Halloween Endurance Test: the Grapes of Death (1978)

For better or worse, here in the United States European directors are generally known for one or two things. Stanley Kubrick is famous for his unwillingness to edit. Jess Franco for his obsession with shooting close-ups of wife Lina Romay’s vagina. Jean Rollin, director of the Grapes of Death, had two career-long focuses: clowns and vampires.

Neither of which play any part in tonight’s feature.

This film actually picking up where Tombs of the Blind Dead left off, and where Return of the Evil Dead should’ve started, in a deserted train station with two women on their way to Spain.

Unfortunately they don’t get off in the deserted town, instead they pick up a zombie and travel along on their merry way. This movie would be so much better if the special effects weren’t horrid.

The opening scene, where the zombie (still acting as a man) sits in the cabin with the protagonist and just stares and breathes heavy would be a lot creepier if each successive shot didn’t advertise the make-up on his cheek. Inevitably building up to the shot where he reaches up and tears chunks out of his face. If your effects are bad, and your movie is effect-heavy, you have two choices: play them up for absurdity’s sake (see Die You Zombie Bastards!) or use them sparingly, hopefully masked by jump-cuts.

The girl runs to a farmhouse where she meets an infected farmer and daughter. Here we learn the infection is more 28 Days Later than Night of the Living Dead. Just as Danny Boyle’s “Rage” disease would infect the British Isles, here, twenty years earlier, said infection tore through France. Leaving the villagers with ever-spreading rashes and homicidal urges.

Needless to say, this is a European horror film, so the infected farmer wastes no time in disrobing his daughter (to show she too had a rash) before stabbing her in the chest with a pitchfork! He then gets run over with his own car(!) when Elisabeth steals it to make her getaway.

Now I don’t want to be over-analytical, but when all the women your protagonist befriends end up brutalized and topless, I think there’s a message there. Either that the rural French circa the late 60s were threatened by women’s growing independence, or that T&A sells tickets. Possibly both.

Elisabeth stumbles into a village where she eventually meets the film’s “heros;” i.e. two hunters who quarrel over the morality of killing people who are clearly diseased, and thus unable to control their actions.

(Keep an eye out for the one villager wielding the scythe; an overt nod to Rollins’ own vampire classic, Requiem for a Vampire.)

Hunter 1: “Did you notice that the men have more sores than the women? And that crazy woman in the village [porn star/Rollin muse Brigitte Lahaie] had no sores at all?

Protagonist: “That’s true. I met a blind woman. Lucy. She had no sores at all. And the daughter of the peasant had gone crazy… but she had just one small sore.”

Leave it to the French, the founders of La Nouvelle Vague to openly mock the genre’s conventions as they explain the plot within the confines of said conventions. Noting how the nude girls didn’t have sores right before deducing that it’s contaminated wine that is causing the calamity.

Perfectly summing up why I love foreign (horror) films (their needless intelligence) while setting up film’s final twist.

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