Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grapes of Death

Grapes of Death
Aka: Pestilence
Original Title: La Raisins de la mort
Directed by: Jean Rollin
France, 1978
Horror / Zombies / Psychosis, 85min
Distributed by: Njuta Films / Another World Entertainment.

Often referred to as one of Jean Rollin’s few Zombie movies together with Zombie Lake 1981, and The Living Dead Girl 1982, it's fair to say that Grapes of Death is by far the best of the three movies. Although I feel that Grapes of Death has more in common with Romero’s psychological horror The Crazies 1973, than his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead 1968, because there are really no zombies in the movie! There are buss loads (well a dozen at least) of degenerated psychos that want to kill everyone that they lay eyes on dragging themselves slowly through the movie, with the intent to kill people, but they don’t eat them and they turn before they die.

Grapes of Death has a rather straightforward narrative without any specific complications making it an enjoyable film to wind down to. After a title sequence where we see farmhands spraying the crops at the Roublés vineyard, we are set upon a train where Élisabeth [Marie-Georges Pascal] is on her way to the vineyard run by her boyfriend Michel. The same guy who just told the workers of the title sequence to get back out in the fields as one of them returns to the farm complaining that the pesticide is making him ill. Élisabeth and her travelling companion soon encounter the same worker on the train and he now transforming into a murdering beast due to the insecticide. From this initial kill, Élisabeth’s friend, it’s all about survival, reaching the destination the farmyard and Michel. For as you will realise after the climax, this movie is in a sinister way all about the things you will do for love.

Smaller and larger obstacles are encountered and overcome, with a, for Rollin measures quite small amount of nudity thrown in to keep the audience happy. Élisabeth is constantly surrounded by death and carnage as she sweeps through the wonderful landscapes of Southern France, trying to stay one foot ahead of the infected. She arrives at a farm only to be confronted by the manic farmer, she finds a car and is attacked once again. Up on the woodlands, Élisabeth runs into the blind Lucie [Mirella Rancelot] who is trying to make her way back to the village she comes from. Together they find their way to the village… …only to be learn that the entire village is infected by the strange virus and death comes knocking big time in a really violent sequence which possibly makes this movie the first French splatter flick.

As the infected close in on Élisabeth, she’s saved in the nick of time by a strange ally; Brigitte Lahaie. French adult film star Brigitte Lahaie makes her debut as part of Rollin’s stable of actors with Grapes of Death, and you could consider this movie the breaking point where Lahaie started to shift into movies outside the pornographic sphere. But ironically most parts she ever played after her career in the adult industry where still heavily dependent on her erotic image and saw her on more than one occasion acting in the nude. (Even Fabrice Du Welz has her play on her eroticism in his evocative and disturbing psychological thriller The Ordeal 2004) Jean Rollin at least tried to motivate why she needs to get her clothes of in Grapes of Death as she does it in a semi-seductive manner to prove that she is not infected and has no marks of the disease. Well in reality she has the infection, but no visual scars or gooey boils. But just wait, as she will be hideously disfigured before the scene is over.

After making and loosing new allies along the way, Élisabeth finally reaches the farm, and is reunited with her lover Michel, but in a last twist of fate, tables are turned friends turn into foes, and after the violent climax you find yourself wondering which monster/killer is the most vicious, the ones who do it due to the infection, or the ones who kill for revenge?

With today’s infectious outbreak/zombie flicks, think Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead 2004, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later 2002, and Juan Carlos Fresnadillio’s 28 Weeks Later 2007, the movie is rather slow, but that’s what you would expect from a Jean Rollin movie, a slow pace that relies more on the hypnotic imagery and atmosphere than dark, menacing urban locations with speedy monsters chasing protagonists down narrow hallways.

Considering that more than thirty years have passed since Rollin shot this flick, it’s fair to point out that this could possibly be the first movie with ”fast” zombies/infected, as there is no slow Romero-esque dragging of the legs here. The infection victims are plain people trying to cope with their new state of being. And this is one of the finer points of the movie, up till Élisabeth reaches the village; everyone she meets is torn between their polarised emotions. On one side the lust to kill, on the other a deep regret and frustration over loosing control. This reaches it’s peak as the infected Lucas, decapitates Lucie and crying begs for forgiveness as he snogs the head. It’s a wonderful little detail that isn’t too common in the genre, as you rarely encounter an antagonist with remorse and sorrow of being the monster.

If you boil this flick down to a concentrated form it is a brilliant idea that Jean Rollin with co-writers Jean-Pierre Bouyxou (yes the actor from several Rollin and Jesus Franco movies) and Christian Meunier (who did sod all after writing and shooting for second unit on this movie) have come up with. If you wanted an infection to spread rapidly and aggressively, how best to transport it but through wine, the national drink of France. At the same time there is a smart critique towards the use of toxins in modern agriculture, much like the themes used by Jorge Grau in the superb Let Sleeping Corpses Lie 1974.

Just like the Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Grapes of Death has a very interesting and mezmerising score. This one composed by Philippe Sissman, who only ever scored one more film, much later in 1991, but his score to Grapes of Death is interesting because of its minimalistic use of electronica. The almost avant-garde keyboard beep and blips suit the movie perfectly and really bring a futuristic and eerie mood to the film.

Grapes of Death is unlike any other Jean Rollin film, mostly because of the storyline and narrative, that is zombies/infected instead of the usual sexy vampires, and it would be unfair to say that he temporarily shifted away from his usual slow pace and poetic imagery, because in all honesty Grapes of Death is still quite slow, almost meditatively slow, which I why I’m so fond of it. The imagery is still very Rollin-ish, over grown woodlands and castle ruins as the camera almost hovers through the landscapes that he so often returned to. The movie was shot in the Cevennes National Park in Southern France, witch had Rollin and cinematographer Claude Bécognée use the landscapes to the maximum. Shooting under severe cold is never an easy task, and I’m’ sure that you have heard the story of Lahaie being so cold during her nude scene that she couldn’t speak her lines.

You have to keep in mind when you watch Jean Rollin movies, that this is a director that was so terribly shy that he instead chose to focus on themes, imagery and atmosphere in his movies over the acting. Not to say that the actors are bad, but in some way I guess that's why most of his actors are seen in his film only and never again, and the ones he managed to work with, like Lahaie, the twins Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel to name a few, where used repeatedly in his films. He spent ages researching his movies and drafting the best possible people around him. During the shoots was said to be so shy that he didn't dare direct the actors. Instead he preferred to hide behind the camera, sometimes leaving the set, and letting second unit step in during the adult sequences of his films. There's something in that fragile delicacy and I see a strange paradox to the casts and shyness that fascinates me, as many of Rollin's leading ladies where former adult movie actors whom he offered roles outside of their usual parts in pornography. You wouldn't expect shyness and tenderness from a director so strongly associated with erotic imagery.

The suspense elements are very well composed. Working with great balance Rollin frequently presents the threat, isolates the key characters and keeps the audience in anticipation as he builds the suspense ever so gently, before having it erupt in a gory, gooey and emotional finale in each case. Grapes of Death, is one of my favourite Rollin movies because of this, the threat-build-release schematic works wonders and he really never stays in them long enough for them to grow tiresome, there’s always a new twist or turn as Élisabeth makes new companions that may, or not, help her in her quest to reach her goal and live through it. A wonderful film that definitely should be checked out if you are into that brooding Eurohorror scene of the 70-80’s.

Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1

French Dialogue, Dolby Digital Stereo. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Finnish subtitles optional.

The original trailer for Grapes of Death, trailers for Rollin's The Living Dead Girl, Demoniacs, Requiem for a Vampire and the fantastic Lips of Blood, and a slideshow of stills from the movie and even a few scenes not featured in the movie.

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