Fascination (1979) ***½
Sometimes even when you learn, you don’t really learn. By this point, I have every imaginable reason to mistrust any movie’s advertising art. I should be long past looking at a compelling poster, ad mat, or video box cover, and saying, “Oh wow! I have to see that!” It keeps happening to me just the same, though. Like the first time I read Immoral Tales (still the best single-volume work on Continental European cult cinema as a whole, and a book that all of my regular readers owe it to themselves to check out), the thing that hit me hardest was a black-and-white reproduction of the one-sheet (or whatever you call the equivalent French poster format) for Jean Rollin’s Fascination. Even without the lurid colors of the original, that image of a gorgeous blonde, nude under a flowing, black cape, brandishing a humongous scythe practically jumped off the page at me, and I knew Fascination was going onto my list of hard-to-find movies to look out for. (Remember, this was the year 2000 or thereabouts, when the only readily obtainable Jean Rollin film was Zombie Lake.) If you’d asked me, I would probably have conceded that the poster in question was almost certainly a blatant lie, but I would also have told you that it didn’t matter. If even the slightest possibility existed that that image accurately reflected Fascination, then it was a thing not to be missed. Well, it took me a while (as it usually does), but I finally got around to seeing Fascination. And it pleases me to report that the poster does not lie! It fibs a little, insofar as Scythe Girl isn’t the central figure of the film (except in the sense that she turns up smack in the middle of it), but she really exists, and her brief rampage is just as satisfying to watch as I had imagined.
The opening scene seems at first to have little to do with anything, but in fact it foreshadows everything. Two upper-crusty young ladies, a blonde in black (Brigitte Lahaie, from Joy & Joan and The Escapees) and a brunette in white (Franca Mai), are brought to a filthy slaughterhouse by a man who turns out to be their doctor. The girls are suffering from anemia, as do so many of their overly sheltered sort, and the doctor finds that the simplest yet most effective treatment is for them to down the occasional wine glass of straight ox blood. If you ask me, the patients seem to be enjoying their therapy just a tad too much.
Meanwhile, down near the other end of the social ladder, a gang of bandits are coming to loggerheads over their latest haul. Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire), who actually conducted the heist, appears to be a newcomer to the fold. To judge from his dress, he’s probably a fallen son of privilege who sees in brigandage the fastest route back to his accustomed station. His proposal for what to do with the loot reinforces that impression, too. He wants the gang to trust him with the stolen gold long enough for him to go to London and invest it in the stock market; when the dividends start rolling in, all the robbers will make an even split of the proceeds. That sounds a little highfalutin to gang’s leader (Cyril Val, from Pussy Talk and Night of the Hunted). He thinks they should just divvy up the gold now and let the future take care of itself. Meanwhile, his girlfriend (Myriam Watteau, of Sexual Vibrations and Swedish Perversities) thinks they should kill Marc first before making the split. Actually saying so was not the wisest move she could have made, however. Foppish though he looks, Marc is just as rough a customer as his fellows. When he sees how the negotiations are going against him, he seizes the boss’s woman, puts his pistol to her head, and absconds with both her and the gold.
One respect in which Marc really is at a disadvantage, however, is his instinctive trust in other people’s ability to recognize a reasonable course of action when they see one. Having assured his hostage that he has no intention of harming her so long as she causes him no trouble on his way to the nearest port, Marc figures she’ll play it safe and behave herself. Instead, she takes his preference for non-violent solutions as a sign of weakness, and almost immediately makes a play for escape. The robber woman comes on to Marc, knees him in the balls when he rejects her advances, and then runs back the way they came while he’s thus incapacitated. By the time Marc has recovered sufficiently to get back on the road, his erstwhile hostage has brought the whole gang to contest his getaway. Outnumbered and outgunned, Marc seeks shelter in the most defensible place he can find, a moated chateau deep in the woods. In a lucky break, the only occupants of the huge house are a pair of young women, who claim to be the companion and lady-in-waiting respectively of the marquise who owns the place. In what might be a less lucky break, these two are those blood-drinking anemiacs we saw earlier.
The brunette— the companion— is Elisabeth; the blonde— the lady-in-waiting— is Eva. The girls are lovers, and it’s the chance to be alone together for a few weeks that has brought them to the castle in advance of the rest of the household. Or at any rate, that’s what Elisabeth says. Marc doesn’t know why, exactly, but he doesn’t quite believe her. Whatever they’re really up to, Elisabeth and Eva each alternately try to seduce Marc and to frighten him away from the chateau. All Marc wants to do, though, is to hang out until it’s good and dark, so that he might slip away without attracting the notice of the gang watching the house from the other side of the moat. That causes the first clear difference of opinion between his hostesses. Eva has decided that she wants him to stay well into the night, but Elisabeth implores him to leave before the sun goes down, bandits or no bandits. She says Death is coming to visit tonight.
Aha! you say. Sunset is going to be Eva’s cue to strip down to her cape and gaslight streetwalker boots, and to start slicing up motherfuckers with that scythe. And that’s true as far as it goes. Indeed, she solves Marc’s problem with his former co-conspirators quite handily. However, it soon becomes apparent that her girlfriend going on a farm-implement murder spree was not what Elisabeth had in mind when she warned Marc about Death dropping in at the chateau. Rather, she was talking about Helene (Fanny Magire, from Caligula and Messalina and The Living Dead Girl) and her all-girl Hellfire Club, who arrive on the scene after Eva has gotten all the scantily clad ultraviolence out of her system for the moment. Evidently Elisabeth and Eva aren’t the only ones suffering from anemia around here, nor are they the only ones whose doctor prescribes blood-drinking as a cure. And evidently the patients subjected to such treatment tend to acquire a taste for the stuff— a taste not limited to the bovine variety they serve up at the abattoir, either. This secluded castle, meanwhile, is the perfect place to hold regularly scheduled orgies culminating in the ritualistic murder of people whom nobody would miss. People like, for example, an out-of-towner on the run from the law…
Heh. Would you look at that? Fascination, despite featuring none of the vampires for which Jean Rollin is most famous, turns out to be sort of a vampire movie in disguise. It’s also an extremely impressive work, handily eclipsing Lips of Blood and bidding fair against The Iron Rose for the title of best Rollin movie I’ve seen to date. Better still, it’s a film that I can recommend in good conscience to horror fans who aren’t necessarily also fans of oblique European art films, although it certainly is European, arty, and oblique. Fascination has everything you want from a Rollin picture— the weird pacing, the dreamy atmosphere, the warped eroticism— yet still sufficiently resembles a horror film as that term is conventionally understood to keep the novice viewer from getting utterly lost. It brings together a bunch of subgenres that normally steer more or less clear of each other (slasher and gothic, vampire and evil cult, period crime and erotic horror, etc.), and does so on terms that are completely its own. It pits an arrogant bastard of a protagonist against foes from all points on the sympathy spectrum, and springs a doozey of a twist on the audience at the last. Rollin wrings a riveting performance out of Brigitte Lahaie, an actress who could easily have been mistaken, when I last saw her, for an extremely sophisticated blow-up sex doll. The cinematography is beautiful as usual for one of Rollin’s films, combining a vivid sense of location with a mastery of tableau rivaling any of the great visually-oriented directors of the 20th century. The abattoir scene alone is a crash course in storytelling through imagery, along with being the most elegant gross-out I’ve seen in ages. Fascination is no longer the hard-to-find obscurity that it was when I first learned of it fifteen years ago (it’s now a much more accessible obscurity), so by all means do yourself the favor of checking it out.