Written and Directed by: Jean Rollin
Starring: Jacques Orth, Thomas Smith, and Sandrine Thoquet
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The presbytery has lost none of its charms, nor the garden its colors."
Watching your favorite directors lose it is a bummer. It’s sort of like seeing a great athlete slowly fade or witnessing a family member yield to old age. Nobody wants to say anything, but everyone’s aware of the elephant in the room. Actually, scratch that—maybe it’s not quite like that since the internet has given everyone the opportunity to make it known when we’re supposed to write guys off. For example, Dario Argento’s number came up years ago and has become the poster child for fallen idols (I refuse to believe that the same guy who directed Deep Red was behind the camera for Mother of Tears). At any rate, it’s with that sort of trepidation that I wandered into Dracula’s Fiancée, a later-era Jean Rollin flick that had me hoping the Frenchman wouldn’t share his Italian counterpart’s fate: if you had to pick a handful of directors that defined the style of Euro-horror, these two would certainly be among them, and it’d be disappointing if both wound up delivering anonymous efforts.
The first scene largely puts those fears to rest, as the stark opener drops viewers into a graveyard, where a Van Helsing-type professor (Jacques Régis) and his assistant (Dennis Tallaron) observe a bizarre courtship between a pale-skinned, red-haired vampire woman and the dwarf who has become smitten with her. This is but the bizarre introduction to a much larger world, though, as the vampire-hunting duo have bigger fish to fry, namely Dracula himself, who is rumored to be attempting a comeback. After questioning the dwarf, the two discover that the alpha vampire has particularly eyed the flesh of a girl tucked away in a nearby convent. Before he can take her as his new bride, the professor and the assistant embark on a journey to save the girl’s soul…and perhaps the world.
Sort of, maybe anyway. Rollin was never much for traditional narratives, and Dracula’s Fiancée practically dispenses with the pretense altogether. While the duo is definitely attempting to track down Dracula, the film is little more than an episodic serial of bizarre encounters (it’s not unlike The Grapes of Death in this respect) with the vampire’s various minions. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Rollin hasn’t left his signature style behind, as the whole thing plays out like a fever-dreamy catalogue of his decades-long preoccupations. While the film isn’t quite as robustly ethereal from an aesthetic standpoint (the photography is not quite as vibrant as his previous efforts), it’s certainly just as weird as anything I’ve ever seen from Rollin; in fact, he seems to be making a concentrated effort to make a very Jean Rollin Movie, so it’s very much enraptured with strangeness and seemingly has an outright disdain for coherence or narrative.
Dracula’s Fiancée feels like the work of a director who’s very much aware of his reputation. Rolling doesn’t shy away from expectations but rather embraces them to an absurd degree: not only does the film proceed with dream logic, it does so at a rapid clip that’s constantly introducing characters that could have popped up at any point in Rollin’s filmography. In addition to the jester-dwarf and the red-haired vampire, you’ve got a set of blasphemous nuns, an eccentric, vulgar ogress, and a mysterious elderly couple all roaming the countryside. Even the eerily ageless Brigitte Lahaie cameos as a she-wolf herald of Dracula. The sequences themselves even have a familiar quality to them: you’ve got a white-clad virgin at the center of a gruesome sacrifice, there’s a prominent grandfather clock a la Shiver of the Vampires, and the film comes to a head with a ritual on a dusky beach like Demoniacs (and other Rollin features). Given its rampant cannibalization, it’d be easy to dismiss Dracula’s Fiancée as a pointless retread, but it’s just so bonkers that it sort of works as a valedictory gathering of old friends.
I’m not sure it functions very well on any other levels since its plot does remain sort of impenetrable: the entire film revolves around a mostly absentee Dracula’s (Thomas Desfossé) courtship of his would-be bride (Cyrille Gaudin) as the professor and assistant attempt to thwart it (I guess—they do a lot of observing and don’t really spring to action until most of the damage has been done). Grasping for a narrative point seems to be a fool’s errand here—it’s more of a mood movie that feels like the last firing of someone’s creative synapses (I know that sounds kind of morbid, especially since Rollin was only about 64 at the time), which yields bloody entrails, desolate landscapes, and evocative eroticism. One sometimes wishes Rollin would just let the images be; unfortunately, they’re often accompanied by ponderous and wordy exposition that (for whatever reason) attempts to explain things. That it often fails has me thinking it’s all a bit of a joke; after all, there’s a real playfulness to the film, and it’s often difficult to take it seriously. Once you’re introduced to smoking, cursing nuns (one of them lights up with a crucifix adorned with Christmas lights), it seems as though Rollin might not be all that serious. When a woman devours a baby soon thereafter, it’s not even disturbing so much as it’s a gonzo flourish.
If so, then it’s arguable that this is Rollin’s A Cat in the Brain; while it’s obviously not culling from actual footage of his previous films, there’s definitely a metafictional awareness at work here as well. Rollin’s message may even be similar to Fulci’s since Dracula’s Fiancée seems to bite its thumb towards whatever criticisms he endured throughout his career. “You want to see gratuitous, rambling, nigh-incoherent? Well, check this shit out.” That seems to be the general message here that’s best-delivered by a line of dialogue in the film itself: “all madness has a hidden coherence, invisible to the eyes of normal people,” the professor insists, seemingly speaking for both Rollin and the devout followers of a particular brand of cinema that’s been unfairly dismissed throughout its existence. Dracula’s Fiancée acts as an intriguing (if not completely emphatic) epilogue to the Rollin repertoire that reconfirmed his status as one of Euro-horror’s most gifted auteurs: even three decades into his career, he still exhibits a zest for moody atmosphere and an alluring sense of beauty. His cast (particularly the women) have an incredible presence (no one could capture sex and danger in the female form quite as well as Rollin) that makes the film difficult to deny—it might be completely odd and border on nonsensical, but it makes for an appropriate grace note for Rollin’s fine career. Rent it!
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