Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Fascination (1979) on Blu-Ray

Fascination, released in 1979, was the last film in Jean Rollin’s original cycle of vampire films which had started with Le viol du vampire in 1968, although he would return to the vampire theme in the late 1990s with Two Orphan Vampires.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work Fascination is not a bad place to start – the surrealist elements always present in his movies are less extreme in this one, or at least they’re less overwhelming. It also has (by the standards of a Rollin movie) a coherent plot. In the late 70s Rollin was moving towards a slightly more accessible style, but without sacrificing the strengths of his earlier productions. Fascination is still a million miles away from Hollywood notions of horror.

Right from the start we find ourselves in the world of Rollinesque surrealism, a surrealism liberally laced with decadence. We see two girls dancing on a stone bridge with a phonograph sitting on the roadway of the bridge. We then move to a slaughterhouse where two women are drinking ox blood from wine glasses. This scene was probably inspired by a short story, The Glass of Blood, by the French decadent poet and novelist Jean Lorrain (1855-1906). Lorrain’s story was in turn inspired by a somewhat bizarre real-life practice of the time in which wealthy people suffering from anaemia or similar disorders would start their day with a glass of cow’s blood at a local slaughter-house.

This strange obsession with blood provides the theme of the movie, another of Rollin’s very unconventional filmic explorations of vampirism. Oddly enough though the element of vampirism is downplayed for most of the film, only becoming explicit at the end (and even then it’s still more than a little ambiguous).

The story proper begins with a falling-out among a group of thieves, one of whom takes shelter in an apparently deserted château. The château is not quite deserted however. Marc (for that is the thief’s name) soon encounters two rather unsettling young women, Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Maï), whose interest in him is obviously sexual but equally obviously goes beyond the merely sexual. He is warned not to stay around until dark, as they are having other guests, apparently very dangerous ones. His problem is that he cannot leave because the other apaches, his former confederates, are waiting for him outside and they are armed.

Whether Eva and Elisabeth really want him to stay or not is rather uncertain. Elisabeth seems to be very attracted to him and (for reasons that will later become clear) that may be why she seems to hope he will leave.

The château is surrounded by a moat and the only means of entrance (or exit) is by means of a stone bridge. He seems to be comprehensively trapped, at least until Eva takes a hand. In one of the most iconic scenes of 1970s horror she deals with his quondam accomplices rather effectively by means of a scythe. 

Still Marc does not leave. The other guests arrive, all women and all behaving in a strange manner that is both seductive and vaguely menacing although Marc is too arrogant to take the hints of menace seriously. He is too intrigued, too fascinated, to leave. Staying at the château may prove to have been a rather serious mistake once the actual nature of the planned festivities becomes clear.

Fascination has the lyrical, poetic visual style you expect from Rollin.  It also has extremely competent acting, with Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Maï as the two disturbing young women and Jean-Marie Lemaire as the thief on the run all giving strong performances.  

The elegant chateau provides a perfect setting for a Rollin film. The movie is set in the early years of the 20th century and captures the feel of fin de siècle decadence very effectively. If you’re already a fan of Rollin’s brand of poetic and deliciously perverse erotic horror you won’t be disappointed by this movie.

Rollin was first and foremost a visual stylist. One gets the feeling that plotting only interested Rollin insofar as it contributed to the atmosphere and provided the excuse for creating striking images. In this case the plot, while rather thin, is relatively straightforward.  The surrealism comes from the manner in which the story is told and from the imagery.

Of course a Rollin vampire movie is going to feature lesbianism. While this was obviously good for the box-office it does serve a genuine purpose, lesbianism being (like vampirism) a sterile and rather self-reflexive kind of sexuality.

Interestingly enough, considering its release date, Fascination is fairly light on gore. Even the sex and nudity is even, by late 70s standards, rather restrained. In fact restraint is a hallmark of this particular film and it proves to be one of its strengths. Rollin’s aim was always to create a feeling of mystery and in this case the downplaying of the gore is accompanied by increased emphasis on mood. This is a movie that is for the most part subtly unsettling rather than shocking, which makes the few shocking moments all the more effective. In some ways it’s much more reminiscent of his 1973 non-vampire movie The Iron Rose than of his earlier vampire movies. It could in fact be argued that Fascination is not a vampire movie at all, but rather a movie about a group of women fatally fascinated by the vampire myth.

Rollin was never especially interested in horror as such, belonging more to the French tradition of le fantastique. He liked vampires not because they were frightening but because they were entrancing, creatures adrift in time and out of place in the real world. He was more anxious to create a sense of wonder suffused with melancholy than to scare his audience. That counted against him at the time but has worked in his favour as far as his enduring reputation is concerned.

Redemption’s Blu-Ray release is quite stunning and is a vast improvement over their old DVD release. Picture quality is pleasingly crisp and the colours and strong and vibrant. The extras include an episode of a 1999 TV documentary series called Eurotika dealing with European cult cinema, an episode that includes an extended interview with the director, and a booklet containing a perceptive essay on Rollin by Tim Lucas.

Fascination was one of Rollin’s most commercially successful movies and it’s also one of his most artistically satisfying creations. Very highly recommended.

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