Iron Rose, The (1973)
As was rather superficially noted by Scottish singer Sandi Thom the sixties was an era when revolution was in the air. Indeed, 1968 was a particularly turbulent year in France, for example, and there was a sense of imminent insurrection. During the May of that year the students and workers of the Paris Spring rode a wave of political radicalism that would sweep from Washington to Prague, and through Berlin, London, Belfast and beyond. It was a year when it seemed that great change was indeed possible. In Paris it was a time of sit-ins, strikes and violent confrontation with the monolith of state authority. It was also a time in which that radicalism would find expression in the arts too. This was, after all, the age of the Counterculture. Into this milieu would step Jean Rollin. Jean who had, by this time, already directed a number of short films would, in '68, make his feature debut with The Rape of the Vampire. And, with few titles being released in cinema at the time on account of the political climate, it would be a film that would face little, if any, competition for viewers. Unfortunately for Rollin, viewers were not receptive to his particular brand of radically experimental film making and audiences would, by his own admission, throw stuff at the screen. At the time people simply hated his film! However, it would still go on to be the most successful film in France that year. What these initial audiences witnessed, though clearly at the time did not fully appreciate, was the genesis of what would become the groundbreaking cult icon that is Jean Rollin. It was a debut would be heavily skewed toward the whole sexy vampire motif that would define so much of his oeuvre. Rollin was also, in this, very much the pioneer! Indeed, it is an area of film that would not only find favour with his contemporaries such as Jess Franco with his Vampyros Lesbos or Female Vampire or even José Ramón Larraz with Vampyres, but even with stylish, but slightly stuffy, Gothic horror studio Hammer when they too decided to get in on the act. After all, the Brits also sought to spice things up, a bit, with the likes of Lust for a Vampire and so on. Sure, the pinnacle of the post Blood and Roses vampire wave may well be, in my humble opinion, the delightful Harry Kumel directed Belgian vampire classic Daughters of Darkness, but no-one quite embraced the genre to the extent of Jean Rollin. Indeed, he based much of his career on this particular area of film while infusing these tales of female empowerment with a number of motifs that would become familiar to the many fans of his work. Indeed, as a debut, Jean Rollin's Le viol du vampire was a film that would lay out essential themes that would, ultimately, win the director critical acclaim. Albeit within audiences with a predilection for of a particular niche of film. However, it was a formula that Rollin would subvert, for the first time in 73, by stepping away from a vampire sub-genre in which he had been deeply immersed for the previous four feature titles. In this film, The Iron Rose, Rollin would be both making a break and maintaining a continuum. As, even though the premise would change fundamentally, the styles and signatures would, at the same time, be reassuringly familiar. As with all of Rollin's work there is a sense of the small scale and scope of the production. Indeed, if it is the case that Jean-Luc Godard is right when he states that all that is needed to make movies is a girl and a gun then Rollin is the director who takes this premise to the world of horror. After all, there are only significant roles for a lead cast of two here. For, while there a few suporting bit parts such as a woman in mourning and a clown that play an essential role in the underscoring of the experimental and quirky nature of the work, they are very much moved into the background. As is often the case with a Rollin feature, these micro-casts are made to appear insignificant, frail and vulnerable against a stark and inhospitable natural world. This is often, for Rollin, an environment distinguished by angry skies, stark, lonely ruins, misty autumnal countryside, and the incredible and lonely rugged and rocky beach near Dieppe that he would utilise time and again. With a Rollin film you get of a sense of unease that is borne of the realisation that man, stripped of gadgets and the trappings of technology, would probably struggle to survive in such harsh conditions. It may be a form of painterly visual poetry that Rollin presents us with but, at the same time, there is a sense of alienation from the traditional methods of production that sustained humanity since time immemorial. From The Grapes of Death to The Night of the Hunted, this is a sense of alienation that is ever-present. Albeit used to different ends in each case. However in the deliciously subversive Iron Rose, the theme of survival and the inhospitable nature of nature is re-framed ever so slightly. Sure there is the ubiquitous Rollinesque combinations of mist, the beach and the stark leafless vegetation, but here it primarily the sense of familiarity of place that is taken away from the protagonists. By making sure that his two leads, Françoise Pascal from Mind Your Language and Hugues Quester, are lost overnight in a graveyard, Rollin does something pretty clever. He renders the familiar as unfamiliar, the safe as unsafe and the peace and quiet as lonely and oppressive. By day they may well know the graveyard, but by night it is a strange and disorienting place. You see, just like the ocean of Open Water or the outback of Walkabout this is, to an extent, the setting for a natural world survival movie. But, whereas the aforementioned use remoteness to emphasise futility the setting of an urban cemetery places safety both tantalisingly close yet somehow distant and unattainable. The horror from the film is derived, primarily, from the realisation of the madness inducing futility of this situation. Even a moment of hope, where Quester discovers what he believes to be the perimeter wall, is shattered as it leads merely to yet another section of graves with a continuation of the maze of mausoleums, headstones, iron crucifixes and creepy statues of angels.