Color, 1960, 79m.
Directed by Roger Vadim
Starring Mel Ferrer, Elsa Martinelli, Annette Vadim
Media Target Distribution (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
In between his famous star-making sexy vehicles for his muses Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda with And God Created Woman and Barbarella, director Roger Vadim made an unexpected turn into horror territory for the first and only time in his feature-length career. (Of course, there's also one short film exception.) That film was Blood and Roses, a terrific Technicolor gothic scope concoction released by Paramount in a version running a suspiciously short 74 minutes. Rumors abounded immediately that various European countries had gotten an alternate cut rife with more explicit lesbianism and nudity, a claim repeated in horror reference books for decades. This was difficult to disprove considering the film's frustrating lack of availability on home video around the world in anything close to a respectable version, with Paramount dumping it out briefly on VHS in a depressing, EP-speed atrocity that brutalized the compositions and made the entire viewing experience a major chore. Eventually poor quality transfers of the film's French version started making the rounds, but more on that in a moment...
Loosely derived from the classic horror novella Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (which also inspired such films as The Vampire Lovers and its semi-sequels), our tale involves a peculiar love triangle between the aristocratic Leopoldo De Karnstein (Ferrer), his fiancee Georgia (Martinelli), and his childhood best friend and cousin, Carmilla (Annette Vadim, the director's wife at the time). During a fireworks-laden masquerade party at night at the Karnstein estate, Carmilla is drawn to a nearby rocky formation shaken apart by the explosions. In the process, a spirit is released (or is it?) belonging to Millarca, the family's infamous vampiric ancestor who still inspires bloodcurdling tales around the countryside. Soon village girls are dropping like flies, and Carmilla is acting very strangely indeed and making predatory advances on the engaged couple.
As enjoyable and titillating as his best films can be, no one has ever accused Vadim of being a particularly strong storyteller. Blood and Roses has often seemed a bit out of step in that respect, offering an unusually engrossing narrative that still makes it one of the most purely enjoyable European vampire films as well as a beautifully shot study of melancholy longing. At least that's the impression given by the English-language version, which turned out to be an expertly conceived streamlining of Vadim's French cut and turned the narrative into an undeniable study in the supernatural. On the other hand, the French version contains no additional sexy material, instead bookending the film with a psychiatrist on a plane talking about this strange case and adding considerable extra material involving two village girls commenting on the local legends and offering a peasant counterpoint to all that aristocratic decadence. Honestly, both versions have considerable merits and are worth seeing, especially on the big screen if you're ever lucky enough to catch a rare theatrical screening.
In what became typical of Vadim with later films like The Game Is Over, Circle of Love, and Spirits of the Dead, this film was conceived in both English and French-language versions, with the principal actors shooting their scenes in both languages. Both actually work very well, and it's hard to choose one over the other in the end. No matter how you see it, the film is boosted considerably by the stunning cinematography by Claude Renoir (who went on to shoot The Spy Who Loved Me, of all things) and the beautiful harp-driven music score by Jean Prodromides, which is put to particularly striking use during a stalking scene in broad afternoon daylight. As usual, Vadim pushed the sexual envelope a bit here by indulging in some implied lesbian attraction (a brief kiss between the two female leads) and one jolting view of Carmilla's blood-covered bare breast, which amazingly remains intact in virtually every print outside of TV airings. The only major censorship issue was the film's fantastic nightmare sequence (a sort of cross between Jean Cocteau and The Tingler), in which the screen drains of color apart from red as Georgia is led through a succession of wild scenarios by her vampiric companion. Various countries seemed to tweak this sequence differently, with some dropping a brief interlude in a surgery room involving a (distant) shot of a topless patient; oddly, some French prints actually dropped the nightmare scene almost entirely, perhaps to play up that version's attempts to explain its events away through abnormal psychology. Adding to the mystery is the existence of additional stills from the scene unrelated to the finished product, including an often-repeated shot of Martinelli with some kind of blobby, bloodsucking monster on her chest.
Despite pleas from fans for decades now (and really, if any horror title cried out for the Criterion treatment, this would be it), Blood and Roses has continued to languish as a holy grail of sorts among the great Euro horror classics. Fortunately salvation arrived at least for those eager to see a good quality transfer of the French version courtesy of the 2014 German DVD, which features optional English or German subtitles for the French or German audio. Judging by the opening credits, it's been taken from a German print in extremely good shape; at last the colors at least approximate the heightened intensity of theatrical prints, and the quality is obviously light years beyond anything we've had on video before. (Interestingly, a couple of rough splices indicate the nightmare scene -- which is complete here -- may have been taken from a different print.) This is by far the longest edition to surface to date, running 79 minutes in PAL or 82 adjusted to NTSC. The bit rate is also extremely high, pushing this into dual-layered territory despite the short running time. There's obviously room for significant improvement if someone can get access to the French or American negative at some point (and again, why isn't this already out on Blu-ray somewhere?), but for now this is a major release and highly recommended. Hopefully the American cut will get the same treatment or better one day, as its very different final moments are also worth preserving. The French audio is rough shape than the German, but it's more authentic to the performances and English subtitles are very good. Extras include the American and German theatrical trailers, a long (five minutes plus) gallery of stills and artwork from around the world (accompanied by the two best tracks from Prodromides' soundtrack album), and bonus trailers for Le feu aux poudres, Playgirl After Dark, and The Mask.
Reviewed on February 12, 2014.