Monday, January 18, 2010

Wendigo Meets FASCINATION (1979)

This is my friend Wendigo's first encounter with the vampire cinema of Jean Rollin. You'd think it was an inevitable match of a vampire movie buff with the most prolific director of vampire films in modern time. But Wendigo was anxious about approaching the film, even though I told him it was probably Rollin's most accessible film -- at least of those I've seen. We can blame Image Entertainment and Redemption Video for some of his reluctance, because the box cover promised a "cannibalistic vampire feast," and Wendigo is not into cannibalism. He can't explain it, but it's a common scruple. He has no problem watching zombies eat people, but live people eating people -- ecchh! So remind me not to show him Cannibal Holocaust.

Anyway, that adjective was enough to keep Fascination near the bottom of my to-do pile. He even wanted to watch Nightwatch, a film he'd been told was bad by people who'd seen it, before finally dealing with the French film. There's also his lingering aversion to European horror and its non-linear "dream logic." To his happy surprise, Rollin's film is quite linear and coherent, though that may not be true of all his work.

The setting could hardly be more civilized, and yet...

Fascination is a period piece set in the early 20th century, far enough advanced that we can open with two comely young women dancing to the music of a Victrola on a bridge over a moat. This is La Belle Epoque, or thereabouts, when imbibing fresh ox blood at the abattoir is all the rage. Art Nouveau might be the appropriate visual style but apart from the women's costumes Rollin enforces an austere look apart from the majesty of the chateau where Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elizabeth (Franka Mai) are caretakers. The owners are away and the women have the place to themselves until a fugitive crosses the bridge. He's Mark, a criminal who's tried to swindle some accomplices out of their share of a gold heist. The situation is set up for a siege as Mark has only one way out, the way he came, and his pals are lying in wait for him with a four-to-one advantage -- not counting his hostesses. He asserts his masculine mastery over them to little effect at first; his little gun is not the most threatening thing. So unthreatened are Eva and Elizabeth by him that even when he strongarms them and locks them in a room, they see no reason not to make out and get naked. They have an extra key, after all.

"Mesdames, are you not threatened by my powerful weapon?"
"No, but we will gladly draw more unflattering analogies to your manhood, if you please."

The curious thing about the situation is that they seem in no hurry to get rid of their dangerous guest. They seem -- or Eva especially seems more interested in playing mind and body games with the guy, though that starts to trouble Elizabeth. But once the gang grows brazen enough to invade the grounds, Eva takes steps to resolve the crisis and save Mark. She offers the gang his gold, and her body. She lets one of the gang take her in a barn while exchanging her clothes with his moll.

This sets the stage for one of the most awe-inspiring scenes, within limitations, in all genre cinema as Eva gets the upper hand and wipes out the gang, first with a dagger, then with a scythe like a living angel of death. The sight of Brigitte Lahaie in black (after wearing white earlier) marching across the bridge for the showdown with the knife-wielding gang moll is an indelible image.

It still hasn't sunk in for Mark (who doesn't know what happened in the barn) that he's dealing with at least one extremely dangerous woman. And more are on their way for a "reunion" in which he's meant to play an unwitting role -- unless Elizabeth can overcome her own compulsions to help him escape....

Wendigo was impressed by both Rollin's direction and the acting by his ensemble, including porn-graduate Lahaie. He found it well-paced and incredibly atmospheric, especially given Rollin's limited resources. And on the "shut up, she's hot and she's naked" rule he compliments the entire female cast.

However, Wendigo was wondering until nearly the end whether Fascination was really a vampire film. Blood drinking alone doesn't cut it for him, though supernaturalism isn't necessary, either. What sealed the deal for him is the power of the bloodlust the cult women clearly show, first when Elizabeth leaves a wounded Eva for the rest of the cult to consume, and finally in Elizabeth's own overpowering response to the bloody spectacle. Though the women are mortal as far as we know, Rollin presents them as spectral, ethereal figures, often in diaphanous costumes, and for all intents and purposes supernatural beings. While Eva gets most of the screencaps, Wendigo found Elizabeth the more interesting character (and Franka Mai gets top billing, after all) because she goes through the sort of soul altering experience that largely defines a vampire movie for him. He also gives kudos to the leading man, Jean-Marie Lemaire, for an effortless portrayal of clueless chauvinist arrogance.

Elizabeth (Franka Mai) must choose between her supposed love for Mark and her more palpable love for the blood inside him. Below, her rendezvous with destiny.

Wendigo is also impressed by most of the cinematography and art direction, especially Rollin's use of red from Mark's crimson jacket and vest to the gore in the abattoir as the girls teasingly drink their mere ox blood while chided by a doctor. The cinematography is botched in a few candlelit scenes when the candelight is reflected on the lens, leaving little flames darting all over the room. The one area where Fascination arguably falls badly short, though we understand this is almost on purpose, is in its gore effects. Simple stuff like a knife going into a man's flesh is nicely done, but the scythe attacks are undermined slightly by Rollin's unwillingness to illustrate the damage with anything more than streaks of paint. It leaves you wondering whether the mere facial lacerations the girl criminal suffers were enough to kill her. But for some viewers Rollin's approach will have the advantage of tastefulness.

Objects of Fascination

Although he isn't ready to bump it into his top twenty list of vampire movies, Wendigo was impressed enough with Fascination that he'll probably acquire his own copy of it, and he's now interested in seeing more of Rollin's vampire films. That's as strong a recommendation as you can get.

For a recent alternative viewpoint on Fascination from elsewhere in the blogosphere, check out the review at Ferdy on Films.


The Vicar of VHS said...

I make no bones about my Rollin fandom, though my tastes run more toward his more dreamlike and surreal stuff than what everyone calls his "most accessible" efforts. (For instance, my love affair started with "Requiem for a Vampire," which goes about 40 minutes before any meaningful dialogue is spoken and is all about the strange imagery and the viewer's gut response to it, rather than a coherent storyline. But his stuff is always beautiful to look at and interesting to watch, and appeals to me on levels I both can and can't articulate.

I'm a huge fan also of LIVING DEAD GIRL (despite some bad practical fx, it's a heartbreaking parable of loss and mourning) and SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, which I would recommend definitely to you, Sam, and possibly to Wendigo--the "shut up she's hot and naked" rule definitely applies. :)

Alex DeLarge said...

I'm in love with Brigitte Lahaie, one of the sexiest adult stars of the 70s.

dfordoom said...

I'm with the Vicar on this one - The Living Dead Girl is a great little movie. Fascination is a firm favourite of mine, with Brigitte Lahaie being utterly spellbinding (even when not naked). One of two great performances she gave for Rollin, the other being in Night of the Hunted.

And Requiem for a Vampire was also my first exposure to the world of Jean Rollin. I haven't met a Jean Rollin film I didn't like. Even his more recent efforts, such as Two Orphan Vampires and Fiancée of Dracula are well worth seeing.

Samuel Wilson said...

Wendigo thanks everyone for their recommendations. Speaking for myself, I've seen Requiem and Night of the Hunted but for some reason delayed watching Living Dead Girl. Ninja Dixon has a fresh review of that one here.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I have been meaning to pick this one up for quite some time, I love Rollin and LIVING DEAD GIRL was an awesome little surreal treat, will be sure to grab this one when I can based on the review and dreamlike pics!