French director Jean Rollin made a name for himself doing super-low budget, nudity-filled, “erotic” vampire movies. They were usually light on gore, story, sense-making and really everything except mood and boobs. It can never be said, though, that Rollin didn’t at least try to make his films interesting, despite the perpetual theme of young nubile women and vampiric activity, and with his third vamp feature, he made something akin to an art film. 1971’s Requiem for a Vampire is as close to a French New Wave film as Rollin ever made, and he even puts some pathos and symbolism in as well.
Jean Rollin could apparently only get funding to make movies if he made them sex-filled and about the undead. His debut feature, The Rape of the Vampire (1968) (which actually contains a relatively small amount of rape in relation to some of his other films), was followed by The Nude Vampire in 1970. His fascination with naked women seems to be almost like a young boy seeing a Playboy for the first time and, even though he went on to direct actual pornographic films under pseudonyms later in his career, he apparently wasn’t even onset during the actual sex scenes. With Requiem for a Vampire, Rollin does a real tonal shift to the bizarre and seems to be actively fighting against the producer’s mandate for sex and fangs.
The film begins in medias res, or right smack-dab in the middle of something — a car chase to be precise. One car containing a couple of bad-looking guys is chasing another car with two young, virginal girls dressed as clowns inside, driven by a guy. There is never any explanation of who is chasing them or why they’re wearing the clown get-ups. It’s all for the visual, which is admittedly striking. The girls shoot at the bad guys as they fire back, eventually hitting their driver. With all the menfolk killed, the two
girls women girls (who have names but may as well not) head out into the countryside on their own. They pretty quickly remove their clown attire and get in their main costume, little girl clothes complete with pig tails.
While the two actresses (Marie-Pierre Castel and Mirielle Dargent) are clearly of-age, Rollin really wants to drive the point home that they’re virgins, making them look as young and innocent as he can. [editor's note: Kyle, man, this is getting creepy.] A huge amount of time is spent on their doe-eyed faces and hand-holding, despite them murdering people. He has a few scenes of the two women sleeping, naked of course, but it goes little farther than that. One of them pretends to seduce a young man so they can steal his motorcycle, so clearly they’re aware of their power over men, but this is much more about fetishizing the virginal than overtly celebrating the promiscuous. That comes later.
For about the first 40 minutes of this 87-minute film, there is essentially no dialogue. The girls stroll aimlessly through the French countryside and into a cemetery to hide without ever uttering a word to each other. One of the girls falls into an empty grave, is nearly buried alive, and doesn’t so much as muster a “Hey, maybe don’t dump dirt on me; I’m alive and a cute girl.” As an experiment, it’s fairly intriguing, but in practice it just makes the viewer (me) say, “All right now, I think a sentence is in order at this point.”
At this point, you’re probably asking when the vampires come into the picture. Well, it does take quite a while. The girls make it out of the graveyard and find an old castle on a hill. Not easy to miss, but there we are. It’s creepy, sure, but they go inside and explore, finding several tableaus of skeletons praying or playing the organ or the like. They are eventually met by a vampire woman — who can’t be killed by the always-loaded revolver — who chases them throughout the castle. They’re eventually trapped by a trio of big, swarthy guys who are under the vampires’ control. The men nearly force themselves on the girls, but are stopped. The girls are taken to meet the head vampire, a very old man who explains he is the last pure vampire in the world and he needs them to keep his bloodline going. He bites them and says they cannot be virgins if they wish to have everlasting life.
This is a pretty interesting idea, I think, and is surprising for a Rollin film. He’s able to offer not only great macabre visuals (which are his directorial trademark) but also a nugget of a good story. The old vampire man is a stereotypical movie vampire, with clearly-false fangs and a black and red cape from which plastic bats fly on wires when he opens it. In any other film, this would cause laughter, but in this film it makes one think “Oh, that’s interesting,” before the laughing commences. I mean, it is pretty ridiculous; I’m not a machine, guys. Forcing the girls to forsake their virginity also strengthens the director’s fascination with innocent, Sapphic young women and how they ought to remain pure, but they can totally lez out and that’s apparently fine.
It wouldn’t be a Jean Rollin film without an extended scene of near pornography that doesn’t belong in the story. We find out that the vampire has a dungeon in which he keeps a number of young women shackled to pillars, naked of course. There is about a 5+ minute scene, accompanied by repetitive music, of the three swarthy guys having their way with these women. It serves no narrative function and is only in the film because it’s supposed to be erotic. In fact, it’s incredibly off-putting, not least-wise because the women look incredibly uncomfortable and the men, who are all fat and hairy (a ‘70s Euro-staple), look like they’re having way too much fun. For no reason at all during this scene, one of the women is shown with a clearly-fake bat draped across her nether regions. This is apparently the scene that Rollin left to his assistant directors and it shows; it’s not shot for art purposes but leering, gross titillation. When the scene is over, we move on.
The girls are made to get it on with random men in order to solidify their vampire-ness. One girl sleeps with a gross guy and is all too happy to be immortal, the other finds a nice young man and falls in love with him, hence wishing to forsake the vampire’s promise of everlasting life. For this, she is chained up in the dungeon and whipped for quite a long time while her friend looks on with a mixture of disgust and revenge. Eventually, the friend comes to her aid and wants to be able to leave. The vampire, in an uncharacteristically nice gesture, allows the two girls out of their blood oath and resigns to dying slowly, content that vampirism will end with him.
Requiem for a Vampire is what I would classify as “Interestingly Bad,” not quite “Awesomely Bad” but still worth watching and discussing. You can tell that Rollin was trying to stretch his filmmaking and storytelling muscles but was tamped down under the weight of having to make a vampire titty flick. The film was released in the US with the bulk of the more explicit sex removed, dubbed into English, and marketed to the exploitation crowd under the inexplicable title Caged Virgins, making no mention of the vampires or anything macabre. Virgins? Sure, but there’s no cages at all. Becastled Virgins or Shackled Virgins or even Unsettlingly Quiet Virgins would have been more apt titles. But like Rollin’s work in general, what the film actually is is much less important than what it could have been.