“Film critics are writers, and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”
That quote appears in Gregory Battock’s 1967 paperback, The New American Cinema. The speaker was Jack Smith, underground masthead and creator of Flaming Creatures. Upon reading it, I laughed. But not at the assertion. It was the theatricality of it all, the fact that Smith chose the phrase “visual phenomenon” to describe his own work. Then, I thought of The Nude Vampire. I stopped laughing.
The late Jean Rollin had nothing to do with Jack Smith or American cinema. But he had everything to do with imagery. Rollin was a self-aware filmmaker. To the casually curious, that self-awareness may aggravate. Because Rollin knew what he wanted out of his urbane, art-trash reveries and had no compunction about repeatedly exploring that muse for over fifty years. Save for the occasional moment of prosal insight, Rollin led with his eyes. Beaches. Breasts. Pubes. Vampires. Desolation. All of it presented with that oh-so-French knack for engaging design, no matter the constraints. Rollin’s topical deviations yielded his most distinctive works — Zombie Lake and The Iron Rose take my cake forever. But even in those cases, the visuals are dominant. They guide him. They guide us. They guide The Nude Vampire completely. Maybe Jack Smith was right.
The Nude Vampire is Rollin’s second feature. It’s also one of the most critically abused movies in his filmography. And I understand that. There’s nothing to glean emotionally, intellectually, or humorously. The loose plot concerns a man’s struggles with a suicide cult, and his Dad’s affiliation with that cult. There is a female vampire, but she’s not traditional. Sex is curiously absent. Dialogue is sparse. Circumstances are purposefully ambiguous. At one point, a minor character says, “Do you understand any of this?”, to which someone replies, “Not really.” To top it all off, Nude turns out to be a mystical sci-fi melodrama, rather than the expected erotic-horror trance. But I hold no resentment. Because this thing is gorgeous. And innocuous. And that’s what cinches it.
Everything about Nude is gentle and easy. There’s nothing to learn and no conflict to conquer, and Rollin knows it. We ride the film’s waves, totally adrift, and safely stoned within its dank, exploitive arms, eyes forever beaming. Color is everywhere. Cult members sport dozens of grotesque papier-mâché masks and hoods. Brief sequences involving baroque piano sounds and female twins in a musty-but-elegant chateau are iconic in their crude stylization. Several instances of slow, quiet camera arcs serve as apt trimming for empty streets, flowing forests, and sinister greasepaint. Even the violence is affable. Take, for instance, a truly odd assault via candelabra, in which a woman “strikes” the twins but appears to be dusting a shelf. All of this carries us to the final 20 minutes, in which we hit a beach and get stunned by what we see. Again.
The Nude Vampire isn’t crucial, or even consistent. 20 minutes would need to be excised to even approach an honest recommendation. But still, when Rollin pads, he pads well. Whether it be with flamboyantly Buñuel-esque performance art or an awkward, Wishman-esque self-fondling scene, he never loses sight of what he wants his eyes to show us. The spectacular “failure” of this film only substantiates the fact that Rollin’s obsessed devotions were something of a one-man phenomenon. Definitely for him. And definitely for us. If we want it.
Maybe Jack Smith was wrong.
The Nude Vampire cannot be broadly recommended. It’s not a significant trash-art film, or even a significant Jean Rollin film. But I admire its loyalty to style in favor of intellectual complexity. This is a slow drift on a peaceful stream of crude, horror-tinged phantasy. For those already smitten with Rollin’s work, Nude will do it for you. However, if you’ve seen Fascination and/or Requiem For A Vampire and fell asleep during both, don’t even try.