French filmmaker Jean Rollins became known for his fantastic vampire films in the 1960s and 1970s. He established a distinctive style in his films, and when he moved away from vampire films, he still retained many of his distinctive traits. From dreamlike surrealism to absurd monologues, Rollins’ films developed cult status in the years that followed. Manufacturer Sam Selsky — who later produced several of Rollins’ pictures — was a key figure throughout his career. He produced Rollins’ first feature film with the bizarre title The rape of the vampire in 1968. Originally intended as a short film, the film was expanded into a feature after Selsky was impressed by what Rollin could pull off on such a limited budget. This caused the film to be quite incoherent and, by Rollins’ own admission, elicited an extremely negative reaction from audiences. However, it established Rollins’ style first, and it was his first use of the locations of a beach and a graveyard, and his first exploration of vampires, surrealism, and eroticism. His next three films were released in quick succession and improved greatly over his feature debut. The Naked Vampire, The chill of the vampiresand Requiem for a Vampire saw Rollin develop as a filmmaker while sticking to a decipherable formula. His first venture away from vampires came in 1973 with The Iron Rosebased on his own short story.
From a visual point of view, The Iron Rose is so obviously a Rollin film; The backdrops of the beach and graveyard, the otherworldly camera movements, and the dark imagery make it instantly relatable to Rollin. However, this film deals less with violence and plays more psychologically with many implications and an alternative representation of surrealism. Produced once again by Selsky, most of the film takes place in one night as two nameless young lovers (Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester) find themselves lost in a colossal graveyard. Initially, viewers expected another vampire film from Rollin and were surprised to see this one The Iron Rose than a more understated, subtle film with no explicit instances of vampires. Rollin also financed the film himself and had concerns about its potential failure. Unfortunately, Rollins’ concerns were fulfilled, and his attempt to make a more candid, mature horror film met with a negative response that nearly ended his career before it even began. It has since come to light that Rollin and fellow lead actor Quester did not get along on set, and this greatly upset Rollin considering how personal the project was for him. Audiences booed the first few 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 reignited his career somewhat with the wild Gorefest The Grapes of Death 1978
But like many of Rollin’s films, The Iron Rose developed a cult following. Over the years, audiences have found the film powerful and effective, with many considering it the best film of Rollin’s 50-year career. It garnered more viewers when Salvation Films released it on Blu-ray. The girl and boy’s first interaction introduces themselves to each other in the first of many ambiguous conversations between the two. When the girl asks what the boy does for a living, he unusually and somewhat thoughtfully replies “Ah… life” before asking the same question as her. This strange answer is never elaborated upon, even when the girl tells him what she is doing; a ballet dancer. The boy exhibits more unnatural behavior, suddenly yelling out and hitting a tree trunk. This apparent meeting between the two is the first proof of the boy’s unpredictability. No apparent reason is given for his behavior. It could be that he’s just rebellious, or it could be that there’s more to him than meets the eye. In another scene he ignores the question “How did you get here?”. even after being asked to repeat it. The suspicious way he avoids answering questions combined with the shocking disregard he shows for the dead in the graveyard creates an alarming mystery about his character. Comparing his indifference to the dead to the girl’s wide-eyed fascination with the dead, one might be inclined to theorize that they are both lost spirits. He is aware of his own death but the girl is not, causing her to go insane. This is just one of the many theories surrounding the two leads. The boy’s rash, erratic behavior and violent tendencies make him incredibly unlikable. As the film transports to the graveyard, its demeanor doesn’t change. He cares little for the graves and tombstones that surround them, even resorting to intentionally destroying them. Throughout the film, Rollin seems to imply that the boy’s actions brought terror to him and the girl. The boy’s disregard and disrespect for the graves could lead to the spirits seeking vengeance by manipulating the couple’s minds so that they cannot escape.
It’s easy to believe there’s a supernatural presence in the film, although nothing is ever seen. The weirdness and dark eccentricity of the film is certainly the result of paranormal beings. The girl’s behavior changes dramatically in the second half and she remains in a possessed state for the rest of the film. She’s not quite as enigmatic as the boy, and she’s more likable at first. When they arrive at the cemetery, she is visibly nervous, even in daylight. There are a handful of characters that appear in the daylight and visit the tombs, including a grieving old woman, a menacing-looking man (cameo of Rollin), and a sad clown. Rollin doesn’t elaborate on these characters, and each of them barely gets a minute of screen time, but as foreboding figures they come across as another threat to the couple. They also contribute to the surrealism that Rollin so often infuses into his films. The girl is certainly not herself as night falls and it becomes clear that they are trapped in the graveyard. She becomes hysterical to the point where she even starts freaking out about the boys, and the way Rollin portrays her descent into madness and paranoia is appalling. It’s a painful process, but one that evokes Rollins’ signature bloodthirsty characters in less obvious ways. The girl seems obsessed 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 Rollins’ otherworldly directing has a mesmerizing effect, as if the madness she’s feeling is getting stuck in viewers’ minds. The best example of this is when the boy falls into an empty grave that the girl is standing over and the camera starts spinning faster and faster. This brilliantly depicts the unearthly being that has descended on the couple and the bird’s eye view of the boy versus the girl’s bird’s eye view shows the inescapable fear that gripped her. It’s not just the cinematography that makes the film such a visual spectacle – the girl is wearing a yellow shirt and the boy is wearing a red jumper, and both stand out massively on screen as darkness falls. The stark contrast of the dark night and intimidating location with the brightness of the two leading actresses’ clothing creates a captivating imagery, nothing more than the dreamy dance sequence as the climax.
With hints of a dangerous, unseen presence nearby, the film is an experiment in near-constant terror, and Rollin’s transcendent approach immediately mesmerizes audiences. The narrow lens used to shoot the film gives the constant sense that the couple are not alone in the cemetery and are actually being watched. Voyeurism is a theme often explored in Rollins’ films, but never has it been as subtle as it is in The Iron Rose. Rollin demonstrates this with many long shots that appear to be POV shots. The disturbing and unflinching feeling of a voyeur is ever-present – even if it may be the audience themselves. The way Rollin takes such a different approach to a love story works wonders for the film. Weaving horror imagery with a new, unstable romance in such a slow, methodical way makes the film feel like a nightmare unfolding. The nightmare continues through Rollins’ macabre vision and a bewildering score masquerading as romantic. The film demands analysis. Several considerations help to improve the meanings behind the symbolism and implications. What the iron rose itself symbolizes is deliberately unclear – it could be that it is simply a symbol of mourning and the girl feels connected to it while developing an obsession with death. She inexplicably believes it will “guide” her. Whatever the truth, Rollin is smart enough to give audiences so much while giving so little at the same time. His passion for poetry breaks through and the film plays out like a piece of melancholic poetry. The dialogue also becomes more poetic towards the end, and the film’s cryptic closing line – allegedly improvised by Pascal – can be revisited countless times, which only makes the film more effective.
The fact that budget constraints and lack of time weighed on the production doesn’t detract from 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 overwhelms her. Rollin proved to be a true genre master The Iron Rose. It shows the madness but not the cause of the madness, and that’s the real horror. Skulls and bones are becoming more common in the film, and in one of the most notable scenes, the girl – staring wide into the viewers’ eyes – places a skull in front of her face. This shocking but captivating image has become the film’s most iconic. Rollin never loses his signature style, but he keeps it understated and less outlandish. He demonstrated his untapped potential as a filmmaker by creating something strangely beautiful and equally frightening. This is a rare achievement for which he should be celebrated in his lifetime. As a personal passion project, it is unfortunate that the film failed to impress audiences at the time of its release. This should have catapulted Rollins’ career, not stopped it. The Iron Rose is a surreal slow-burn love story, a stirring exploration of insanity and a true horror masterpiece.