Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (1982)

After he saw and enjoyed Fascination a few months ago my friend Wendigo was willing to try more films by the French vampirist Jean Rollin. One of those most frequently recommended to us was La Morte Vivante, which appears to have been shot at the same estate as the earlier film. We've noticed a little uncertainty about whether The Living Dead Girl counts as a vampire movie, however. Some say it's more of a zombie film, and Salvation Films included it (along with Rollin's somewhat less ambiguous Night of the Hunted) in a Zombie Collection box set. Since I happen to own a copy of this collection, we decided to let Wendigo make the call.

Catherine Valmont is dead and minding her own business as the story begins, but her repose is disturbed by shady types using her family crypt as a dump for toxic waste. They've been dumping barrels for a while, but on this auspicious day the dumpster decide to get into the grave robbing business. No sooner has one of them cracked open Catherine's coffin and declared the but-recently deceased young woman beautiful than an earth tremor strikes, causing some barrels to burst open and disturbing some bats. The ghouls' driver up on the surface doesn't notice, however. One barrel leaks some liquid glop that burns one man's face, while fumes from another have the magical effect of reviving poor Catherine. Did these fumes transmit the angry spirit of Moe Howard? We never learn the truth, but somehow her first impulse is to poke her visitor's eyes out with her Press-On Nails of Death.

Those nails are sharper than they look. They can gouge a guy's throat out with her hardly trying. Indeed, Catherine seems more confused than anything else, merely poking people and moving on in an admittedly zombielike manner. Instinct takes her back to her home, which is being shown by realtors to potential American buyers. There's a lot of English dialogue in this picture, which made us wonder whether Rollin was hoping for U.S. theatrical distribution. To our knowledge, he never got it. But we're stuck with an obnoxious American character and his French actress-photographer wife as nosy near-heroes for most of the film. She sees the strange white-clad barefoot girl wandering through a meadow and takes pictures. Townspeople recognize them as shots of the lately late Catherine, inspiring our mundane heroine to further snooping while hubby can barely be bothered.

Memories of childhood link Catherine and Helene

Back at home, Catherine begins to remember things. Photographs and a music box remind her of her dearest childhood friend, Helene, with whom she once made a blood pact to die as nearly together as possible. Helene is still in town, and when she calls the Valmont estate and hears only the music box, she begins to get spooked enough to go there to investigate. She finds the naked exsanguinated corpses of the realtor and her boyfriend, who'd been trespassing after hours. Then she finds a naked bloodstained Catherine reacquainting herself with the piano.

What would you do? Helene's response is complicated by the fact that she missed Catherine's funeral and has never seen her dead. This allows her to convince herself that Catherine was never dead, that her reported death was some sort of hoax, and that something's wrong with her friend that she can help her with. That something seems to involve a frequent need to consume blood in order to fend off agonizing neck pain. How about pigeon blood? Catherine politely declines as we note increasing sentience after every kill and feeding. Human blood it is, then, initially small portions of Helene's own, then that of victims lured to the house by the hitchhiker con from Vampyres.

By this point Wendigo had concluded that Catherine is a vampire. There are scenes when she bites quite messily into victims' flesh, but it looked to him like she was spitting out the meat and biting mainly to get at arteries, with Rollin rewarding her with lovely sprays of the red stuff. Wendigo hesitates about defining La Morte Vivante as a "vampire movie," however, because it's not so much about Catherine's vampirism as it is about Helene's obsessive, oppressive dedication to her living-dead friend. Helene and Catherine travel opposite character arcs. Unusually for a vampire, Catherine becomes not only more sentient but also more conscientious, more remorseful, more moral the more she feeds. She starts out as a mindlessly zombielike killing machine, but as she regains her memories and power of speech, she becomes an increasingly reluctant vampire. She evolves from a traditional, almost animalistic vampire into a more modern "noble" vampire, ultimately performing a heroic act of will in rescuing a victim left for her by Helene. At the same time, Helene becomes much more and much worse than a "Renfield" type. She quickly abandons all scruples to become a ruthless enabler, a kidnapper and accessory to murder. Helene is monomaniacally obsessive; keeping Catherine "alive" is all that matters, even if Catherine wants to die. "I'm evil," Catherine protests, though her later actions arguably belie the claim, while Helene ends up a remorseless torturer.

The horror watches in horror as her friend besmirches their childhood idealism.

Rollin has in fact ingeniously reversed the traditional vampire-romance formula and given us a film in which Renfield, rather than the vampire, is the master. The appeal of the romantic vampire is the promise of eternal love, for the sake of which the victim subjects herself to the vampire's power. Here, the mortal's desire for eternal union effectively enslaves the vampire. It's the abomination who sees what's wrong with this picture, which the enabler refuses to acknowledge.

Wendigo suggests that Helene may be overcompensating for her apparent failure to be there during Catherine's fatal illness, or to attend her funeral. He speculates that they had actually drifted apart some time before, and that Helene began feeling remorse after the fact. How close were they? We know enough of Rollin's career to find it significant that this film never has a lesbian love scene between Helene and Catherine, either in flashback or in the present. Wendigo thinks it possible that they were lovers in the past, but he doesn't think it decisive one way or the other. Most likely, this being a Rollin film, if he wanted us to think they were lovers he would have showed a love scene. On the other hand, it may have been a deliberate withholding of what we expect from him to build up anticipation for the profoundly different sort of consummation that comes at the end of the film.

Like Fascination, this is a great looking film with an ideal found set, though Rolln finds enough new angles to make you almost forget that we've been here before. As the leads, Francoise Blanchard (Catherine) and Marina Pierro (Helene) are easy on the eye and easy to accept in their roles. They have to act more with their emotions than with their bodies and do a good job. The other actors are mostly good, though those playing the American couple are a little over the top.

Anti-American violence in La Morte Vivante: an unconvincing stand-in takes fire for Carina Barone, while Mike Marshall discovers the treachery of those freedom-hating frogs.

Rollin's script arguably leaves too many questions unanswered, and his direction is marred by occasional continuity gaffes. Bloodstains on Catherine's burial dress appear and disappear or move about from shot to shot. Catherine clamps her nails on a victim's tongue, squeezing out a rush of blood, but in a later shot the victim's face is clean and her mouth uninjured. At another point Catherine's nails seem suddenly trimmer than they should be. The photographer says she saw Catherine's bare feet when it would have been impossible to tell as she walked through tall grass. These are quibbles, but there are enough of them to make this at least a sloppier film than Fascination. It's also not as visually inspired as the earlier classic, with fewer iconic moments like Brigitte Lahaie marching into battle with her scythe. There are still some powerful moments, however.

It's not exactly damning a film to say it's not as good as Fascination, of course. In fact, Wendigo found this a very good film with an impressively different approach to the vampire concept. Jean Rollin is now 2 for 2 in his book, and there are many more vampire films, and others, yet to be seen.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by impossiblefunky:


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent consideration, though I fall more on the "not a vampire" side of this argument. Of course Catherine is not your traditional zombie either--really some sort of revenant, combining the qualities of both aforementioned monsters.

For me LIVING DEAD GIRL is a kind of dark adult fairy tale about loss, mourning, and letting go. Because of her guilt over not keeping their pact and her real affection for Catherine's memory (I read this is sisterly rather than romantic), Helene wants to keep Catherine alive no matter what the cost. For me she's the stand-in for the bereaved person who cannot stop mourning the beloved dead, can't let them go, and causes suffering to herself and others because of it. Like the spirits in John Edward's prime-time seances, Catherine actually wants Helene to let her go, to get on with her life, to stop keeping her there with her mourning; the fact that Helene can't do this is what makes the ending so powerful to me, and always leaves me misty.

Perhaps because I saw this one first, I much prefer this to FASCINATION--but I accept my minority position there. :)

dfordoom said...

I go with the Vicar's comments about the movie being a dark adult fairy tale about loss, mourning, and letting go. I don't think any of Rollin's zombie movies qualify as anything resembling a traditional zombie fim.

Night of the Hunted is another Rollin zombie film that is very much about loss, in an even more personal sense.

Thee aren't many zombie movies that are emotionally wrenching, but Rollin's are. Very much so.

Rev. Phantom said...

Flawed? Yes. Is she a vampire, ghoul, zombie--I haven't a clue. All I know is I frickin love this movie. The atmosphere, the gore, Françoise Blanchard's naked hotness--it's all good.