Sunday, August 4, 2013

Les raisins de la mort (1978)

... aka: Grapes of Death, The
... aka: Pesticide
... aka: Raisins of Death, The
... aka: Village of the Living Dead, The

Directed by:
Jean Rollin

Grape harvesters who work for Roubelais Vineyard have been using a new chemical pesticide on their annual crop. Unfortunately, the shoddy masks they've been given by their boss haven't been airtight and the men have been breathing in the toxic substance all along. And if direct contact with the substance in the air is bad, actually ingesting the wine certainly couldn't be any better for you. Aboard a train, two women; Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and Brigitte (Evelyne Thomas) are the sole passengers and happen to be passing through the same area as the vineyard. At a brief stop, one of the sick men gets aboard the train. His face begins to swell and bleed, he goes mad, kills Brigitte and then tries to kill Elisabeth, but she stops the train and escapes. After running a piece through the country, she comes across a farmhouse where named Lucien (Serge Marquand) and his daughter Antoinette (Patricia Cartier) live. It doesn't take long before Elisabeth realizes that the same affliction that's befallen the man aboard the train has also infected the farmer, who has a strange rash on his hand and has already murdered his wife during one of his "spells." Antoinette insists they sneak out and take the car to go get help, but they're ambushed by the father, who promptly rips open Antoinette's top to reveal she too is infected before sinking a pitchfork into her. On her way out, the farmer pleads with Elisabeth to kill him, so she smashes him up against a wall with the car before heading on down the road.

Elisabeth eventually finds herself in another village, where she's attacked by yet another crazed / infected man and shoots him in the head. From there, she encounters the blind Lucie (Mirella Rancelot) wandering around in a field full of large stones. Lucie claims she's from a nearby village, has been ostracized for supposedly being bad luck and has gotten separated from her guide. Elisabeth decides to take her back and, once they arrive, the entire village appears to have been slaughtered. Bloody corpses are strewn all over the ground, but soon more insane killers to come crawling out of the rubble. After Lucie wanders off and gets herself killed, Elisabeth seeks refuge in a home where a mysterious, nameless beauty (Brigitte Lahaie) is hiding out. The woman claims to be the mayor's assistant and says she's been trapped there for three days. Elisabeth senses something's a little off about her, but since she doesn't bear any of the trademark soars of the infected, our heroine takes her at her word. As soon as the two step outside to make a run for it, the woman grabs Elisabeth and informs all of the mad villagers to come out and kill her. Thankfully, a pair of construction workers pop in just in the nick of time. They; WWII veteran Paul (Félix Martin), and his younger co-worker Francois (Patrice Valota), rescue Elisabeth and the three head off to the vineyard - where Elisabeth's fiancé Michel (Michel Herval) is supervisor - to try to find out just what's happened.

First off, it needs to be pointed out that this is a much more commercial film than Rollin's previous efforts and, as a result, it may not please some of his die-hard fans. As a matter of fact, I've seen Grapes written off numerous times as a lesser film in the director's oeuvre. Though the ambiance, locales and much of the photography is terrific, there's little "surreal" or "dream-like" atmosphere to be found here. It follows along a linear story line without meandering at a funeral procession pace like many of Rollin's other works. It also lacks the director's typically large amount of gratuitous nudity and his obsessive undraping of underage-looking girls in pigtails, which I suspect is actually the chief reason it is sometimes discounted. I've noticed about the same treatment has been afforded some of Spanish director Jess Franco's least exploitative films. While his sex films are often branded "art," some of his other works, such as his black-and-white Gothic horrors, are often written off as being too mainstream by the dedicated. Me? I go straight down the middle with my tastes, so I often enjoy these "lesser" efforts more so than the lauded ones. I like a nice balance between style and story. If a movie is lacking in one area or the other, it better succeed with flying colors where it is good. Grapes possesses neither exorbitant visual style nor a brilliantly written screenplay, but does show enough attention to both areas to at least skim by with a passing grade.

This same story (pollutants leading to madness, mutation and death) has been told many times elsewhere in films made both before and after this one. Where it separates itself is in its amazing shooting locations, which give this an unique atmosphere that sets it apart from other efforts in the 'living dead' sub-genre to which it belongs. The majority of the film has been shot outdoors in the French countryside and it's filled with Autumn colors, various crumbling structures and old farmhouses and walkways made of stone. The backdrops are often so absorbing to view, you'll find your attention drifting away from the action and characters just to check out what's going on behind them. The writing is less successful. Though the plot-line is certainly at least competent, its attempts to draw war parallels at the very end aren't elaborated upon enough to make them all that impactful. The makeup work is itself highly uneven, but there's at least one memorably gruesome sequence (a decapitation) which has managed to withstand the test of time well enough.

Leading lady Pascal sadly committed suicide in 1985 at the age of 39. Lahaie and Rollin also collaborated on many other projects, including the highly-regarded-by-fans FASCINATION (1979), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED (1980), which shares a similar toxic-chemicals-turn-people-into-homicidal-maniacs premise, and The Escapees (1981). The Synapse DVD release contains 30 minutes worth of interviews with both Rollin and Lahaie, but they don't really even talk about this film except in passing!

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