DVD Watch: 'Night of the Hunted'/'The Grapes of Death'

Horror auteur Rollin abandons vampires for mental decline

DVD Watch: 'Night of the Hunted'/'The Grapes of Death'

With his hypnotic tales of vampires and supernatural seduction, French horror director Jean Rollin seemed to have no North American peer: But the two latest releases from his cinematic crypt reveal the cult director as a mirror of David Cronenberg.

Redemption continues its trawl through the finest and most underrated depth of Eurotrash with two mid-period releases from the auteur. Yet both The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted are the antithesis of his earlier work. In his excellent introductory essay to both films, "The Anti-Rollin of Jean Rollin," Tim Lucas compares 1980s concrete jungle psycho-thriller Night of the Hunted to the early, experimental works of the Canadian director. However, 1978's The Grapes of Death would sit comfortably alongside either of his early biohorrors, Shivers and Rabid.

Unfairly categorized as a Night of the Living Dead rip-off, The Grapes of Death (aka Les Raisins de la Mort) is a full-on assault on the French pastoral idyll. Its original shooting title, Pesticide, tips its hand: Chemicals sprayed in the local vineyard and passed on into the local wine have started to rot the bodies and brains of the villagers. Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) returns to the hamlet to meet her boyfriend, and wanders through a series of tableaux of terror. These are not shambling zombies; instead, the peasants and farmers erupt into fits of malicious violence before recovering just enough sanity to be wrecked by guilt. In Rollin's first moment of true gore – a full-frontal decapitation, replete with squirting blood – a man beheads his beloved, then kisses her severed mouth in a mix of rapture and regret.

There are, as with many Rollin films, moments of seemingly gratuitous nudity. However, unlike his earlier works, they seem more forced and exploitative than before, as if he is uncomfortable with them. His arthouse experiments had scarcely been box-office barnstormers, and so he had taken commercial refuge in France's nascent and burgeoning adult-film industry. That's how he met with Brigitte Lahaie, France's first X-rated star, Ali Larter lookalike, and possibly the most haunting figure in Grapes. Like Cronenberg saw potential in Marilyn Chambers in Rabid, Rollin subvert's Lahaie's sensuality into a seductive menace evocative of Ingrid Pitt at her most pulchritudinous and perilous. It's a fascinating transition and merging of his two parallel careers: Her background is pure hardcore, but as a strange, disturbed, smiling survivor of the plague, she evokes his earlier, dreamlike vampire erotica.

Two years later in Night of the Hunted (aka La Nuit Des Traquées), she had become his leading lady. As an amnesiac who can scarcely remember how she entered a room, she throws away all the power and authority of Grapes' la grande femme blonde. Unfortunately for Rollin, his backers demanded that he throw in a couple of sex scenes (there are two more that were shot just in case the film flopped and had to be repackaged as softcore porn, and are included here solely as DVD extras). Skip past those, and the micro-budget cerebral shocker deals with concepts of memory, self-invention, and delusion.

Both films are atypically political for Rollin. In Grapes, peasant survivors dredge up the memories of fighting Nazis, and the ongoing intrusion of military bases and nuclear power plants into their inbred hell. Not that he has much more time for urban modernity. His vision of Paris' outer arrondissements recasts them as towering, windswept, miserable prisons. Whether his characters are in isolated backwaters or industrial wastelands, Rollin sees their individuality slipping away.

Much like Grapes, Hunted reinvents the zombie paradigm as a metaphor for mental decline. As Élisabeth is dragged to an institution filled with fellow blank slates, she reveals how much of memory is dependent upon others. Rollin uses the affliction to sometimes devastating effect, such as Lahaie's fellow adult actress Cathy Stewart as a woman whose dementia is so bad she cannot remember that she cannot even feed herself. Rollin's undead are swallowed by a viral form of Alzheimer's and know nothing of their horrifying fate. It is a tragic mercy compared to Grapes' searing gasps of lucidity.

The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted are both available on DVD and Blu-ray on Redemption this week.

Also out this week:

The Central Park Five (PBS): Ken Burns drops the flutes and maudlin mandolins that are his historical trademark to dismantle one of the great miscarriages of modern American justice, the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case (Read our review here.)

Gangster Squad (Warner Home Video): Ruben Fleischer's disappointing and delayed spin on the LAPD unit assigned to take down notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Still worth it for Josh Brolin's growl and Ryan Gosling's elegant turn. (Read our review here.)

The Impossible (Summit Entertainment): Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor show new maturity as parents struggling to survive the 2004 Tsunami. The drama has been praised for its emotional depth but criticized for centering on white tourists rather than the Thai population. It may get a bit overwrought but, as Kim Jones wrote for us at the time, this tale of "nature on a rampage has already curdled the blood." (Read our review here.)

Jurassic Park 3D (Universal Studios): Steven Spielberg's dinosaur fun ride remains a turning point in cinematic CGI. Does it need a 3-D revamp? Who even knew there were that many people with 3-D TVs? (Read our original 1993 review here.)

Thale (Xlrator): Another thread in the rich tapestry of Scandinavian movies drawn from Nordic mythology. The tale of the mystical, sensual, and deadly huldra was a SXSW 2012 Midnighter fave. (Read our review here.)

Poor Pretty Eddie/Carnival Magic (HD Cinema Classics): Two of the most wonderfully bizarre and perverse slabs of grindhouse oddity ever. Atlanta's king of porn Michael Thevis funded Poor Pretty Eddie, a morally mutilated rape revenge tale, four years before the endlessly controversial I Spit on Your Grave. As for famed sexploitation pioneer Al Adams, his sole kids' film, Carnival Magic defies explanation. Let's just say that Zack Carlson wisely called it "the most quietly inappropriate kids' movie ever made." (See Bumpy Ride, Dec. 10, 2010, for more about the bizarre obsession with Carnival Magic.)

Any Day Now (Music Box Films): Prior to his headturning one-man-band version of Macbeth on Broadway, Alan Cumming shed just enough of his impish persona to show real heart in this tragically timely story of gay adoption in the 1970s.

The Great Gatsby (Paramount Catalog): Before Baz Luhrman does his own spin on the Roaring Twenties, Paramount delves into the archives for Robert Redford's 1974 depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald's doomed self-made man. Ignore Mia Farrow's woefully miscast Daisy (perpetually overshadowed by Mira Sorvino in the 2000 A&E adaptation) and concentrate on Karen Black as the vengeful Myrtle Wilson.

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DVD Watch, Jean Rollin, The Grapes of Death, Les Raisins de la Mort, Night of the Hunted, La Nuit Des Traquées, The Great Gatsby, The Central Park Five, Any Day Now, Alan Cumming, Poor Pretty Eddie, Carnival Magic, The Impossible, Gangster Squad

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