Do You Dare Consume Jean Rollin's Grapes Of Death?

Let me squeeze in a great, little cult horror film with an... off-beat home video history real quick before I get into a couple of new releases: 1978's The Grapes Of Death by Jean Rollin.  I'm not normally a big fan of Rollin's; I feel like I'm just indulging his private fantasies whenever I watch one of his vampire films.  And while I'll admit there are usually some effective images to be pulled out of them, it requires sitting through too much plodding, generic softcore to get to them.  For me, it's enough to watch all the trailers; I could've done without seeing most of the films.
But The Grapes Of Death is different.  There are still plenty of Rollin trademarks (i.e. pretty girls running through ruins in the middle of the night wearing see-through nightgowns), but this is more of a conventional movie, which normally would be more of a criticism than a compliment.  But in Rollin's case, I think he benefits from having more of an engaging plot to follow.  It's basically a zombie film, but in 1978 before the genre became played out.  The titular grapes come into play because pesticides have contaminated a village's wine, turning everyone into mindless, blood thirsty madmen.  Marie-Georges Pascal travels out there to meet up with her fiance, but is quickly chased off course and runs from place to place looking for non-zombified allies to help her make her way home.
It plays like a cross between The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue and The Crazies, with some dependable people slowly turning madder and more dangerous as time passes.  There's lots of great little melodramas as the film dives headfirst into supporting characters' subplots.  And Rollins' concocts some delightfully madcap sequences once cult/ porn star Brigitte Lahaie enters the picture late in the second act, carrying a burning torch in one hand and leashing two killer dogs in the other.  It's sort of a blast, but also an unrelentingly tragic, nihilistic depiction of humanity slipping away and dying in agony over and over, with Pascal escaping from one scene in a nightmare into another, but never able to break free.  I kinda love it.
Grapes has been released all over the world, but two key US editions seem to encapsulate all you really need to know about this film on disc.  First, Synapse put this out as a "Special Edition" DVD in 2002, and then in 2013, Redemption Films (who also handled the UK DVD in 2005) and Kino Lorber released it on blu.  There is a newer, UK release from Black House, but from what I've been able to glean online, it's essentially the same transfer, but minus the extras.
2004 Synapse DVD top; 2013 Redemption BD bottom.
This is some underwhelming, old master stuff.  Synapse presented the film in anamorphic 1.64:1, which Redemption opens up just slightly to 1.62:1, revealing slightly more image around the edges.  Both discs are taken from the original 35mm negative, but the blu still comes off awfully soft.  Other reviews online I've read chalk this up to Rollins' camerawork itself, which may well be true; but film grain ranges from light to smoothed away completely on the BD, so I don't think all of the blame can be placed on poor Jean.  The DVD almost looks sharper, although on closer inspection we can see a lot of that is just video/ compression noise.  Both discs feature light dirt and print damage, but it's never problematic.  The blu is darker, which is an advantage in the brights, which are a bit over-contrasty, if not quite blown out on the DVD.  But on the other hand, it seems to lose some detail in the shadows.  At least the colors are deeper.  The DVD is definitely dated, looking noisy and washed out at times, but the blu is a rather underwhelming upgrade to HD.

Both releases present the original French mono, in lossless LPCM on the blu, with optional English subtitles.
The special features are interesting, too.  Synapse labeled their disc a "Special Edition," but it's a bit light, consisting primarily of one featurette interviewing Rollin and Lahaie.  It's an interesting overview of past work, but they don't talk about The Grapes Of Death at all, so it's a little disappointing.   And that, two trailers and a photo gallery are all that make up Synapse's edition.

Despite Synapse's interview falling short of discussing the film we were all there for, though, I was sorry to see it go when Redemption put out their version.  They've replaced it with their own interview with Rollin... where he again neglects to mention Grapes Of Death, even in passing.  Instead he talks about art and science fiction literature, which is sort of interesting, but come on.  There is a brief (102 seconds) intro, though, where they do manage to get him to say a word or two about the film, but it's a very minimal piece.  It's just an introduction.  Besides that, we get the trailers, a collection of trailers for other Rollin films, and a nice, 16-page booklet by Tim Lucas.
This film is a grim treat, and at least we've got it on blu-ray.  But it sure feels like it could look better.  And it's a frustrating missed opportunity that Rollin wasn't interviewed properly about this film (he passed away in 2010).  I'd love to see what an Arrow or Scream Factory edition of this film would look like.  But considering how many great films still don't have an HD release at all, I can't be too grumpy about it.

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