Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Grapes of Death (1978)

The Movie: Our first view is of a vineyard where the workers are spraying pesticide on the grapes. One of the workers complains of not feeling well, but his supervisor has no sympathy, ordering him to drink some water and get back to work. He then tells the workers that the new masks will arrive the next day, and that they are completely air-tight…

Next we join Elizabeth (the tragically short-lived Marie-Georges Pascal), who was just on vacation and is now headed to the vineyard of Roublès to meet her fiancé. As it is October, the train is completely empty except for Elizabeth and the friend she met on her trip. Unfortunately, when the train stops at an eerily deserted station, a terrifying man gets on; one who seems to be rotting before Elizabeth’s very eyes. Elizabeth manages to escape off the train and into the countryside, but her friend isn’t so lucky.

Elizabeth seeks help in the nearby town, but all the people are affected by a horrible affliction. Like the man on the train, they are rotting; and their condition is driving them homicidally insane. Somehow, this is linked to the yearly wine festival that was held recently. Elizabeth finds herself caught in a nightmare which she cannot escape from. Even when the cavalry arrives in the form of two armed and unaffected construction workers (Félix Marten and Serge Marquand), Elizabeth has worse things to face. Unknown to her, her fiancé is inextricably tied into the horrors she’s trying to escape from…

The Review: Ever since Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, Romeroesque zombies have been a popular trope in the horror genre. Every decade or so since has had a period where a glut of movies based on Romero’s original premise comes onto the public scene. While, on the one hand, some very good movies have come out of this premise; on the other, as time goes on there are fewer and fewer original uses for these tropes. However, every so often people can surprise you.

Grapes of Death is a film that stands out from its Romeroesque zombie movie brethren; if only by virtue of the fact that it was written and directed by Jean Rollin, a man who blazes his own trail whenever he possibly can. There are many reviews (quite a few of them on the sites this blog is linked to, in fact) that compare it to the 1972 Let Sleeping Corpses Lie for one of the reversals of the typical Romero inspired zombie flick that both movies use. The Romero films, and those that imitate them, tend to present “indoors” as safety and “outdoors” as dangerous. The plot usually centers around the protagonists barricading themselves inside buildings to keep away the zombies. In Grapes of Death on the other hand, even though the countryside seems threatening (especially with the simple synthesizer score Rollin uses for the soundtrack), the heroine is safest when she is there. It’s when Elizabeth goes indoors or enters town that she is in danger, because that is where the infected people lay in wait.

Rollin’s “zombies” are another departure from the traditional mold. Instead of brainless, shambling corpses, they are people. Albeit, rotting, psychotic people; but they are human beings with human level intellect and awareness. In fact, Rollin adds a sympathetic, emotional resonance to them. Many are aware of what they are becoming, and what they are doing to their loved ones, even though they cannot help doing it. They are scary on the level of a blatant physical threat, but they are even more terrifying in the fact that these are ordinary people who are turning, against their will, into something horrible.

In some ways, Grapes of Death diverges from Rollin’s usual work. Whereas the majority of his so called horror movies are generally far more erotic and poetic than horrifying, Grapes of Death is a more traditional example of the genre with more horror than the latter two elements. It’s fairly vicious and bloody, making it one of the first, if not the first, French gore film. The fate of the blind girl, Lucy (Mirella Rancelot), at the hands of Lucas (Paul Bisciglia), her lover and caretaker, and even more so its aftermath; is just vile and wrong in ways I doubt any mainstream horror flick will touch. To which the part of me that takes my horror movies seriously can only tip his hat and say “good show Mr. Rollin.”

However, quite a few of Rollin’s familiar touches are present. His usual languid, dream-like atmosphere is there, although in the case of this movie it makes it seem more like a waking nightmare. There is also the sense of loneliness and isolation that is a trademark of most of Rollin’s films. You can see it in Pascal’s performance, as an ordinary young woman who has inadvertently found herself in the middle of a nightmarish situation she has no point of reference for. When she finally finds help, it is clear that the horrors she has experienced have pretty much served to isolate her from them, or probably any other normal human she might encounter. And then at the end, when she finds the fiancé she has been trying to reach, and discovers that he is behind this whole mess…

That sense of loneliness can also be seen in the infected shamblers themselves. While they are monsters, it is clear that they are monsters despite themselves. Rollin and his cast very adeptly purvey the grief and despair that they feel with the knowledge of what they are becoming.

There is one important exception, which brings me to the final notable element of this movie. A year prior, on the set of one of his adult films, Rollin met a young porn actress by the name of Brigitte Lahaie. He was impressed by her performance and promised her a role in his next straight film. While Lahaie plays only a small part in Grapes of Death, I find her to be the most frightening and memorable part of it.

Lahaie plays an unnamed woman who at one part saves Elizabeth from a mob of the infected by pulling her inside a building. I actually find the following scene to be the scariest one. Basically, Lahaie’s character explains why she is there and what has been happening. None of her words or actions are anything but innocuous, and even her tone isn’t blatantly threatening. However, she somehow oozes menace in a way that had me screaming “you’re safer with the mob” at Elizabeth after only about a minute. The fact that Lahaie’s acting affected me this way even though she was speaking French (a language, sadly, that I have no fluency in) and I was reading subtitles says something about her talent.

Of course, I was right. It turns out that the unnamed woman has no festering sores and looks completely normal, but is completely psychotic. Worse, she still has all her mental facilities, and can pass for normal when she wants to. Lahaie’s execution of this role shows very clearly what Rollin saw in her in the first place, and why she was able to get into non-pornographic movies. She’s one of my favorite actresses; although she scares the living hell out of me in most of the roles I’ve seen her play. My friends say there’s probably some psychological reason behind this.

In conclusion, Grapes of Death is a different sort of zombie apocalypse style movie. Even more than three decades after it was made, this movie stands out as something truly unique in a mostly overdone genre. If you’re into Romero inspired zombie films, you should give Grapes of Death a try.

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