakest element in a film that's otherwise wild with weirdness and really quite entertaining. With vampires, insane nuns, cannibalism and a dwarf, how could it not be?

The concept of Dracula, as we've seen it handed down from Bram Stoker to generations of filmmakers, doesn't really seem to mean anything to Rollin. He brings nothing of Dracula's accumulated mythology to his story. Instead, the blandly handsome creature in the puffy shirt who seems to live in a grandfather clock is "the Master," worshipped by the "parallel people," the strange, happy-go-lucky evil folk who are the true protagonists of the picture. Wendigo sees Rollin's Dracula as little more than a Latin Lover in gothic trappings, that little more being something like the fairy-tale Beast whom Beauty must free from a curse.

Dracula is imprisoned in the clock, or else the clock is his only portal for communicating with the world, but he can be freed if the parallels can get him married off to Isabelle, the self-styled "Queen of the Sabbath," an attractively insane young woman in the custody of the Sisters of the White Virgin, an order of nuns who find her madness contagious. Their goal is to keep Dracula permanently imprisoned by keeping Isabelle confined in the convent. Presumably sharing their objective are a pair of, shall we say, parallel hunters, The Professor (a modestly imposing old dude) and Eric (a dolt with a Boltonesque shock of hair). We meet them as they watch the dwarf Thibaut,in his jester's uniform, summon the love of his life, "the Vampire Woman," from her tomb to drink some of his blood. Our hunters later interrogate a local madwoman, little suspecting that by night she is "the Ogress," a buxom baby-eating bitch. Dwarf, vampire and ogress are parallels dedicated to getting Isabelle out of the convent and out of the mad nuns' clutches. They're abetted by a couple of elderly witches who try to convince the nuns that Isabelle is their daughter. She may be for all we know.

"Are we there yet?" The Professor and Eric wait impatiently while the Dwarfmobile (below) races to get Isabelle to the crypt on time.

Isabelle manages to break out and is sped by midget-driven motorcycle to some of Rollin's typically picturesque ruins. Thibaut has brought a baby basket along with an offering for the Ogress, who gives them directions (between bites) to a grandfather clock through which Isabelle can communicate with Dracula with the help of "the She-Wolf" (Brigitte Lahaie), a tall lady in a red dress and press-on talons. The hunters have followed and manage to rescue some imprisoned nuns, whom the Professor entrusts to Eric with directions to take them to safety. The next thing we know the nuns are on their own, one gets her heart cut out by the witches, another succumbs to apoplexy after watching Lahaie swallow a Rosary, and another is bitten by a bare-assed Vampire Woman.

Above, a wounded Ogress -- Shrek never had it so good.
Below, the Butt of the Vampire.

Where's Eric? Why did he leave the nuns in peril? Search us, but he never does seem like the sharpest stake in the coffin. He does manage to shoot the Ogress (a marksman, he puts a hole in each breast) but she manages to recover by allowing the Vampire Woman to drink her blood. They're parallel people, so maybe things work backwards for them; if someone drinks your blood, you gain strength. Maybe we just shouldn't think about it. Instead, think back to that nun we left with her heart cut out. She gets better, sort of. The witches didn't have any particular use for her heart, so they left it sitting on her chest. When she comes to, she gets up, grabs the heart, wanders about the ruins for a bit before finding a fireplace she can throw it in. Well, she doesn't seem to need it, does she?


After the parallels went to all that trouble to get Isabelle out of the nuns' clutches, Dracula tells her that she has to turn herself back over to the White Virgins so they can perform a sacrifice to a local Beast. They'll think that doing so will seal Dracula's permanent imprisonment, but he tells Isabelle that going through the ordeal will actually bring her to the place where she can free him once and for all. But first, the parallels have to get her back from the hunters, who took her home amid all the confusion. The female witch heads over and utters the significant incantation of the picture: "The presbytery has not lost its charm, nor the garden its colors." It sounds like the sort of cryptic instruction the BBC used to give resistance fighters during World War II, but if you say it with just the right emphasis and hand gestures, you can knock Eric out cold. Honestly, it doesn't seem like that much is ever required to stop the poor man's brain. With him out of the way, the parallels pack her on a boat and send her to an island where the nuns have been sacrificing their own to the Beast for quite some time. They tie her to some ruined pilings at the water's edge, expecting the high tide to take her.

Talk to the hand, Isabelle, or talk to the water.

The hunters try to thwart the sacrifice, the Professor storming the scene with a gun while Eric is sent into catacombs to contemplate a chess game between skeletons in bishops' finery. The Prof can communicate with Eric telepathically, we now learn, which probably explains some of Eric's higher functions like driving, shooting and so on. Once the parallels do away with the Professor, Eric's on his own, which means wandering around the vicinity of the Clock Chamber in his natural state of confusion. Meanwhile, just when the tide should carry the diaphanously clad Isabelle away, she vanishes. This irks the nuns, who take their annoyance out on the parallels, who despite their various supernatural abilities are no match for angry women with knives. "Be careful!" Thibaut warns, "These nuns have gone totally berserk!" You know, as opposed to when they were only sacrificing their own and collecting the remains for religious relics. Be that as it may, his warnings are in vain, though while Dracula's parallel minions suffer at the hands of the sisters, Isabelle has made it to her crucial tryst with the Master, which happens just as Eric blunders into the chamber to complicate things, perhaps....

So we have Dracula, sort of, and we have a Vampire Woman (if not the Vampire Woman), but Wendigo deems Fiancee of Dracula less a vampire movie than a fantasy movie that happens to have vampires in it. In simplest terms, it's a Jean Rollin movie, taking place in the director's personal fantasy world. Vampirism as such isn't especially relevant to the story. Dracula does nothing vampiric, and the VW's vampiric behavior isn't exactly crucial. We're not dealing with vampires as cursed or evil monsters. They're really just magical creatures, parallels for the present purpose. Their blood drinking is exploited to kinky effect occasionally, but Fiancee isn't about the lust for blood by any stretch of the imagination. Wendigo's willing to believe that Rollin only used the Dracula name as exploitation, to play on people's diverse images of the legendary vampire.

Wendigo would rather call Fiancee a "dark fantasy," which was what folks read before there was "urban fantasy" or "paranormal romance" in bookstores. The fantasy here is definitely dark, and who the heroes are has nothing to do with goodness or virtue. After all, we're apparently supposed to be rooting for the parallel team, which includes a baby-eating cannibal, for crying out loud. She's no hero, of course, but the charisma is all with her and her pals. This is one of those stories where you have monsters, and then you have real monsters -- the nuns, and to a far lesser extent the hunters. You're invited to empathize with the hunted, the hated, -- "monsters to be pitied, monsters to be despised" as one writer put it. They can't help what they are and, as Wendigo observes, they never really seem mean spirited in their wickedness.

In a way, the parallel world is also the world of the fantastic literature Rollin read as a boy, invoked here like it was in his previous film, Two Orphan Vampires. Isabelle flaunts an old book called La Reine de Sabbat and the Ogress, under hypnosis, recites a litany of fantastic scenarios as the stuff of her dreams. The world of fantasy, of genre fiction overall, pervades our real world, and Rollin may be saying that, just as Isabelle's madness infected the nuns, he himself, through his films, is contaminating us with a similar fantastic madness. Wendigo and I agree that Rollin achieved a more powerful homage to his childhood influences here than in Two Orphans, which had a pretentious, last-testament quality to it that the director has thankfully outlived. The one key thing Fiancee has that Orphans lacks is a strong narrative thread. Rollin does more justice to the power of his fantasies when he makes a story from them rather than a collection of reveries. Orphans suffered in Wendigo's opinion from Rollin's casting of overaged actresses in the title roles; they often seemed retarded rather than childish to him. In Fiancee we're definitely dealing with adult women, and Rollin can dispense with the inhibition that had kept nudity to a minimum in Orphans.

Fiancee looks like a bigger production than Orphans because Rollin uses more locations. As ever, he has a great eye for ruins and relics, often coming up with striking compositions. Wendigo still prefers Rollin's mid-period, comparatively impersonal vampire films, Fascination and The Living Dead Girl, but Fiancee has a strong enough story to lead you through Rollin's world and leave you willing to accept what you see. Wendigo recommends Fiancee as an interesting, idiosyncratic dark fantasy that proves that Rollin can still tell a compelling tale.

For a while while watching the film, we wondered what the hell Rollin meant by "The presbytery has not lost its charm, nor the garden its colors." Wendigo will close for this week by suggesting that Rollin refers to the memories that persist after the presbytery has fallen into ruin and the garden loses its color. In simpler form, he could have said, "We'll always have Paris." At the end of Fiancee, Isabelle tells Eric that he won't be able to follow her until he learns the meaning of the cryptic phrase. She seems to be saying that Eric needs to learn to treasure both memory and fantasy while accepting change. She may also mean that Eric has to learn to go wild or mad in some way beyond his simple capacities for now. She says it all to him, but she's saying it to us as well. Wendigo is actually amazed that he came up with an interpretation for this gibberish. It may only prove him a good BS artist, but maybe he's got a little bit of the old madness himself.

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