french filmmaker John Rollin became famous for his fantasy vampire films in the 1960s and 1970s. He established a distinctive style in his films, and when he moved away from vampire films he retained many of his characteristic traits. From dreamlike surrealism to absurd monologues, Rollin’s films developed a cult following over the following years. Producer Sam Selsky – who went on to produce many of Rollin’s pictures – has been a key figure throughout his career. He produced Rollin’s feature debut, the oddly titled The Rape of the Vampire in 1968. Originally intended as a short, the film was expanded into a feature after Selsky was impressed with what Rollin could do on such a limited budget. This made the film quite incoherent and, by Rollin’s own admission, caused an overwhelmingly negative reaction among audiences. However, it first established Rollin’s style, and it was his first time using the locations of a beach and graveyard, and his first exploration of vampires, surrealism, and the eroticism. His next three films were released in quick succession and greatly enhanced his first feature film. The Naked Vampire, The thrill of vampiresand Requiem for a Vampire saw Rollin develop as a filmmaker while sticking to a decipherable formula. His first adventure away from vampires dates back to 1973 with The iron rosebased on his own short story.
From a visual point of view, The iron rose is therefore obviously a film by Rollin; beach and graveyard settings, otherworldly camera moves, and dark imagery make it instantly traceable to Rollin. However, this film is less concerned with violence and plays out in a more psychological way with many implications and an alternative presentation of surrealism. Again produced by Selsky, the majority of the film takes place on one night as a pair of unnamed young lovers (Francoise Pascal and Hugues Quester) find themselves lost in a colossal cemetery. Audiences initially expected another vampire film from Rollin and were surprised to see The iron rose like a more understated, subtle film without any explicit instances of vampires. Rollin also financed the film himself and worried about its potential failure. Unfortunately, Rollin’s concerns were realized and his attempt at a more heartfelt, mature horror film was negatively received, which nearly ended his career before it had even begun. It has since emerged that Rollin and his lead actor Quester didn’t get along on set, which greatly angered Rollin given how personal the project was to him. Audiences booed the first screenings and Rollin was forced to find work elsewhere, mostly in the adult industry. After struggling to find work and performing under various aliases, he reinvigorated his career somewhat with the ferocious gorefest The grapes of death in 1978.
However, like many of Rollin’s films, The iron rose developed a cult following. Audiences over the years found the film powerful and effective, and many considered it the best film of Rollin’s fifty-year career. It reached more audience when Salvation Films released it on Blu-Ray. The first interaction between girl and boy sees them introduce themselves to each other in the first of many ambiguous conversations between the two of them. When the girl asks what the boy does for a living, he uncharacteristically and somewhat thoughtfully replies “Ah… live”, before asking the same question as her. This strange response is never elaborate, even when the girl tells him what she’s doing; a ballet dancer. The boy continues to display more unnatural behavior by suddenly screaming and punching a tree trunk. This apparent encounter between the two is the first demonstration of the boy’s unpredictability. No obvious reason is given for his behavior. He may just be rebellious or there may be 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 in which he avoids answering questions combined with the shocking disregard he has for the graveyard’s dead creates an alarming enigma around his character. Comparing her indifference to the dead, to the girl’s stark fascination with the dead, this 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 goes mad. This is just one of many theories surrounding the two tracks. The boy’s reckless and erratic behavior and violent tendencies make him incredibly unlikable. When the film moves to the cemetery, its behavior does not change. He cares little for the graves and headstones around them, and even resorts to deliberately vandalizing them. As the film progresses, Rollin seems to suggest that the boy’s actions brought horror upon him and the girl. The contempt and disrespect the boy has for the graves could cause the spirits to exact revenge by manipulating the couple’s minds so they can’t escape.
It’s easy to believe there’s a supernatural presence in the film even if nothing is ever seen. The strangeness and dark eccentricity of the film is surely the result of paranormal beings. The girl’s behavior changes drastically in the second half, and she remains in a possessed state for the rest of the film. She’s not as enigmatic as the boy, and she’s more sympathetic initially. When they arrive at the cemetery, she is clearly nervous even in broad daylight. There are a handful of figures that appear in daylight visiting the graves, including a grieving old woman, a menacing-looking man (cameo by Rollin), and a sad clown. Rollin doesn’t dwell on these characters, and each of them barely gets a minute of screen time, but they act as an added threat to the couple as disturbing characters. They also add to the surrealism that Rollin so often incorporates into his films. The girl is definitely not herself as night falls and it becomes clear that they are trapped in the graveyard. She becomes hysterical, to the point that she even begins to freak the boy out, and the way Rollin presents his descent into madness and paranoia is gruesome. It’s a painful process but less obviously reminiscent of Rollin’s bloodthirsty characters. The girl seems to develop an obsession with the dead and feels the need to kill the boy to save him. At times, she seems to enjoy being among the dead, and Rollin’s otherworldly direction has a mesmerizing effect as the madness she feels clings to viewers’ minds. The best example of this comes when the boy falls into an empty grave with the girl standing above, and the camera starts spinning faster and faster. It brilliantly shows the supernatural that has befallen the couple, and the high angle shot of the boy versus the low angle shot of the girl shows the inescapable fear that has engulfed them. It’s not just the cinematography that makes the film such a visual spectacle – the girl wears a yellow shirt and the boy wears a red jumper, and they both stand out massively on screen once darkness sets in. the top. The stark contrast between the dark night and the intimidating location with the brightness of the two main garments makes for compelling images, none more so than the climactic dreamlike dance sequence.
With hints of a dangerous unseen presence nearby, the film is an experience of near-constant dread, and Rollin’s transcendent approach immediately mesmerizes audiences. The tight lens on which the film is shot gives the perpetual impression that the couple are not alone in the cemetery and are in fact being watched. Voyeurism is a theme often explored in Rollin’s films, but it was never so subtle as in The iron rose. Rollin demonstrates this through many long shots acting as if they were POV shots. The unsettling, unwavering sense of a voyeur is ever present – even if it may be the audience themselves. The way Rollin takes such a different approach to what is – at its core – a love story does wonders for the film. Weaving together horror imagery with an unstable new romance in such a slow, methodical way makes the film feel like an unfolding nightmare. The nightmare continues through Rollin’s macabre vision and a confusing score that disguises itself as romanticism. The film commands a desire for analysis. Multiple viewings help to benefit from the meanings behind the symbolisms and implications. It’s deliberately not clear what the iron rose itself symbolizes – it could just be a symbol of mourning, and the girl feels connected to it as she develops an obsession with it. the death. She inexplicably believes it will “guide” them. Whatever the truth, Rollin is smart enough to give the public so much while giving so little at the same time. His passion for poetry explodes and the film unfolds like melancholic poetry. The dialogue also becomes more poetic towards the end, and the film’s enigmatic final line – supposedly improvised by Pascal – can be deliberate countless times over, it only makes the film more effective.
The fact that budget constraints and lack of time weighed on the production does not diminish the final product. Pascal, in particular, delivers such a stunning performance, perfectly capturing the girl’s initial innocence and excelling in the horrifying madness that grips her. Rollin has proven himself to be a true master of the genre with The iron rose. It shows the madness, but not the cause of the madness, and that’s where the real horror comes from. Skulls and bones become more prevalent in the film, and in one of the most notable scenes, the girl – gazing wide into the audience’s eyes – places a skull in front of her face. This shocking but piercing image has become the film’s most iconic. Rollin never loses his trademark style, but he keeps it contained and less extravagant. He demonstrated his unrealized potential as a filmmaker by creating something strangely beautiful and equally terrifying. It is a rare achievement and for which he deserved to be celebrated during his lifetime. As a personal passion project, it’s unfortunate that the film failed to wow audiences upon its release. That should have catapulted Rollin’s career, not stopped it. The iron rose is a surreal slow etching of a love story, a touching exploration of madness and a true masterpiece of horror.