Oblique narratives involving beautiful yet often threatening scantily-clad female vampires, who're usually to be found haunting the environs of some secluded chateaux or foggy cemetery located in a serenely dreamlike Gallic landscape: these are the traditional ingredients that make up the phantasmagoric worlds created in most of the best-known works of cult French filmmaker, Jean Rollin.
1980's "La Nuit Des Traguees" (Night of the Hunted") is a bit of an exception in the director's horror filmography, though. Although the same dreamlike atmosphere pervading his vampire fables is very much in evidence, the film has more of a subtle sci-fi edge to it. Set in a recognisable yet alien-looking world of anonymous apartment blocks and remote, traffic-crowded motorways (for-shades of Cronenberg's "Shivers" and "Crash" here), the thing that really sets the film apart from most of Rollin's other work is the way it smashes the boundaries between exploitation and more "legitimate" genres. Although full of the necessary horror and erotic ingredients his tightly budgeted films were usually forced to include, "La Nuit Des Traguees" has a real emotional depth to it, and some really moving sequences of incredible tenderness that belie the fact that it was shot in two weeks with a cast of porn actors and amateurs!
While driving home one night, Robert (Vincent Gardere) notices a disorientated young woman (Brigitte Lahaie) stumbling along the roadside, dressed only in a night gown. He eventually manages to persuade her to accept a lift, but discovers that she has lost all memory of how she came to be in her current situation and apart from her name, which is Elysabeth, she has no memory of her previous life. All she knows is that she is running from something, and that someone called Veronique is important to her. Robert takes her home and the two end up making love. The next morning Robert goes out to work leaving Elysabeth behind to sleep.
But it transpires that Elysabeth's pursuers, Doctor Francis (Bernard Papineau) and his assistant Solange (Rachel Mhas), have tracked her to Robert's house. When he leaves, they break in to discover that Elysabeth's short-term memory has now deteriorated to such an extent that she has already forgotten who Robert is and how she came to be in the house! They drive her to an apartment block--the place she had previously escaped from along with her friend Veronique--and lead her to her flat which she apparently shares with another woman called Catherine. This woman has also lost her memory ... in fact, she is also losing control of her body and Elysabeth even has to help her feed herself. Apart from a small group of medical staff (headed by Dr. Francis) and armed security guards to stop anyone leaving, the apartment block is entirely populated by people suffering from the same mysterious illness as Elysabeth and Catherine. Some of them become violent as they lose control of their bodies and the tower block can be quite a dangerous place.
When, out of despair, Catherine kills herself (by stabbing herself in the eyes with a pair of scissors, no less!), Elysabeth and her red-haired friend Veronique once again dream of escaping. Elysabeth finds Robert's phone number in her pocket; she has by now lost all memory of how she came to have it, but intuitively she senses she should dial it. Robert immediately sets out for the distinctive "black tower" Elysabeth describes, unaware of the terrible secret he is about to stumble upon...
Although the film represents a departure from Rollin's mythical vampire-based stories in subject matter, it is still very much identifiably "Rollin" in style. That is to say, it follows the director's usual languid pacing. Those who find Rollin's films ponderous will probably still struggle with this one, but, it is worth persevering, although don't expect any happy endings ... this is bleak stuff! The feel and tone of the movie is uniquely bizarre: although set in a modern-looking French city, we never see any other people but the quarantined inhabitants of the tower block and the male protagonist (who disappears from the narrative for the lengthy middle section of the film). The streets are always deserted (presumably, Rollin filmed very early in the morning), but at night the lights from the traffic on crowded motorways can be seen in the distance. There seems to have been one hell of a storm taking place during the shoot as well, which adds to the constant, but almost subliminal, sense of unease. Most of the film takes place in a fairly anonymous tower block where all the rooms look alike and lack any identity (in a forerunner to the Overlook Hotel's antiseptic anonymity in Kubrick's "The Shinning") -- the unrelenting ordinariness, even blandness, of the surroundings actually starts to become quite creepy after a while. The sterility of this place just emphasises that its inhabitants have nothing to spark their memories to life as their personalities gradually disintegrate.
The emotional force of the movie is provided by the characters' desperate attempts to (literally) save their selves, or their souls. The symptoms of their disease are obviously similar to old-age related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's, but also eerily foreshadow those of CJD, which affected several hundred people in the UK's "Mad Cow" scandal in the early nineties. The cause of the illness turns out to be a radiation leak which affected only the inhabitants of the tower block and it's immediate surroundings. All of the victims are being kept under armed-guard to stop anyone else finding out about it. The medical team are not there to find a cure or treat the sufferers; instead, it becomes apparent that the doctors are merely waiting until the victims' symptoms progress to the point where they have no minds left at all, so that having them "put to sleep" can be ethically justified!
There are obviously a lot of buttons being pushed her concerning issues especially on the subject of euthanasia, and the scenes where groups of zombified, mindless residents are shown being given lethal injections and then bundled into furnaces are as relentlessly grim as anything produced by the terminally sour Michael Haneke. But the film isn't really a didactic rant; instead, it concentrates on illuminating the personalities of the main two female protagonists before the remaining glimmers of their identity disappear altogether. It develops into a tragic, fatalistic love story, dealing with the grief of watching the object of that love rapidly dying away, even though their body still lingers on. Touch seems to enable the victims of the illness to retain the object of their short-term memories, and so an act of love becomes a means of holding on to their very minds and their pasts.
The sex scene between Robert and Elysabeth is actually quite poignant as a result, and not as exploitative as might be imagined. But, next to this low-key, human drama sit those exploitative elements: gore scenes and rape scenes are included (a night watchman takes advantage of the catatonic female inhabitants of the tower block) but somehow, this odd mixture of sensitive drama and sleaze really works much better than it has a right to on paper and it's hard to think of another movie quite like this. I suspect that the art-house fans will be turned off by the exploitation and the gore fans will get fed up with the slow pace and artsy-fartsy-ness of it all, but fans of cinematic oddity will probably love the originality and somber idiosynchronicity of the film.
This new transfer looks much better than previous releases but is still plagued with many scratches and glitches. This is still an essential cinematic oddity for lovers of euro horror, though.