The Grapes Of Death (aka Les Raisins De La Mort)
1978, Dir. Jean Rollin
Reviewed By David Sodergren
The Grapes of Death, eh? How can anyone resist a film with a title like that? It’s even better in its native French – Les Raisons de La Mort.
It’s a ridiculous-sounding title, and yet it’s entirely appropriate for a film about infected wine causing an outbreak of madness across the French countryside.
French horror specialist Jean Rollin is best known for his erotic vampire movies, such as Shiver of the Vampire and Requiem For a Vampire. He was at his best when blending lyrical eroticism with surrealist imagery, but occasionally ventured out into marginally more commercial territory, the most well-known example being the rather silly Zombie Lake, a film he was suddenly handed the reins to when Jess Franco ran off at the last minute.
Smart man, ol’ Jess.
Luckily, The Grapes of Death is a far more successful venture, feeling like a true Rollin picture throughout.
As is common amongst Rollin’s oeuvre, we begin with two women. Unlike his lesbian vampire flicks though, Rollin is on his best behaviour here. Our heroine, Francois, wakes up and talks about taking a shower – and yet she never does. In the cinema of Rollin, this practically counts as a plot twist.
The opening sequence, set aboard a train, is arguably the finest argument for Rollin being a horror master. He builds suspense admirably, and includes an almost Argento-esque tracking shot through the length of the train carriage, slowly revealing that all the booths are empty, before a creepy-looking man gets on.
Rollin builds great tension, aided by a wild arpeggiated synth score that is primitive but oddly effective.
The sequence culminates in the murder of Francois’ friend, before she hops off the train and embarks on an episodic narrative that is equal parts Night of the Living Dead and The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Indeed, it even shares ecological themes with the latter film.
The photography as Francois flees across the desolate yet beautiful French countryside is exquisite, particularly a haunting shot of her running across a bridge that is swamped in fog, and a later sequence that takes place amongst huge rocks jutting out from the landscape.
But it’s not all tranquil beauty, no sir.
Francois stumbles across a variety of increasingly bizarre characters, most of whom seem to want her dead. The infected villagers are particularly gross, with weeping sores covering their faces and bodies, and an insatiable bloodlust. Rollin’s greatest idea is that the infected retain their old memories and identities, and will often beg Francois for help, or to at least shoot them and put them out of their misery.
Gore was never Rollin’s forte — in fact, he rarely seemed interested in it, preferring to dwell on the more sexual aspects of horror. Here, however, the violence is foregrounded. The special effects, whilst obviously low-budget (particularly on the Blu-ray I watched), hold up surprisingly well. Slimy pus dripping down foreheads is always a great gross-out gag, and there’s a well-staged decapitation for good measure, made even better by the fact the killer spends the rest of the film wandering around carrying the severed head like some kind of macabre trophy.
Rollin insists on getting his money’s worth with the effects, dwelling on them a little too long, especially the film’s first kill, a topless woman impaled through the chest with a pitchfork.
Old habits die hard, I guess.
Rollin fans will be thrilled to know his long-time muse Brigitte Lahaie makes an appearance, wandering through the countryside in a see-through nightie with a flaming torch, accompanied by a pair of handsome dogs.
It’s a perfect blend of the artful and the commercial, though after Lahaie exits the picture, things slow a little too much. Francois meets a couple of farmers, and they settle down in a building and await a rescue that may never come.
It’s a slow ending to a film that was hardly bursting with energy to begin with, though compared with the rest of Rollin’s filmography it feels like a Michael Bay movie.
It’s definitely not a movie for everybody, but that’s never a bad thing. I don’t hear people talk about Rollin as much as they used to — there was a real resurgence in his popularity in the 90s, mainly thanks to the sterling efforts of Redemption Films in bringing his work to UK video, but it sometimes feels like he’s slipping back into obscurity, while fellow Euro-horror directors like Argento and Bava and Franco have become almost mainstream. It’s a shame, because Rollin was a true auteur with a great talent, who deserves to be better known.
While not entirely representative of his work, The Grapes of Death is a pretty good starting point for those curious to check out his work. It’s got one of his best stories, but doesn’t sacrifice any heart.
I’d also highly recommend Shiver of the Vampires, The Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, Fascination and Night of the Hunted.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug. Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018 to critical acclaim. Up next is Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle has just recently been released.
He has several more books in various stages of development.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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