Monday, November 13, 2017

Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (1975)

With his first four full length films, between 1968 and 1971, Jean Rollin forged his own brand of erotic and poetic vampirism. The one of a kind auteur painted over the ‘in vogue’ gothic horror tropes, changed up the rules, and gave his vampires reign over dark and melancholic vistas far removed from the familiar world. The experience ends up being fantastically vampiric while also seeming at odds with the classic notion of a vampire movie.
Rollin would shed his brand of tragic vampire lore for a time to experiment with new dark takes on death (The Iron Rose (1973)), adventure, and revenge (The Demoniacs (1974)). To compensate for box office failures, and in order to have steady work between more personal projects, Rollin also directed several porn films under a different name (Michel Gentil).

In 1975, Rollin returned to vampires with the exceptional Lips of Blood, which also ended up being a commercial failure, and so to try and bring in money, Lips of Blood was reformatted with new hardcore pornographic inserts and transformed into the more exploitative movie Suce moi vampire (1976). For me, the existence of Suce moi vampire undermines the significance and spirit of Lips of Blood, and, kind of similar to my feelings on House of Exorcism (1975) (the reworking of Bava’s masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973)), I don’t have much interest in seeking it out.

Written by Jean Rollin and the film’s lead actor Jean-Loup Philippe, Lips of Blood puts a touching spin on the vampire mythos. It takes the vampire concept and amplifies the beauty and grace while diminishing the monstrous side. The evil is still there, but it is nostalgically seductive.

Although it’s not as experimental as Rollin’s previous vampire movies, it has a simple, coherent goal driven narrative that also maintains that essential surrealism, making it possibly one of the more accessible Rollin movies. The main characters are alluring, and it is worth taking emotional stock in the story’s conflict.

Being a hopeless nostalgic myself, I found the lead character Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) relatable. One cannot deny that there is serious folly in his quest for the seductive past that calls out to him. Everyone should always be looking forward and not back, but we sometimes still tend to shoot for that warm place from a different past time where we feel we belong instead, no matter what resistance befalls us, and Frédéric does face some serious resistance.

A Blink-and-you-miss-it Betty Boop cameo appearance!

I also like the idea of triggering previously suppressed memories, memories of something personal and important that may or may not have been a dream. A childhood era suppressed from his memory calls out to Frédéric. There is something inherently beautiful and bittersweet about this. The way Frédéric remembers after seeing a promotional landscape photograph for a newly launched perfume product is so poetic, with the echoes of a lost child’s voice on the wind and a closeup of Frédéric’s eyes as he’s transported back to those hauntingly gorgeous castle ruins. The contents of this memory become his new obsession and consistent focus for the rest of the movie. Actually, he’s pretty intense with his focus. He’s quite the gentleman, but the look on his face when anyone tries to sidetrack him or change the subject when he waxes about his estranged childhood really shows that he means business.

At the core of Frédéric’s obsessive childhood memory is a beautiful, mysterious woman in white, Jennifer (Annie belle), an angle-like apparition who offered Frédéric’s lost childhood self (Rollin’s own son Serge Rollin) refuge, warmth, and a comfortable place to sleep in her ruinous castle. It’s never addressed just how Frédéric forgets all about such an important epoch in his life, but a strong bond develops nonetheless. The resurgence of something personal from a seemingly different life is still what makes it intriguing, something unreal that actually happened. When Frédéric remembers her twenty years later, she is able to appear to him but cannot speak to him. Jennifer’s physical manifestations in front of Frédéric are some of the most beautifully haunting images in the film. Annie Belle just feels like the perfect choice for the role of Jennifer, an enigmatic beauty capable of completely arresting a gentleman’s faculties.

He gets the message that she is imprisoned somewhere, and if he wants to be with her, he needs to find where she is hidden. Of course, external agencies will not have this, and since many will attempt to deceive and even execute Frédéric for his efforts at rescuing his princess, Jennifer guides him first to a crypt of imprisoned colorful female vampire warriors (among them Rollin’s Gemini muse, the Castel twins: Catherine and Marie-Pierre) whom he unknowingly releases into the world. They become his protectors to ensure he reaches his lost love (and most likely their great queen of sorts) and uncover the mystery.

It is not only a quest for the girl from that warm place from his childhood, but it also becomes a quest for a truth that he is barred from. A conspiracy to keep Frédéric from the truth begins to develop. He ends up at peril not from the monsters but from humans. Even his mother (Natalie Perry) lies to him and even has him committed for his troubles. In fact, Jennifer seems to be the only honest one in his life. 

In the struggle between humans and vampires depicted in the film, there’s a lot more compassion from the vampires. We sympathize and feel more for the monsters. The role of heroes and villains feels reversed, as the brutes who slaughter the vampires don’t seem like the righteous.

With the loss of significant financial backing shortly before filming, Lips of Blood ended up a lesser film than it could’ve been, but Rollin could create something grand from virtually nothing. Heart, a bittersweet concept, natural locations, and the night don’t cost a thing. There is an attempt at effects and violence that don’t quite hit the mark as far as horror and gore goes, but it is all still emotionally evocative. The images of the nightgown clad vampires travelling like sleep walkers over windy gothic landscapes in this film are precious visual poetry. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. This was the film that converted me fully to a Rollin fan! I absolutely love the first half of the film (though the second half of the film is still great). As soon as Frederick steps into the cinema, it's like he's entering another world. The noir-ish night-time atmosphere is so thick and we see him winding through various passages and tiny streets looking for that elusive love. Some of the imagery (particularly the railroad scenes) is reminiscent of the artworks of Paul Delvaux, one of Rollin's inspirations.

    Even though the film lost a week of shooting, I personally think it still works almost perfectly. As I go through Rollin's filmography, I find that the most minimalist works tend to be my favourite because then I can lose myself in the atmosphere and world-building.

    As for Suce moi vampire, as you said it's sort of like House of Exorcism in that it totally reworks the plot with new hard inserts as well as some alternate outtakes from the original. But it's totally unessential. Still, I'm kinda tempted to subtitle it hehe.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Terence, especially since I didn't really cover Frederic stepping into the cinema and his journey through the night time streets. Those sequences really are remarkable too. I love the self referencing, with the Rollin film showing at the theater. Of course I'd have to remind them that they were playing the wrong movie, as it was La vampire nue that they were promoting and not Le frisson des vampires.

      If you ever subtitle Suce moi vampire, let me know, because then I would watch it for sure. You do great work.

      For some reason, I can't remember what the film was that converted me. I think it was Fascination. Requiem for a Vampire was my first Rollin movie, which had me intrigued but not necessarily converted yet. I think it was seeing some of Rollin's best in sequence that might've finally did it for me. I remember finding The Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, The Demoniacs, and Shiver of the Vampires all on DVD for 1$ a piece from a rental store that was going out of business. That was a great haul.

      Thanks for mentioning Paul Delvaux, I can see the influence. The painting, Le Cortege reminds me a little of this movie and even the movie poster.

    2. Your perceptive review reminds me it's time I rewatched Lips of Blood. The scene that has stuck with me is the nocturnal city stalking scene involving a mustachioed hitman. We all need a bit more Rollin in our lives. My favourite Rollins remain the non-vampire ones, though.

    3. Thanks Alex! I really need to revisit Living Dead Girl, and I still need to see Lost in New York and Killing Car, as well as a slew of the porn output. That night stalking scene with the assassin is definitely memorable, especially when it ends up at that grand water fountain location when Frederic's vampire guardians flip on the geyser-like streams that engulf scene so he can escape.

    4. Yes, that fountains visual stuck with me, too. Killing Car is very rough around the ages but certainly worth a look, it has its own brand of low-budget poetry.

  2. A whole movie in a few paragraphs...horrifying!