Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Living Dead Girl – review

Directed by: Jean Rollin

Release Date: 1982

Contains spoilers

La Morte Vivante, to give the film its French title, is probably one of Rollin’s most commercial films. It suffers from some unfortunately fake looking effects as the surreal director imbues the film with more gore than many of his other efforts, plus it has some minor plot holes, and yet… scratch below the surface and you get a tragedy of epic proportions. As such, given that the true power of the film comes in the last reels, I am going to spoil this terribly.

First, however, I must cover the reason that this is a review and not a ‘Vamp or Not?’. The film finds its way onto both vampire and zombie filmographies and I can see why. The zombie overtones come in the way that the living dead girl, Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard), is brought to her state of undeath – by toxic chemical spill. However, we shall see that she feasts on blood – rather than flesh – has complex memories, during the movie she regains the power of speech and she has a sense of morality. This is definitely more on the vampire side.

The film begins with scenes of a chemical plant and then a van travelling down a road. The chemical company is dumping barrels of toxic waste in the vaults of an uninhabited chateau – they previously dumped it in rivers but the fish died. Leaving a cohort by the van, two men take a barrel of chemicals in and then mask up as there are gasses down there. They go further into the crypt as one knows that a woman was buried there with her jewellery – time for a bit of grave robbing on the side.

In the vault a torch burns – so much for the gases and who lit it? There are two coffins, the woman and her daughter Catherine who died two years ago. The men take a coffin each. The corpses are remarkably well preserved. There is an earth tremor and one of the barrels falls, releasing its contents. The fumes resurrect Catherine, whilst the liquid spill burns and kills one of the grave robbers. Catherine pokes the other’s eyes out with wickedly long, sharp nails. The cohort investigates and gets two long nailed fingers in his throat for his trouble. The method of resurrection is a little hokey, and carries little logic as neither the mother nor the robber who was burnt by the chemical revive, but one gets the feeling it was just a convenient excuse to stage the resurrection and the chemicals are forgotten here on in.

Tourists Greg (Mike Marshall) and Barbara (Carina Barone) are in the countryside. Barbara is an actress whom Greg is encouraging to take up photography. We get little else in the way of back story. They argue and Barbara storms off. She sees a girl in the distance, it is Catherine, and photographs her.

A girl is showing an American couple around the Chateau as Catherine reaches it. They manage to avoid each other accidentally. When the Americans leave the girl is phoned by her boyfriend Louis.
She is heading back to the village but they will return in an hour and illicitly spend the weekend in the chateau. She locks up, trapping Catherine within. Catherine for her part explores her old home. She sees a photo of two young girls, herself and her friend Helene (played as an adult by Marina Pierro). She also remembers her youth with Helene and the vow they made, with blood, that if one died the other would follow. In Paris Helene is looking at an identical picture and phones the Chateau. Catherine knocks the ringing phone’s receiver and, when she opens a musical box, Helene thinks of Catherine and rushes back.

The girl and Louis are back in the Chateau, naked and going like rabbits when Catherine touches the piano. Louis goes to investigate and when he returns is spurting blood from the neck. Catherine attacks the girl and drinks their blood, the girl having stumbled to the front steps. When Helene arrives she finds the bodies and then Catherine. At first she assumes that Catherine’s death must have been faked and, indeed, maintains that Catherine is not dead through the film – though this is a front, deep down she knows
what is happening.

She bathes Catherine and puts her to bed and then drags the corpses down into the crypt. She has a plan that she will take Catherine from the Chateau the next day. Catherine walks down to the crypt and touches the bloodied hand of a covered corpse, tasting the blood.
Helene takes some broken glass and cuts her own arm and, with a flash of the ritual from childhood, feeds Catherine. The feeding is gentle. What is Rollin telling us here? It is not explicit but I felt the flashback in the scene, specifically to the spilling of blood, indicates that the vow and not the chemicals was the important aspect of Catherine’s resurrection – more on this later.

The film then sees Helene trying to help her friend, whilst Barbara tries to locate the girl she photographed, whom the villagers say resembles closely Catherine Valmont – two years dead.

Helene manages to get Catherine to speak and then, when in pain, gives her a dove to drink from, but Catherine shakes her head. Only human blood will do. So it is that Helene lures a victim for her friend. With the first victim Helene runs from the Chateau during the feed, covering her ears to block out the screams. Post this, however, we get a switch around in the characters.

Catherine deems that she is evil. She has stolen blood so that it might flow through her veins and does not want to feed again. She realises that death would have taken her back quietly, but Helene’s urging for contact, recognition and speech has drawn her back closer to the living. Is Catherine really evil? She needs to feed on human blood to survive but it tortures her and so she would rather die again, I do not think she is really evil at all.

On the other hand Helene brings her another victim, cutting the girl to encourage the feed and she does this for purely selfish reasons, she wants Catherine to stay with her. Actually, this scene underlines the switch of good and evil roles (not that Catherine was ever evil - animalistic, yes, but not evil). Catherine actually releases the girl and encourages her to alert the village. In the meantime Helene murders Barbara and Greg who are snooping around the Chateau.

The ending is a study in tragedy. Catherine tries to kill herself by walking into the moat of the Chateau. Now here we can see the film clearly falling on the vampire side. Vampire stories sometimes include drowning as a method of vampire killing, zombies have no such weakness.
The scene is almost pre-Raphaelite in composure. Helene pulls her out and Catherine tells her to escape, because of their vow (that one would follow the other into death) she has realised that she is Helene’s death. When Helene refuses, Catherine attacks.

The attack is very gory and protracted. It seems, at one point, that Helene continues to moan when her voice box has clearly been ripped out but then we realise the moans are from Catherine and they are born of pain. During the attack we cut a couple of times to an image of a bat on the Chateau wall, when we see the bat fly away the attack is over. I don’t think the symbolism was accidental and it further indicates that Rollin was consciously making a vampire movie given the close links between bats and vampirism.

After the attack we see Catherine scream and wail, a protracted cry of pure agony and this is the movie’s final scene. It is a powerful scene and Rollin mentions it in the booklet that accompanies the collector’s edition, “Françoise’s screams were so heartfelt, so lifelike and credible. Her face expressed so magnificently the horror of the one who topples over the edge that Max, the cameraman, asked me if we should cut. We were all thinking she was having a real attack.”

In some respects the movie falters. The soundtrack is great but perhaps used too sparingly at times when we have scenes shot with no soundtrack at all. The effects look a little too fake in the gory scenes and the characterisation is weak. This, however, is
Rollin and the characters are ciphers, symbols and catalysts who enable him to portray his message. In this case the message is one of despair and tragedy, a discourse on the greyness of good and evil. It is almost a shame that this symbolism can be lost by those who hear of the gory nature of the film and watch it for the sensationalist aspects.

Scoring the film I think I would probably have aimed for a seven, this is a great watch even if the effects are lacking and there are small logic holes – Helene lures the victim who survives by saying that the girl’s boyfriend, Marc, has had an accident and yet we wonder how she knew his name. The ending, however, changes everything, the ending raises this easily to 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Edna Sweetlove said...

Kinky film, good review. How about one for ETERNAL BLOOD (2002) then?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Edna. I'll put it on the dig out list - but I still have to dig out Killer Barbies for you yet (Just to hit a tad of Franco!)

Edna Sweetlove said...

Aha. Edna prefers Jesus' vintage work, to be quite franko. The zooms are so much more daring. How about a review for an all-time fave like FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973)?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'm sure that can be done sometime in the near future - screenshotting it will be *interesting*

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge Let The Right One In/Let Me In fan but I have to admit that not only does Living Dead Girl (which I just saw) feature some of the same elements but it does so in a more bold manner. Whether it's the depravity of the vampire's helper, the suffering of the victims, or the remorse of the vampire, LDG is more unalloyed and brutal while LTROI/LMI pull their punches by aestheticizing the horror. That allows some fans to sentimentalize Eli/Abby and her relationship with Oskar/Owen rather than seeing them for the tragic horrors they are.

Other LDG-LTROI similarities: Childhood blood pact, the final feeding on the helper.

I still think that LMI is a better movie overall than Living Dead Girl. But the latter is a more unflinching one. And excellent on its own terms.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

Halek, nice analysis.

I would argue that LMI doesn't allow fans to sentimentalize Abby and her relationship with Owen (LTROI certainly does) but I would be caught out by the fact that some do.

I'm glad you got chance to catch, what I belive is, one of Rollin's masterpieces - you've got to love that ending.