The Grapes of Death (1978)

It’s not the most prepossessing title for a horror film, is it? And yet somehow it turned out to be that rare beast in Jean Rollin’s filmography, an actual reasonable commercial success… enough so, at least, that he was able to partly finance Fascination with some of the money this made. This found him at an interesting point in his career, finally trying to claw his way out of the porno ghetto he’d been stuck in for some years; as Tim Lucas’ booklet essay observes, those years of experience informed this production as well, in that he’d arguably learned to be a less personal filmmaker when necessity dictated. And, to be sure, Grapes is much less overtly “Rollin” than his previous works, much more straightforward and, notably, much more gory; Rollin later said he didn’t like gore, so its presence here is a significant departure (and, it should be added, predates the extreme gore boom that would come in the next few years). Lucas finds echoes of early Cronenberg and even David Durston, but I think far more obvious reference points are Romero’s The Crazies and Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie; put them together, transplant it to French wine country, and you just about have Rollin’s tale of people going berserk thanks to wine poisoned by pesticide. Which is not to say that it’s not still a “Rollin film”, mind you; it may lack some of the usual signifiers (no beach in Dieppe!), but there’s some of the same cast and crew and the same overall mood. The film’s air of greater realism is only relative, in some ways; the night-time footage definitely recalled earlier efforts for me, and though the film doesn’t lack incident (though I can see some people whining that it could’ve done with more) the overall sombre mood seems to be the greater consideration. Better budgeted than most of his films, Grapes makes good use of resources and setting and the net result is damned creepy stuff (watch with the lights off)… and it is very good, one of his best actually, but I kind of wish it had been a bit more “Rollin”. Still, being a comparatively conventional horror while still retaining at least some characteristics might make it a palatable introduction to Rollin for some people (it’s the only Rollin title on that Top 500 Horror list, which is interesting). Once they look past the title, anyway…

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