Jean Rollin was a master of the fantastique, the way that the French refer to a mixture of science fiction, horror and fantasy. What’s the difference between fantastique and fantasy? The former is more concerned with the intrusion of supernatural phenomena into an otherwise realist narrative. In this genre, the supernatural may be met with doubt, disbelief and fear; yet it always exists.
After a decade marked by working under a pseudonym in the porn industry to make ends meet, Rollin saw Fascination as an attempt to return to his roots. It’s based on Jean Lorrain’s Un verre de sang (A Glass of Blood), a poem about rich people drinking the blood of bulls in order to cure anemia. It’s also a tribute to a French magazine that explored eroticism in art.
In 1905, a group of wealthy women waits for bulls to be slaughtered so that they can drink their supposedly curative blood.
A gang of thieves pursues Mark, who is trying to leave France for London with a bag of gold coins. He finds a secluded mansion in the mountains that is empty, save for two chambermaids, Elizabeth and Eva, who await the arrival of their Marchioness and her servants.
The women, who are lovers, aren’t afraid of Mark. Instead, they seem attracted to him. Eva eventually sleeps with the thief, making Elizabeth jealous to the point that she puts a gun in her mouth.
A shot rings out, but it is not Elizabeth’s death. The thieves have found where Mark is hiding and have begun shooting at the house. Eva goes out to give the men Mark’s gold. While they count it, a female thief demands her dress.
Eva makes love to one of the thieves before stabbing him, then wiping out the rest with a scythe. Once the film tastes blood, it picks up in intensity and purpose. Eva returns to find the woman who stole her white dress, now clad in black and carrying the giant bladed weapon. Single frame close-ups of their eyes, lips and blades show the difference between the women. While the thief was once in control and confident, now she is facing death. Her outstretched knife is tentative and finally drops as Eva laughingly decimates her, the former virginal white dress awash with blood as the camera pulls back from the drawbridge to show the carnage.
Soon, the Marchioness later arrives, whom Mark refers to as the grand danger. She tells him that death often takes the form of seduction (and Elizabeth had said that death itself would be coming). If Mark stays — and she know she will — he’ll be the only man there…except for Satan, of course.
Mark jokingly says, “Midnight! Satan! Death!” as he finds the situation very amusing. Mark tries to take her by force, as she intimates that he’d like to try, but she responds by biting his lip.
Four more women arrive, excited at the possibility of Mark being at their annual reunion. They go to meet him as Elizabeth and Eva light a room full of candles. Mark asks if it’s for the arrival of Death, but gets no answers.
As music plays, one of the women tells Mark that he is about to learn what seven women can do to one man. He takes the music from slow to fast, dancing with a near mania. Suddenly, he has the attention of every woman in the room, dancing with each of them one at a time. He is blindfolded and spun around until he has no idea where he is, laughing and seeking the touch of each woman as they begin to disrobe him. He staggers around the room, blind, seeking to touch each woman.
They’re playing a game, where if Mark can pick out the woman by touch, she can be his. Mark finds the Marchioness and tells her that he wants her to be his slave for fifteen minutes. She tells him to meet her in the study.
All of the women confront Elizabeth, who wants to save Mark as she feels something for him. The other women taunt her before handing out the costumes for midnight.
Mark meets the Marchioness, who undresses for him. He makes her get on her knees and teases her with a cigar. She rises and tells him that the fifteen minutes are over. He walks outside where he finds the body of the final thief, covered in blood. He presents it to the women, who are all wearing veils that barely cover their nudity. He demands to know their secrets and says that he belongs to the real world and their world.
The Marchioness tells Mark to go to the stables, where she has a horse waiting for him. Yet the stables are empty. Eva was waiting for Mark, but Elizabeth shoots her several times. Eva asks why, telling her that she loved her before dying. She crawls back to the house where the rest of the women converge on her and devour her.
Elizabeth and Mark hide in the stables, where he confesses that he loves her. She does not return that love and kills him. Then, she and the Marchioness walk into the sunrise.
Is Fascination a vampire movie? Maybe. It’s more the tale of a ritual, repeated year after year. It’s about how love and sex and madness can be intertwined and how fickle it can all be. It’s about man’s sexual power being laughable when faced with a powerful woman. “The blood cult is strange and bizarre. The love of blood is stronger than the body in which it flows,” says Elizabeth as she shoots Mark. “I never loved you, but what I liked about you was…” she trails off, eyes mad.
After his hit The Grapes of Death, it looked like Fascination would be a change of fortunes for Jean Rollin, lifting him from the porn gutter. Sadly, all of the screenings were canceled at the last minute and the film went from something everyone was dying to see to a film that no one could find. Again, Rollin would lose nearly all of his money and return to adult films.
That’s a shame because this is a film that’s literally brimming with dread, doom and otherworldliness. It starts slow, but by the end it really gets going. I hate to admit it, but this is my introduction to Rollin’s work and I plan on it being only the first.