Jean Rollin and Lucio Fulci: Maestros of Horror

Jean Rollin and Lucio Fulci: Maestros of Horror

Fulci and Rollin’s films were low-budget, awkwardly acted, and often had almost laughable gore and gross-out effects. (However, some scenes in Fulci’s works featuring real parasites in action atop simulated rotting corpses make the maggot scene in Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” look like a romp among fireflies.) Yet at their best they achieved the “venomous and intoxicating” climate of “total perdition” that the critic Robert Benayoun called a requirement for “authentic sadistic cinema.”

And for Halloween you can reach perdition in the privacy of your own home. Kanopy, the streaming service available free to many university students and professors, and library card holders across the country, has about a dozen Rollin films, including “Lips of Blood” (1975), “Two Orphan Vampires” (1997) and “The Living Dead Girl” (1982). (Fans of filth-rock may recall a song of that title by White Zombie co-founder turned horror film director, Rob Zombie).

A personal favorite is the 1978 film “The Grapes of Death” (original French title: “Les Raisins de la Mort”). This can be seen as Rollin’s gloss on the zombie pioneer George A. Romero, specifically his “The Crazies” from 1973.

In “Grapes of Death,” a young woman and her friend traveling by train in rural France are waylaid by staggering men with huge open sores on their faces and necks. One intriguing feature of the movie is that it’s never precisely established what the afflicted homicidal shufflers really want, except to do horrific damage; they’re not zombies and they don’t feed on their victims.

The Rollin semiregular Brigitte Lahaie, then also a star of French pornographic movies, appears a little over halfway through to convince the movie’s heroine that she’s not one of “them;” her argument, which she also makes to some “normal” undead hunters, is that her skin would not be so milky white and clear if she were. It’s like that “You might, Rabbit, you might” bit in the Looney Tunes cartoon “Bugs and Thugs.” The movie ties up a bunch of Rollin’s obsessions in a tidy package; if you like this one, you should move forward with confidence to his other creations.

It’s worth noting that Kanopy also offers several titles directed by the ineffable Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Among them is “Black Sabbath” (1963), an anthology picture whose segment “The Wurdelak” remains one of the most unsettlingly terrifying vampire tales ever committed to film.

A nice group of ultra-icky pictures by Fulci is available on Screambox, including “The House by the Cemetery” (1981) and “City of the Living Dead,” from 1980, a.k.a. “Gates of Hell,” which features a segment in which a character regurgitates her own intestines. This was the sort of thing that raised the eyebrows of the grindhouse regulars. As with many contemporary horror pictures, watching some of these makes you wonder, “What’s wrong with this guy?”

What’s wrong with Rollin and Fulci, though, is probably a lot more interesting than what could be wrong with Eli Roth — which may in fact just be that he’s watched too many Lucio Fulci movies — or the “Saw” people.

Until recently, by the way, it was always a “guy” who had something wrong. But I’m happy to report that a new crop of pretty twisted female horror directors is emerging, like Julia Ducournau, whose 2017 cannibal picture “Raw” is now streaming on demand from iTunes and other sites.

Fulci himself addresses this question of derangement in “A Cat in the Brain,” also streaming on Screambox. In that 1990 movie, Fulci, playing himself, is compelled to visit a psychiatrist because he can’t turn off the bizarre cinematic visions playing in his own head. In a twist typical of a Fulci movie — not to mention almost every other Italian serial-killer movie ever — the shrink … well, you’ll see.

Next week I’ll be looking at some universally acknowledged classic horror titles streaming this season, and one or two new titles.

Of classics, there are, in the cinematic firmament, a finite number. The thing about obscure and weird horror is that there’s no practical end to it. As I file this piece I’ll still have a watchlist of dozens more intriguing-sounding movies that seem to have come out of nowhere.

As you explore for more, you never know what you’ll find.

On Amazon Prime I discovered a horror picture written and directed by a fellow I’ve known since I was 10, and which features my high school Spanish teacher in a supporting role. It’s called “She Wolf Rising,” and also stars the scream queen Tiffany Shepis. As personally fascinating a find as it is, it’ll have to be a Halloween story for another time.

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