Monday, December 20, 2010

In Memoriam: Tribute to Don Van Vliet, John Leslie and Jean Rollin

Recently, a number of legendary artists have passed away, each one leaving both a void and a distinguished fingerprint behind. In addition to the great Leslie Neilsen and Blake Edwards, there have been three whose talents and vision have left a huge impact on me as a person and an artist. The three in question are Jean Rollin, Don Van Vliet (of Captain Beefheart fame) and John Leslie. 

Van Vliet from the fantastic Beefheart album, Ice Cream for Crow.

An insanely gifted painter as well as musician, was one of those rare birds who changed everything while never being able to be pinned down as anything. The only label you could put on this man is the genius one. 

John Leslie was a guy that wore many hats as well; actor, musician and director. An intensely underrated actor, Leslie was a multi-leveled thespian who could pull off likable, sleazy, sinister, polished, piggish and lovable rogue with equal ability. Whether he was playing commitment-phobe with a heart of gold Jack in Anthony Spinelli's NOTHING TO HIDE or the highly dysfunctional millionaire gone to seed Lee Balcourt in Cecil Howard's highly recommended FIRESTORM Trilogy, he could truly do it all. Even in lesser films, Leslie was always the best thing about them. He's truly one of my favorites and his star will always shine in this household. 

John Leslie in Dave Friedman's BLONDE HEAT. 

Last, but certainly not least, was the loss of French director Jean Rollin, who re-invented horror films and managed to incorporate a painter's eye for visual mixed with a strange and occasionally sad tone to his films. Some of Rollin's best films could be described as beautiful and haunting fever dreams. My first Rollin film was the intense and melancholy LIPS OF BLOOD/LEVRES DE SANG, thanks to Cultcuts having me review it. It made me a convert and in proper tribute, here's my original review in its full state. Though words do not really do full justice to this film and director. 


Few genres of horror have become creatures of convention like the vampire film. From decadent
Euro-type lady magnets to the soulful loner who walks the Earth guilt ridden, they have all been done to death and then some. Even in 1975, the vampire genre had already become one riddled with stereotypes.
So it takes an artist with a distinct vision and boatload of talent to use these conventions and bend them to create something fresh and effective. One such artist is French director, screenwriter and author Jean Rollin, whose film, LIPS OF BLOOD aka LEVRES DE SANG, is one of the best vampire films to
have come out in the past thirty years.

In fact, the film opens with that classic horror locale, the old graveyard. At night, no less!
A white van approaches an old Parisian graveyard, where two men and a woman, clad entirely in dust brown, right down to the veiled hat. The group starts to load in bodies, all of them ensheathed tightly by white sheets. These seemingly lifeless forms are taken into a beautiful and gothic tomb, and then placed
in plain wooden coffins. Just when you think this is business as usual, there is one of the most subtle but extremely effective shots in the film. The veiled woman, with a melancholy stare, looks at one of the
bodies as it starts to gasp for air through the sheet. It’s so simple but so creepy.

Immediately after that, we cut to a jazzy, in crowd type of party, which is where we meet Frederic
(Jean-Loup Philippe) and his doting mother (Nathalie Perrey). While talking to his date, Frederic
suddenly becomes entranced by a photo used in a Parfum Nordia ad. This photo is an image of a huge, foreboding castle, still strong looking despite the moss and the ruin. It is this image that proves to be a catalyst for not only Frederic but for the rest of the film.

When he was a young boy, Frederic’s father died, which had some how triggered a huge memory loss within him. Seeing the photo brings him back to when he was a young boy on the verge of puberty. He is lost at night, around the same ruins in the photo. He is rescued by a beautiful, young woman with short, dark hair, red lips and clad entirely in white. She covers him with her sweater and lets him sleep in the castle until dawn approaches, when she quickly sends him back to his mother. Young Frederic tells her he loves her and now adult Frederic is determined to find this woman. The one he may still love, after all
these years.

His mother immediately attempts to put this thought out of his mind and tries to convince him that it was just a fever dream of youth. But the wheels are already in motion and he quickly finds the photographer who shot the photo. This leads to the only scene in the whole film that seems a little out of place,
involving the lady photographer shooting a fully nude and amorous model. There is a nice contrast in the scene involving the image of the saucy model and the sole sound of the camera clicking. No music or dialogue, just a cold and mechanical sound.

The photographer originally plays coy, but agrees to meet him at the Aquarium at midnight, where she
has another shoot. She takes a liking to him and decides that she will tell him the information he wants then. The man’s got a few hours to spare, so he goes to a terrific looking cinema, whose outside walls
have this great, sort of Indian or Turkish inspired mural. He goes inside the theater, which is playing Rollin’s LA VAMPIRE NUE (1969), and soon sees the young girl. Naturally, he follows her and keeps doing so until he ends up in the graveyard that was in the beginning of the film. Unknowingly, he
unleashes four vampire women upon the city.

The scene of the vampire women arising is one of the most arresting and frightening scenes ever in a vampire movie. It’s hard to describe, but there is this quick rhythm to the scene that comes out of
nowhere. So that combined with the arresting looks of the vampiresses makes it memorable, to say the
very least. In firm Rollin tradition, the four of them are in pairs. Two of them are clothed only in long, sheer fabrics and, not unlike the sisters in REQUIEM POUR UN VAMPIRE (1971), are blonde and brunette. The other two, my personal favorites, are two flaxen haired twins (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel) whose ethereal beauty barely masks their own feral nature.

From there on, the audience, along with Frederic, is taken upon a strange and very surreal ride, involving
a hired hit man, strait jackets, a bonfire of bodies, and a final image that is haunting and sadly beautiful, which could very well describe the entire tone of the film. Unsettling but very lovely.

Jean Rollin has made a substantial cult career in making erotically tinged films, ranging from the horrific (LE VIOL DU VAMPIRE (1967) to the wholly erotic (BACCHANALES SEXUELLES (1974). What makes this interesting is that, aside from the camera scene, none of the nudity or even love scenes comes across as strictly erotic. That tinge is definitely there but there is purity and menace there that is
extremely hard to portray, even by usually competent filmmakers and actors. You just have to look at the Dracula’s brides scene in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) to see that. The nudity and vampire women are there but totally lack the inherent scary sexiness that Rollin’s vampire femmes possess.

Visually, this is a gorgeous film. I’ve heard of it being compared to the works of Argento, in terms of
color. Both men are visual masters, but Rollin opts for more toned down colors that are striking without being overwhelming. There are a lot of light colors here, with the only noticeable dark colors being the ruddy mouths of the women and the purple fabric draping the nude blonde vampire.

As Frederic, Jean-Loup Philippe does a really great job of portraying a haunted man with good
intentions, who thankfully lacks the naiveté one would expect with this type of character. (See
Jonathon Harker.) He also assisted in the writing of the film, which makes one wish he could have done
more work with Rollin. Like everyone else in the film, he is physically interesting to look at it, with his
tall frame, blue yes and boyish, permanent messed up hair. Bizarrely, Philippe’s other best known film is the 1975 sex film LE SEXE QUI PARLE, which among other things, is known for inspiring the US
cult film, CHATTERBOX (1977).

Like so many notable filmmakers before and after him, Rollin tends to use some of the same people over and over again. Both the Castel twins and Annie Belle (who was the young girl that haunted Frederic)
were in BACCHANALES SEXUELLES. Plus, the former were also in Rollin’s PHANTASMES
(1975) and LA VAMPIRE NUE. Belle would go on to be in such movies as Joe D’Amato’s ABSURD (1982). Nathalie Perrey continued to work with Rollin for many years, including his most recently
released film LA FIANCEE DE DRACULA (2002).

Redemption did a terrific job with this disc, being the first Pal DVD release of LIPS OF BLOOD in the United Kingdom. In addition to a still and cover art gallery; there are two trailers for THE SINFUL
NUNS OF SAINT VALENTINE (1973) and THE BLOODSUCKER LEADS THE DANCE (1975). There is even a music video for The Nuns “White Slaves.” (Which will definitely appeal to the Goths
with a heavy fetish bent out there.) My only real complaint about this disc is that there are two instances
in the film where there are lines of dialogue without subtitles. Thankfully they are brief and don’t ruin
the film, but it is still a minor nuisance.

LIPS OF BLOOD is perfect for the art film lovers who also happen to love horror and visa versa. Not
only that, but it is a great hallmark in the long, colorful career of one of France’s greatest genre filmmakers.


  1. Another fabulous piece! It's so funny, I'd been on a Rollin bender not too long ago; I had to watch every one of his vampire films I could get my hands on. Shortly afterward, I heard that he'd passed away. I'm sure that means something... Anyway, thanks again for your keen perspectives! It's nice to get some female insights on these kinds of topics that women "aren't supposed to like".... :-D

  2. Thank you so much Marisa! You were definitely meant to find his work and explore it. As much as a lot of filmmakers and writers have tried to tap into the "sad/beautiful" aspect of the vampire mythos, few succeeded like Rollin.

    Glad you like my insight. To quote the Cramps, "Don't know about art, but I know what I like!"