“The grapes of death” – (85 minutes, France – NR)
Thirty years before the excellent comedy “Bottle Shock” came out, this little known gem drew its inspiration from the troubled French wine industry. Question is: was it a diamond in the rough or straight up zirconium?
Marking a return to the Midnight Movie Madness review format is this bit of a curio from 1970s France, written and directed by Jean Rollin. I found this looking through Z-movie listings (I mean Zombies), although “grapes of death” isn’t exactly about zombies created by bad wine made worse by overused pesticides, it could have been called “les dégueulasses“, as country folk develop extremely bad acne, smearing it everywhere from car windows to… Well, anywhere.
Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and her girlfriend are traveling South by train, and it’s taking a while. As a matter of fact, watching them walking through empty wagons, I had time to hum two thirds of “Casey Jones“. Élisabeth plans to stop in Roubelais, the armpit of the wine country in what looks like the Massif Central: basically a few buildings around a winery.
Unfortunately, the girlfriend is not going to make it to Spain as some crazy gets on board and kills her. He was presumably attempting to escape from the kill zone…
Élisabeth leaves the deserted train (it’s in the Fall so no one is on board), running for her life through the alternately flat and mountainous countryside. Along the way she is chased by crazed folks, one even smashing a car window with his melting forehead leaving egg yolk all over it, and witnesses the brutal slayings of a couple girls whose chest gets exposed in the process. Gaston viens voir!
Back in the 60’s into the 70’s, French state censorship made sure that pornography and horror were two forbidden genres, leading to a kind of ‘merging’ of the two. Many of Rollin’s actors were also porn actors, with skills to match. Ahem.
Brigitte Lahaie, playing “the tall blonde”, was seen in such gems as “there’s a party in my @$$”, “stop, you’re tearing me apart”, “SS bordello” and “porno roulette” among others.
Here, she plays “la grande blonde”, the town mayor’s housekeeper and mistress, now promoting herself as reigning queen of this sh*thole. Even though Élisabeth’s spidey senses are sent tingling by the blonde’s weirdness, she is tricked by her and pushed into (sparse) throngs of weirded out suppurating locals.
Happening onto the scene are two workmen from out of town, driving up in their truck with dynamite and a shotgun, intent on either saving what can be saved or blowing the crap out of what can’t. In cases like these, for which no one is ever prepared, it is hard to tell who’s a crazy and who isn’t as some of the lesions are covered by clothing.
An “is you is, or is you ain’t?” kind of dilemma, if you will. And so it’s quite logical that when they encounter la grande blonde, she has to strip naked to show she bears no sign of the rotten wine plague of ’78. And in the cold night, that is a spectacular scene. Of sorts.
How cold was it? If you pay close attention to the extras playing the crazed villagers chasing Élisabeth, notice a few of them not even trying to act, instead hugging the blanket they’re wrapped in, walking instead of shuffling, looking as though they’d much rather sit in front of the TV watching football or Mireille Mathieu with a café au lait.
Hearing Élisabeth screaming, the workmen rush to her aid, leaving Blondie by their truck. Rather circuitously, Élisabeth happens onto the scene and has a bit of a catfight, with head-banging on truck hood and fiery torch shoved into the blonde’s face, just as the workmen return.
Thankfully, the younger one, who seems to have more brains relatively speaking, recognizes that Élisabeth is in shock rather than wine-addled and prevents his compadre from blowing her away. The tall blonde, true to her calling, throws the burning torch on the dynamite in the truck’s bed, blowing herself (for a change) to Kingdom Come.
The surviving trio hoofs it up to the winery at Roubelais, where Élisabeth’s boyfriend works as superintendent. There, they will finally unravel the mysterious cause of all the mayhem and destruction.
Originally, Jean Rollin intended “the grapes of death” to be a disaster movie, but budget constraints took the project into another direction, of straight horror.
With the real-life French wine industry still reeling from the 1976 “judgment of Paris” in which French judges in a blind testing competition awarded prizes to California vintners over French ones (a game changing event) and growing concerns over acid rains and their impact particularly in the North, “the grapes of death” may have had some relevance at the time.
Does relevance matter when looking at a 35 year old French horror flick illegally made on a budget consisting of purse lint, with porn actors wearing pancake make-up and crappy hair product? Well, maybe not. “The grapes of death” has a seat-of-the-pants charm to it despite spotty editing, particularly knowing the sets could have been crashed at any moment by the Gendarmerie (I’m pretty sure this was another example of Guerilla Filmmaking for Rollin, even as late as 1978).
I’m giving “the grapes of death” three jellybeans on the caveat that it’d be best seen in a double-feature with “bottle shock“, which itself depicts the events leading to and following the famous 1976 “judgment of Paris”. Which film you should see first is entirely up to you, depending on whether you like to eat dessert first or later.
I’ll also recommend looking at the movie’s stills prior to watching it, there’s something there that will be easily missed if you just pop it in the machine as I did. And while I started by asking whether this was a diamond in the rough or zirconium, that was perhaps a bad analogy. This little flick is growing on me like a bad vine.