Jean Rollin’s films aren’t exactly famous for their coherent plots or effective scares, but, with 1978’s The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins de la mort), the director showcased a very different side of himself, eschewing his usual tropes of lesbian vampires and sex-crazed ghosts in favor of something of an eco-horror nightmare that, to me, anyway, stands as one of his most lucid and terrifying offerings.
Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) returns to her small French village to reunite with her fiancé, the owner of a vineyard who is using an experimental pesticide to treat his crops. En route, the train stops to pick up a deranged man who then murders a fellow traveler and chases Elizabeth off of the train and into the countryside.
Elizabeth seeks help at a nearby farm house but is horrified to discover the home’s owner – his hands dotted in festering sores – in the process of killing his own daughter (with a pitchfork, no less). Before the mad farmer can dole out the same fate to Elizabeth, she narrowly escapes, but, as she makes her way through burning villages, deserted streets strewn with the bodies of hapless victims, and a town seemingly under the control of a mad sex goddess brandishing a pair of killer Great Danes (Brigitte Lahaie in a very memorable cameo , it becomes all too clear the dementia has spread throughout the valley, leaving Elizabeth alone to fight her way to her fiancé in hopes that he’s been spared from the effects of the grapes of death.
Okay, that's the film in a nutshell. Actually, you could probably fit the script of this film inside of an actual nutshell because I don't think there is more than a page's worth of dialogue in the whole thing, but that’s okay as Rollin more than makes up for a lack of chatter with some gorgeous cinematography, highly stylized violence (albeit extra graphic by Rollin’s standards), and, of course, a few moments of the director’s trademark titillation. The fact that this is also a “message” film (one that probably owes as much to Romero’s The Crazies as it does to Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead in the Manchester Morgue) elevates Grapes of Death above Rollin’s usual output, at least in terms of substance.
As a whole, Grapes of Death is probably Rollin’s rawest looking film since The Iron Rose, with much of the film being shot under natural light, and given an almost travelogue aesthete. It’s this approach, however, that makes the scenes of Elizabeth running through the rolling hills and sweeping vistas of the Rhine Valley (accompanied by a monotonous synth score that’s at once infuriating and hypnotic) all the more effective, as the golden hour shorts are truly breathtaking, offering a deftly balanced juxtaposition to the more stylized events that occur later in the film.
The Grapes of Death comes to Blu-ray as part of Kino/Lorber’s The Cinema of Jean Rollin collection, and is presented in a 1.66:1 1080p transfer culled from the original 35mm negative. The image looks quite exceptional, surpassing the quality of Synapse Films excellent DVD presentation from many years back, with a generally crisper, more vibrant image, and an impressive amount of fine detail. Bear in mind, this is not a re-master, so we’re given a warts and all transfer that still possesses the occasional artifact and some scenes in which excess noise is apparent, but, as a whole, this is the best the film has looked on any format, and, given its relative obscurity (and the exorbitant cost of a full on re-mastering), likely the best it will look for the foreseeable future. The accompanying DTS HD Master Audio Mono track is in French with optional English subtitles (as it should be), and offers a perfectly acceptable mix that’s remarkably clean for its vintage. While there’s the expected amount of distortion present in the film’s extremely loud and relentless synthesizer score, it’s much less pronounced than in previous releases.
Kino/Redemption assembles a nice collection of bonus materials, although none are really film specific save for the brief introduction by the late Rolllin and the film’s theatrical trailer (HD). The disc’s meatiest extra is a 49 minute Q&A with Rollin recorded in 2007, and is more of a career retrospective in which the director discusses his influences. It’s a great interview, and one that Rollin fans will definitely want to watch! Rounding out the extras are trailers for the other films in the Rollin collection, as well as a 16 page booklet featuring a lengthy essay by Tim Lucas focusing on this release, as well as the other most recent release from the collection, Night of the Hunted. It’s fascinating stuff, and, as always, Lucas proves to be the authority when it comes to eurosleaze goodness!
The Grapes of Death is a bit slow-moving at times, doesn’t always make a hell of a lot of sense, and may disappoint viewers looking for Rollin’s trademark softcore erotica, but, as a Rollin fan, myself, I count this film amongst my favorites from the director. It’s dark, disturbing, and brutally violent (once again, by Rollin’s standards), yet, at the same time, boasts moments of incredible beauty and the director's signature style. Kino/Redemption presentation is exceptional from top to bottom, with a great transfer and a welcome assortment of quality extras, making this one an easy recommendation!