Tuesday, October 16, 2012

LIPS OF BLOOD (Levres de sang, 1975)

While the rest of Europe made what I call "swinging Gothic" horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, Jean Rollin comes closer to just plain Gothic. His is a Gothic manner befitting his own time, however. Some of his films are period pieces, but Lips of Blood in particular portrays nostalgia, and arguably criticizes it, rather than being a mere exercise in nostalgia. It creates a fitting setting for nostalgia: a modern France of bland parties, workmanlike sexuality and abandoned storefronts. The present day, for Rollin, already seems to be in a state of decay, dark and empty but for monuments where killers living and undead stalk the few hapless seekers. Why not yearn for a fantastic past as Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) does, like a sleeper awakened, when he happens to see a photo of an old castle at a party? The picture stirs long-buried memories of a night spent huddled under a borrowed shawl in the castle, and a friendly girl who comforts him and sends him home in the morning. Yet Frederic's mother says he never spent a night at such a place. And what's up with her? We saw her during the opening credits supervising the disposal of several bodies, still-breathing figures dumped into coffins that are nailed shut. It looks like sinister work, but is it?

For some strange reason Frederic isn't satisfied with life in Seventies France (above), but longs for a gothic past.

The rest of the film is Frederic's struggle to fully recover his memory of the chateau. He begins to see the mute girl from the chateau, at among other places a movie theater showing Jean Rollin's Nude Vampire. The visions draw Frederic to open the coffins we saw at the start of the picture, which have bats inside them now. Before long, vampires are stalking the city and helping Frederic in his quest when not feasting on victims. Frederic needs help because people are out to get him. A woman confronts him and claims to be the girl from the chateau, now middle-aged; she leads him to a house and locks him in a room until the vampires rescue him. He's shadowed by a gunman who corners him at a large fountain until the vampires distract him by turning on the sprays. He's thrown into a mental hospital until the vampires disguise as nurses and spring him. But dumb luck puts a postcard in his hand that identifies the old castle, still the mystery girl's home. He find her in a coffin as his mother finds him, and the truth comes out. The girl is a vampire who infected the other vampire girls who've been helping Frederic. Mom and her vampire-hunter pals will take care of them, but Frederic has to resist the temptation to free his memory, or else the plague of vampirism will break out anew.

Spoiler: Frederic doesn't resist. That's what makes it a horror film.

And what's horrific about it -- chilling sounds like the right word -- is the way Rollin roots horror in nostalgia. If Frederic feels victimized by the repression of a memory, Jennifer (Annie Briand), the object of his longing, has been condemned to a regime of enforced nostalgia. Her coffin is surrounded by treasures of her childhood, including storybooks and Donald Duck comics. She can project her consciousness outside the coffin even before he's freed -- that's how Frederic could see her -- but she was stuck reading the same stories over and over. In later films, especially Two Orphan Vampires, Rollin will again summon nostalgia for a storybook world, but there his is the elegiac nostalgia of an old man. In Lips of Blood nostalgia comes with a threat of corruption, with a warning that some things should not be remembered or longed for so intensely. Frederic doesn't start seeing Jennifer until the random encounter with a photo jogs his memory. Once he sees her, his fairytale quest to rescue a sleeping princess threatens to cost him his sanity or his soul. If Jennifer's liberation can look like an escape from the past, Frederic's quest and his final choice seem like a retreat to an imagined past that can only render the seeker undead. The ambivalent mood of the movie may be as much Philippe's idea as Rollin's; the actor co-wrote the screenplay. That ambivalence still allows the possibility that Frederic's choice is the right one in his dead-end world, though that makes the conclusion no less horrible.

Lips of Blood is Rollin's most accomplished work as a director of his films that I've seen. His atmospheric instincts are assured, whether he films amid the ruins of the chateau or the modern ruins and monuments of the city. A strong sense of dread pervades everything once Frederic's quest begins. The film's one galling weakness is in the casting of the vampire girls. Briand is fine as an actual character, but the four subordinate vampires seem to be utter amateurs with no instinct for the camera whatsoever, stumbling about vacuously as if they've just staggered out of a nightclub or fallen out of bed, barely capable of grimacing or baring their fangs on cue. They are so many does in the headlights, and I feel sorry for the two who had nothing to wear but big diaphanous veils that blow wildly in some surely cold winds. They're all expendable, of course, but they undercut whatever mood Rollin is aiming for whenever they appear. Fortunately, they don't undercut the mood fatally; the director's vision here is too profound and expansive to be so easily ruined, and few great horror films are without awkward elements. I'm not ready to call Lips a great horror film after one viewing, and it'll never rank as any great scarefest. But if you're looking for a certain gothic creepiness rather than raw fright, Lips of Blood has something special to offer.


Mike White said...

Funny. I saw the image and thought, "Oh, the VSOM catalog image!"

Samuel Wilson said...

That's where I saw it first, Mike, and the Video Search of Miami mail-order company definitely deserves credit for cultivating an American audience for Rollin a few decades ago.