The tagline claims that Claude Mulot’s 1970 The Blood Rose (La rose écorchée) was “The First Sex-Horror Film Ever Made.” It’s a pretty dubious claim, and it actually does the film an injustice. It suggests a movie that is an historical curiosity, when in fact it’s a pretty nifty little film.
It’s yet another riff on Georges Franju’s 1960 classic Eyes Without a Face. That sounds rather ominous, since this is a movie that has been remade countless times. But Claude Mulot knew what he was doing. But if you’re going to remake a classic, and you want to make it a worthwhile exercise, you have three options. You can try to simply remake the original but do it better. With a film as good as Eyes Without a Face your chances of success are virtually nil. The second option is to change the story so much that it’s more of a variation on a theme than a mere remake. The third option is to give the movie your own personal style. Mulot selected options two and three, and carried them off with considerable success.
Frédéric Lansac is an artist. His wife, how model and his muse is his wife, the stunningly beautiful Anne (Anne Duperey). In the course of an argument with one of Frédéric’s previous lovers a tragic accident occurs, an accident that leaves Anne horribly disfigured. The plot then revolves around the attempt by Frédéric and Anne to recapture Anne’s beauty by means of surgery, surgery that will have catastrophic results for another woman who will literally be giving up her face to Anne.
Of course there has to be a brilliant but insane surgeon in this plot. The major twist that Mulot introduces is that the surgeon is not the father or husband of the initial victim, he’s not mad and in fact he wants no part of the scheme. There are several other twists which I won’t reveal.
Frédéric is in the plant business. But not just any kind of plants. The plants in which he deals are rare and exotic, and frequently deadly, blooms. The blood rose of the title being one of them. These plans not only play a major role in the plot, they also add a very effective atmosphere, and they very effectively suggest the link between beauty and death, and beauty and deadliness.
The events of the movie take place in Frédéric’s chateau. While gothic chateaux are hardly original elements in a horror film, this chateau is combined with some very moody cinematography and some very clever use of colour to provide even more atmosphere. An it combines very nicely with the idea of Frédéric as an artist, and with the juxtaposition of beauty and decay (like Anne the chateau is partly in ruins). Frédéric has two servants, both dwarves and both deformed, an interesting choice for a man who as a painter deals professionally with beauty.
Philippe Lemaire as Frédéric is not really a villain, although he commits terrible crimes. He is a man driven by grief, by desperation, and by his own love for beauty. As an artist he must do something to restore Anne’s beauty, since his career is dedicated to the triumph of beauty over ugliness and decay. Anne is quite mad, but understandably so, and is played very well by Anne Duperey.
Howard Vernon is Professor Romer, the surgeon who may be able to restore Anne’s face. Vernon made some great horror movies but all too often he was relegated to minor supporting roles (although he generally stole every scene he appeared in). This time he has a major part, and a complex and oddly sympathetic one. He has to do more serious acting than usual, and rises to the challenge with complete success.
Director and co-writer Claude Mulot had an odd career, and never really gained the recognition he deserved. The Blood Rose shows a sophisticated understanding of horror cinema and an impressive sense of visual style, and also clearly demonstrates that he had a very different aesthetic from Jean Rollin, who was really the only notable French horror director of that time period. Mulot was not a Rollin imitator, nor was he a Franju imitator. Both those directors naturally had some influence, it would be impossible to make a horror movie in France in 1970 without being influenced by them to some extent, but as the essay included with the DVD notes it’s clear that Jess Franco was an even bigger influence.
Mulot went on to direct the most celebrated of all French hardcore porn films, Pussy Talk. His career also included crime films. In fact Mulot’s film-making seems to have been an attempt to combine his love for classic American B-movies with a considerable helping of sex. There’s no explicit sex in The Blood Rose but there’s plenty of nudity.
The Blood Rose is a stylish exercise in cinematic horror, and Mondo Macabro have given it a suitably impressive DVD release. Highly recommended.