Lips of Blood / Levres de Sang (1975) ***
Orderly, coherent storytelling was not a very high priority for Jean Rollin during the formative phase of his career. This is the guy who was not troubled in the least when he lost the screenplay for the expanded version of The Rape of the Vampire just a few days into shootingó and he was probably right not to care, since that movie was already making so little sense that itís impossible to guess at the point of changeover from scripted material to pure improvisation. Rollinís next few horror movies (Iím not currently qualified to speak about his early porn films) arenít quite as chaotic as that first one ended up being, but neither do they make much obeisance to logic or clarity. Lips of Blood, consequently, comes as something of a shock. Although it remains as dreamy, languorous, and strange as anything that came before it, Lips of Blood displays a hitherto unwonted focus on a particular central triangle of relationships, and its mysteries proceed rationally from a specific, well-elucidated incident from the protagonistís past. Itís the closest Iíve seen Rollin come yet to making a normal horror film, and although one doesnít generally seek out Rollin for normality, the constraints that he placed himself under this time reveal capabilities and talents in him that are usually obscured by a dozen forms of self-indulgent craziness. If I had to recommend an entry point to Rollinís work for someone not already very well versed in the ways of European exploitation cinema, Lips of Blood is the movie Iíd pick.
An oldish woman (Natalie Perrey, from Dirty Lovers and Night of the Hunted) sneaks into one of the mausoleums in a Paris cemetery, accompanied by two much younger men. The latter carry what is unmistakably a shrouded human bodyó the first of four, in fact. Evidently the woman knows the place pretty well, because she has no trouble finding the secret door hidden in one of the ornamented marble walls inside, behind which a narrow staircase descends to a second crypt below the one thatís visible from outdoors. The woman and her accomplices haul their macabre burden down, installing each of the four bodies in one of the empty coffins awaiting in the hidden crypt. Then, once the last corpse is in place, the woman erects a wooden cross in the doorway leading to the stairs. Thatís about when we notice that the shrouded bodies are breathingÖ
The next time we see the old woman, sheís at a swanky party with her 35-ish son, Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe, of Pussy Talk and The Killing Car). The gathering has something to do with the advertising industry, and there are artifacts from various forthcoming promo campaigns on display all over the place. One of these is a poster pushing some kind of perfume; the dominant image is a photograph of a cliff-top castle overlooking a beach at twilight. It is, of course, that same beach near Dieppe that Rollin was always using, the one with the gravelly shingle, the dense hummocks of seaweed below the high-tide line, and the jetties in the form of long files of salt-rotted pilings. Obviously thatís not why Frederic recognizes it, though. He knows that castle and its stretch of beach because he was there once as a child. He had been searching for a runaway dog, and had gotten lost after sunset. Eventually, he found his way to the semi-ruined castle, where a stunningly beautiful teenaged girl (Annie Belle, from The Alcove and Twilight of Love) invited him in and watched over him until just before dawn. Then she woke him, and sent him on his way with directions to the main road. Frederic had forgotten all about that incident until just this moment. In fact, he has no memories at all from before the death of his father when he was about thirteen. Consequently, he becomes nearly obsessed with learning the castleís locationó maybe if he went there, he could get the rest of his past back. Frederic doesnít think to be suspicious of his motherís outwardly inexplicable hostility to that idea, but we sure do.
Reasonably enough, Fredericís first stop is the apartment and studio of the photographer who took the picture for the perfume ad (Martine Grimaud, from Everything Goes and Perversions). Sheís happy to talk to him (in fact, she seems happy to do rather more than talk), but says that sheís been paid very well not to reveal to anyone the location of the castle or the identity of its owner. Evidently cock goes further than money in her personal economy, however, for she promises to tell Frederic everything he wants to know if heíll meet her at midnight at the local aquarium, where sheíll be shooting for the rest of the evening.
That leaves Frederic with some time to kill, so he goes to a little fleapit cinema for a double-feature screening of The Nude Vampire and The Shiver of the Vampires. At the theater, he is stunned to see the girl from his recently recovered memory, looking exactly the way he recalls her from twenty-odd years ago. He tries to talk to her, but the girl leads him on a long, low-speed chase to the center of a large cemeteryó to the very mausoleum, in fact, where Fredericís mother hid those four breathing corpses. The girl disappears into thin air once he is inside the secret, subterranean tomb, leaving him to ponder a new mystery. Somehow, Frederic gets it into his head to pry open one of the coffins, but what he finds inside only deepens his alarm and bafflement: not a dead human body, but a gigantic, living bat! (I keep thinking that it has to dawn on horror filmmakers one of these days that flying foxes, despite their impressive size, are nothing but cute. People keep asking us to scared of them, though.) Frederic flees the crypt when he sees that, knocking over his motherís door-barring cross in his haste. We know what that means, donít we? Those bodies Mom hid in the crypt are all vampires, played respectively by Catherine Castel (of Fly Me the French Way and The Seduction of Amy), Marie-Pierre Castel (from The Shiver of the Vampires and Requiem for a Vampire), Anita Berglund (of Come Blow the Horn), and Helene Maguin. With no more holy symbol to obstruct them, they fan out from the cemetery, and begin raising havoc. For example, they beat Frederic to his rendezvous at the aquarium, and slaughter everyone involved in the photo shoot there.
Even now, Fredericís ordeal has barely begun. He meets a woman claiming to be the girl of his long-lost memory all grown up, but if thatís true, then why is the teenaged version of her spying on the encounter from a distance? For that matter, why does the false, grown-up version attempt to imprison Frederic in an abandoned apartment building?! No answer to the latter question is forthcoming, because the vampire girls descend upon Fredericís tormentor en masseó although itís far from clear whether rescuing him was the vampiresí specific aim. Next, Frederic has a run-in with a gunman (Willy Braque, from Schoolgirl Hitchhikers and The Demoniacs), from whom he only narrowly escapes. The ultimate kick in the ass comes when Frederic makes it safely home at last, and tells his mother all about his harrowing adventuresó she immediately calls a mental hospital, and has him committed! If youíre thinking that all of Fredericís non-vampire travails have something to do with Momís determination to keep him away from the chateau outside of Dieppe, give yourself a gold star for the day. Again, though, Frederic is bailed out by the vampire pack, who now bring their inimitable brand of mass carnage to the asylum, permitting his escape. Then at last, Frederic stumbles upon exactly the clue he needs, in the form of a postcard identifying his mystery chateau as Sauveterre Castle.
Obviously Fredericís motherís plans have all backfired, so she rushes off to Dieppe in the hope that a little transparency can succeed where secrecy and skullduggery failed. Catching up to Frederic on the very threshold of the castle, she explains that the girl heís been pursuing ever since he saw that ad matte was named Jennifer, and that she too was a vampire. Fredericís parents didnít know that, of course, when they took her in as an orphan. Not long after Jennifer ensconced herself in their home, other girls in the village began coming down with a strange, wasting sickness. Eventually four of themó those four, naturallyó died of the disease, but it wasnít until Fredericís father fell ill that his mother figured out what was happening. She drove Jennifer away at that point, but by then it was too late; Dad died just like the village girls, and Mom realized to her horror that she no longer even knew where to find the cause of the trouble. Then Frederic had his encounter with Jennifer at the castle, bringing to light the vampireís new hiding place. With the help of some men from the village, Fredericís mother caught Jennifer in her lair and drove a stake through her heart, then spent who knows how many years hunting down all the monsters she had created from the village girls she killed. But as Mom was later to learn, her methods of vampiricide were insufficient to the task. Though she and her accomplices had rendered the bloodsuckers dormant, they could be revived at any time if their carefully arranged tombs were disturbed. Thatís why itís so important that Frederic stay out of the castle. Jennifer is far more powerful than the mausoleum girls, and we saw how little it took to turn them loose upon the world again. In fact, doesnít it seem that Jenniferís spirit is already able to go abroad making mischief, even though her body remains trapped in Sauveterre Castle? Now that Frederic knows the truth, his mother hopes that she can enlist his aid in repairing the damage heís already done. But she fails to appreciate the strength of the bond that Jennifer formed with him that night long agoó a bond which has only grown stronger as a result of all Momís dirty dealing since he got that piece of his memory back.
Lips of Blood should have been Jean Rollinís breakout picture. Hands down, itís the best thing of his that Iíve seen thus far, even despite a bit of clunkiness caused by last-minute rewrites that became necessary when one of the movieís backers bailed out, forcing a reduction of the shooting schedule from four weeks to three. For the first time, Rollin struck a consistently workable balance between sense and surreality, between his personal obsessions and accessibility to people who didnít share them. Lips of Blood has all the tacky pseudo-splendor of the classic Rollin look, but this time itís grounded in and juxtaposed against the prosaic reality of mid-70ís Paris. Not since the original short version of The Rape of the Vampire had Rollin invested his characters with so close an approximation of plausible human emotions and behaviors, or drawn such a convincing picture of people attempting to do right but losing track of what that is. Lips of Blood works as mystery, as erotica, as romantic tragedy, and if it doesnít really work as horror in the conventional sense, it does at least offer a suitable-for-beginners version of the patented Jean Rollin mind-fuck as compensation. Most of all, Lips of Blood came at a time when the American and British markets were finally starting to accept Continental-style blurring of the boundary between horror and sex movies. If producer Jean-Marc Ghanassia had only figured out how to get this movie onto screens overseas, Iím convinced that it would have become at the least a solid cult favorite, and quite possibly a bona fide hit.
The problem, ironically, was the domestic market. Rollinís brand of arty, smutty horror grew up in response to a particular set of censorship conditions that ceased to exist a few years into the 70ís. French audiences, it turned out, had little interest in the horror genre per se, but because French horror movies had turned sexy back around 1959, they had been able to succeed as a sort of stealth pornography. In 1975, however, porn was completely legal in France, and the people who had once flocked to The Nude Vampire in the hope of seeing a bit of skin no longer had to settle for such diluted pleasures. Lips of Blood itself alludes to the situation, if you know where to look. The little theater where Frederic goes to pass the hours until his midnight date with the photographer, called the Mexico, was among a tiny handful of independent cinemas remaining in Paris that had not yet converted to an all-porn formató and Rollin shot that scene on the Mexicoís last night of operation before it, too, became a porno house. So whatever its potential allure for audiences abroad, Lips of Blood had almost nowhere to play back home, and almost no one to come see it when it did secure a booking. No hard-headed American or British businessman was likely to take a chance on importing a film that had already died at its native box office, and Lips of Blood faded into the uniquely total obscurity that only a true indie-flop can attain. There was still one last act to the drama, however. Ghanassia had raised the funding for Lips of Blood from independent investorsó not the sort of people who could lose tens of thousands of francs and shrug it off as a tax write-off. Determined to recoup at least some of their backersí investment, he and Rollin edited outtakes and deleted scenes together with newly (and presumably cheaply) shot hardcore inserts to create a second film called Suck Me, Vampire, which could play on the much stronger sex-movie circuit. It, no doubt to Rollinís considerable annoyance, made plenty of money.