Director: Jean Rollin
Redemption USA

When a key financer backed out at the last minute, French filmmaker Jean Rollin was faced with the difficult decision of either scrapping his latest project altogether or downsizing the original shooting schedule from four weeks to three. Considering Lèvres de sang to be his strongest script to date, Rollin decided to move forward, cutting scenes and altering others, in order to accommodate a tighter shooting schedule. While having to trim his script must have been disheartening at the time, such improvisations may have been a blessing in disguise, as the end result is an atmospheric yarn that allows Rollin to showcase the familiar themes and locations near and dear to him, but with a tighter narrative and defter pacing.

While attending the unveiling of new perfume, Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe, PUSSY TALK) is unusually drawn to an advertisement poster which promptly displays a landscape photo of an aging castle. Unable to shake a strange sense of familiarity, Frederic inquires about the photographer, who much to his delight, is in attendance. After brief introductions, the photographer agrees to meet with Frederic at her studio to discuss the ruins and their location. Mesmerized by a profound feeling of déjà vu, Frederic consults his mother as well (Nathalie Perrey, THE IRON ROSE) in hopes that she might recall visiting the castle when he was a boy. She is however quite adamant that neither of them have ever vacationed at such a place and encourages her son to let the idea go. Nonetheless, when Frederic recollects a nocturnal encounter with a beautiful young woman in white at the very same site, his quest to discover its location and find her, becomes steadfast.

All initial attempts to uncover the castle's location end abruptly, as Frederic is continually thwarted by circumstances and individuals both highly suspicious. While their initial meeting proved fruitless, the young photographer eventually agrees to divulge the site's location only to wind up topless and lifeless at the local aquarium. Kidnapped, shot at and thrown into a mental institution, Frederic will not be detoured and continues to press forward, aided by a foursome of female vampires, which he accidentally released and the persistent visions of the woman in white, ever coaxing him closer. While it is abundantly clear that many, including his own mother, will stop at nothing to keep Frederic from uncovering the castle's location, no force living or dead will deviate Frederic from revealing the secrets locked away from his memory.

While I wouldn't go so far as to call LIPS OF BLOOD Rollin's finest work, it is one of his most accessible films, save for maybe THE GRAPES OF DEATH (Les Raisins de la mort). Pacing is surprisingly taut for a Rollin film, with the plot unfolding to a steady and satisfying beat. Once Frederic grabs a hold of his lost childhood memory, he doesn’t let go or allow for distractions. Likewise the film rarely deviates from following Frederic on his quest, allowing for a sense of suspense to build without becoming weighed down by the thick dreamlike ambiance that is tantamount with the majority of Rollin films. Co-written by lead Jean-Loup Philippe, LIPS OF BLOOD is an ideal jumping off point for those curious but unfamiliar with Rollin, almost like a Cliff Notes to the director's body of work as it entails a number of his favored themes (dreams, memory), characters (female vampires) and locations (the coast of Dieppe). Fans of Rollin will definitely want to pick this one up as it features a number of unexpected but familiar pleasures, such as Frederic's visit to a theater that just happens to be playing Le frisson des vampires.

While the film’s steady pace doesn’t allow much room for dialogue, it thankfully makes time for an abundance of nudity. From the moment Frederic lets the quartet of female vampire loose, the picture abounds with naked women, frolicking through the night in sheer tinted robes. While it adds very little to the plot, the gang of nubile night dwellers does support the film's overall surreal, dreamlike tone. A boyish fantasy come to life as young, naked women are to be found at every turn, assisting him on his journey to find the one female of his intense adulation. Beautifully shot, Rollin skillfully walks the thin line between art house and exploitation, at times using it as a jump rope, bounding from one to the other with ease. The young girls do at times interrupt the film's otherworldly tone with a handful of unintentional hilarious moments as it is quite obvious that the fake teeth provided to them are two sizes too big. The Castel twins in particular often appear to be gasping for breath, as apposed to thirsting for blood.

Redemption originally released LIPS OF BLOOD on DVD through Image Entertainment in 1999, but as that release has long been out of print, they have revived the title with a much more appropriate and striking cover, through their current distributor RYKO. With an anamorphic transfer from the film’s original negative, the film holds up well in its 1.66:1 aspect ratio. There is a persistent rain of grain, in the form of white pops and spots that become a little distracting early on, but such flaws fade away as the film progresses and often add to its ethereal qualities. The French Mono audio is clear and English subtitles are accurate and easy to follow.

Extras include an onscreen introduction by Rollin, who describes the first half of the film before stopping for fear of ruining the ending. His English is fair but his accent can at times be hard to follow, especially on the audio commentary track. While the track is clear, there are a number of lulls in the conversation and you may find your self rewinding more than once to clarify what Rollin is saying. On-camera interviews with Jean-Loup Philippe and Nathalie Perrey cover their history with French cinema and Rollin, both recalling their time together fondly. A stills gallery and showcase of Philip Caza’s original poster art are rounded off by trailers for KILLER’S MOON and NATURE MORTE, both currently available from Redemption USA. (Jason McElreath)