French filmmaker Jean Rollin became renowned for his fantastique vampire films in the 1960s and 1970s. He established a distinguishable style in his movies, and when he veered away from vampire movies, he still maintained many of his signature traits. From the dreamlike surrealism to the absurd monologues, Rollin’s films developed a cult following in subsequent years. Producer Sam Selsky – who went on to produce several of Rollin’s pictures – was a key figure throughout his career. He produced Rollin’s first feature, the bizarrely titled The Rape of the Vampire in 1968. Originally meant to be a short film, the movie was expanded into a feature after Selsky was impressed with what Rollin could do on such a limited budget. This resulted in the movie being pretty incoherent and, by Rollin’s own admission, caused a hugely negative reaction among audiences. However, it first established Rollin’s style, and it marked the first time he used the locations of a beach and a cemetery, and his first exploration of vampires, surrealism and eroticism. His next three movies were released in quick succession and greatly improved on his feature debut. The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires, and Requiem for a Vampire saw Rollin develop as a filmmaker whilst sticking to a decipherable formula. His first venture away from vampires came in 1973 with The Iron Rose, based on his own short story.
From a visual perspective, The Iron Rose is so obviously a Rollin film; the settings of the beach and the cemetery, the otherworldly camera movements, and dark imagery make it instantly traceable to Rollin. However, this movie is less concerned with violence and plays out in a more psychological way with many implications and an alternate presentation of surrealism. Once again produced by Selsky, the majority of the movie takes place over one night as a pair of unnamed young lovers (Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester) find themselves lost in a colossal cemetery. Initially, audiences were expecting another vampire flick from Rollin and were surprised to see The Iron Rose as a more understated, subtle movie without any explicit instances of vampires. Rollin also financed the movie himself and had concerns over its potential failure. Unfortunately, Rollin’s concerns came true and his attempt at a more sincere, mature horror movie was met with a negative reception which almost ended his career before it had even begun. It has since come to light that Rollin and his lead actor Quester did not get along on set, and this angered Rollin greatly given how personal the project was to him. Audiences booed initial screenings and Rollin was forced to find work elsewhere, mostly in the adult industry. After struggling to find work and directing under various pseudonyms, he somewhat revitalized his career with the ferocious gorefest The Grapes of Death in 1978.
However, like a lot of Rollin’s movies, The Iron Rose developed a cult following. As the years went by, audiences found the film to be powerful and effective, and many considering it to be easily the best movie in Rollin’s fifty-year career. It reached more audiences when Salvation Films released it on Blu-Ray. The first interaction between the girl and the boy sees them introduce themselves to each other in the first of many equivocal conversations between the two of them. When the girl asks what the boy doing for a living, he unusually and somewhat reflectively replies “Ah… living,” before directing the same question as her. This strange answer is never elaborated on, even when the girl tells him what she does; a ballet dancer. The boy goes on to display more unnatural behavior by suddenly whooping and punching a tree trunk. This apparent meeting between the two is the first demonstration of the boy’s unpredictability. No obvious reason is given for his behavior. It could be that he is just rebellious, or it could be that there is more to him than meets the eye. In another scene, he ignores the question “How did you get here?” even after asking for it to be repeated. The suspicious way he avoids answering questions combined with the shocking disregard he has for the dead in the cemetery creates an alarming enigma around his character. When comparing his indifference to the dead, to the girl’s eventual wide-eyed fascination with the dead, it could lean towards the theory that they are both lost spirits. He is aware of his own passing, but the girl is not which is why she descends into insanity. This is just one of the many theories surrounding the two leads. The boy’s rash, erratic behavior and his violent tendencies make him incredibly unlikeable. When the movie transports itself to the cemetery, his behavior does not change. He cares little for the graves and headstones that surround them, and even resorts to purposefully vandalizing them. As the movie progresses, Rollin seems to be suggesting that the actions of the boy have brought the horror upon him and the girl. The disregard and disrespect the boy has towards the graves could cause the spirits to seek vengeance by manipulating the minds of the couple in such a way that they cannot escape.
It is easy to believe there is a supernatural presence in the film despite nothing ever being seen. The weirdness and dark eccentricity of the movie is surely the result of paranormal beings. The girl’s behavior changes dramatically in the second half, and she remains in a possessed-like state for the rest of the movie. She is not quite as enigmatic as the boy, and she is more likeable initially. When they arrive at the cemetery, she is clearly nervous even in daylight. There are a handful of characters who appear in the daylight visiting the graves, including a grieving old woman, a menacing-looking man (cameo by Rollin), and a sad clown. Rollin does not dwell on these characters, and each of them have barely a minute of screen time, but they act as a further threat to the couple as foreboding figures. They also add to the surrealism Rollin so often incorporates into his films. The girl is certainly not her true self as night falls and it becomes clear that they are trapped in the cemetery. She becomes hysterical, to the point where she even begins to freak the boy out, and the way Rollin presents her descent into madness and paranoia is horrifying. It is a painful process but one which evokes Rollin’s trademark bloodthirsty characters in a less obvious way. The girl seems to develop an obsession with the dead, and feels the need to kill the boy in order to save him. At times, she seems to enjoy being among the dead and Rollin’s otherworldly direction has a mesmerizing effect as if the madness she is feeling is latching onto the minds of the viewers. The best example of this comes when the boy falls into an empty grave with the girl standing above it, and the camera begins to rotate faster and faster. This brilliantly displays the unearthliness that has befallen on the couple, and the high angle shot of the boy compared to the low angle shot of the girl shows the inescapable fear that has encompassed them. It is not just the cinematography which makes the movie such a visual spectacle – the girl wears a yellow shirt and the boy wears a red jumper, and they both stand out massively onscreen once darkness takes over. The stark contrast of the dark night and intimidating location with the brightness of the two leads clothes creates some compelling imagery, none more so than the climactic dreamlike dance sequence.
With suggestions of a dangerous unseen presence nearby, the movie is an experiment of near-constant terror, and Rollin’s transcending approach hypnotizes the audience immediately. The tight lens the movie is shot on gives the perpetual sense that the couple are not alone in the cemetery, and are in fact being watched. Voyeurism is a theme often explored in Rollin’s movies, but never was it so subtle as it was in The Iron Rose. Rollin demonstrates this through many long shots acting as if they are POV shots. The unsettling and unflinching sense of a voyeur is ever-present – even if that may be the audiences themselves. The way Rollin takes such a different approach to what is – at its core – a love story does wonders for the movie. The interweaving of horror imagery with a new, unstable romance in such a slow, methodical way makes the movie feel like a nightmare unfolding. The nightmare continues through Rollin’s macabre vision and a baffling score which disguises itself as romantic. The movie commands a desire for analysis. Multiple viewings help benefit the meanings behind the symbolisms and implications. What the iron rose itself symbolises is deliberately unclear – it could be that it is simply a symbol of mourning, and the girl feels connected to it as she develops an obsession with death. She inexplicably believes it will “guide” them. Whatever the truth may be, Rollin is smart enough to give the audience so much by giving so little at the same time. His passion for poetry breaks through and the movie plays out like a piece of melancholic poetry. The dialogue becomes more poetic towards the end too, and the movie’s cryptic final line – supposedly improvised by Pascal – can be deliberated over countless times, it only makes the movie more effective.
The fact that budget restraints and a lack of time plagued the production do not diminish the final product. Pascal, in particular, delivers such a stunning performance, perfectly capturing the initial innocence of the girl and excelling in the horrifying madness that takes over her. Rollin proved himself to be a true genre master with The Iron Rose. He shows the madness, but not the cause of the madness, and that is where the true horror comes from. Skulls and bones become more prevalent in the movie, and in one of the most remarkable scenes, the girl – staring widely into the eyes of the audiences – places a skull in front of her face. This shocking, yet transfixing image has become the movie’s most iconic. Rollin never loses his trademark style, but he keeps it contained and less outlandish. He demonstrated his unrealised potential as a filmmaker by crafting something strangely beautiful and equally terrifying. This is a rare achievement and one which he deserved to be celebrated for during his life. As a personal passion project, it is unfortunate that the movie did not impress audiences at the time of its release. This should have catapulted Rollin’s career, not halted it. The Iron Rose is a surreal slow burn of a love story, an affecting exploration of madness, and a true horror masterpiece.