Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Jean Rollin walks a very fine line in his trashy B-movie exploitation flicks. So much is "bad" and amateurish in his movies, from the wooden acting to the flimsy props to the ridiculous scripts, that it's sometimes difficult to determine just why the resulting films aren't bad, but in fact create a kind of budget poetry and eerie beauty from these minimal building blocks. Demoniacs perhaps proves just how easy it is for a Rollin film to tip over from that atmospheric minimalism into more typical sub-B-movie horror tripe. Demoniacs feels very much like a Rollin film in most ways; he's taking a brief detour from his obsession with lesbian vampires, but otherwise the film provides plenty of eerie beaches, ruined castles, sinister clowns, and languid softcore sex scenes. The usual shoddy production values and amateur acting are very much in place here. All the elements are there, but for whatever reason the ineffable magic that allowed Rollin's earlier films to transcend their trashy premises is missing here.
The story concerns a band of pirates who wreck ships by guiding them into the rocks with false light signals. After one of these shipwrecks, while the pirates are gathering their loot, two sisters (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier) stumble to shore, the sole survivors of the wreck. The pirates attack and rape the girls — in a sequence staged so incompetently that it's laughable and discomfiting rather than harrowing — and leave them for dead on the shore. The girls aren't dead, though, and they eventually make their way to a ruined castle where the devil (Miletic Zivomir) is trapped along with two strange retainers, a clown (Mireille Dargent, donning clown makeup again after Requiem for a Vampire) and a bearded man who looks like Rasputin (Ben Zimet). The devil gives the girls his power through a sexual ritual, sending them off to get their revenge against the pirates.
It's a compelling enough story in its broad strokes, but Rollin, typically, isn't that interested in telling it. Instead, there are endless scenes of the pirates loitering around a bar where a psychic barmaid (Louise Dhour) stares into space and issues dire pronouncements about spirits, demons and violence. The pirate captain (John Rico) is occasionally plagued by a guilty conscience, which provides opportunities for some striking visions, as he sees the two girls from the shipwreck, dripping with blood, posing with skeletons and a creepy black stone angel with glowing red jewels for eyes. Mostly, though, the film feels slack and empty; it's just over an hour and a half long but feels much longer, its slowness not hypnotic as in Rollin's best films but draggy and numbing.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the presence of Joëlle Coeur's vicious nymphomaniac pirate Tina. Coeur isn't really any better an actress than the average Rollin star, but she does project a savage form of sexual menace that makes her an especially magnetic, memorable screen presence. Tina's a deadly femme fatale who's turned on by evil: in the opening scenes, she watches with a wicked smirk as her fellow pirates attack and rape the two survivors of the shipwreck, and all the violence moves her to strip down and seduce the pirate captain into her arms. Rollin treats her to multiple closeups in which she smiles that sinister, lusty smile, sensually shaking her long hair away from her face, throwing her head back, overcome with arousal at the prospect of violence and pillaging. Her performance is totally unmodulated, violently sexy, awkward and erotic in equal measures, and she brings a level of energy and enthusiasm to the film that's otherwise totally missing. Her constant posing — putting her hands on her hips and thrusting to and fro in a sexually charged celebration of death and destruction — is blatantly theatrical, making her a caricature of erotic evil, a nasty cartoon character come to fleshy life.
If only Rollin had built a worthier movie around this devilishly unrepressed villainess. The credits sequence introduces this as "un film expressioniste de Jean Rollin," but that description is far more apt for the director's earlier movies, which truly did create expressionist beauty from low-grade horror schlock. This film just meanders aimlessly without ever taking advantage of its most promising elements; even the revenge quest of the two girls is disappointing. With all the power of the devil at their fingertips, the best the sisters can do for vengeance is to make some statues fall from pillars while Tina runs around screaming, in what must be the silliest and least convincing sequence in a movie with some very stiff competition for that title. A few compelling moments aside, Demoniacs is one of Rollin's weaker efforts, where the unique alchemy of his approach fails to come together, leaving only the multiple failings of performance and plotting that are usually glossed over by the director's idiosyncratic aesthetic.