Review: ‘Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin’

Years ago- after running through all the typical horror films I could get my hands on- I turned my attention to the lesser known tentacles of the genre and sought out the more obscure European fare. My journey took me to the blind dead series from Spain’s Amando de Ossorio , the stream of Italian “giallos” that have imprinted the genre for decades, and even the perverse journeys of Jess Franco. And then I watched Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death, (1978) or “Les Raisins de la Morte” as everything sounds better in French.

Here was a gore-fest wherein pesticides were turning French farm folk into ravenous zombies. It looked incredible. It employed a dream logic that sinks most horror films, but only elevated its rural ambiance here. And it began my fascination with the filmmaker Jean Rollin whose trove of French nightmares has given us endless celluloid images of zombies, twin vampires, bloodletting, half naked scythe wielders, and beautifully desolate castles. As directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger show in their new documentary Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin, I’m certainly not the only one immediately drawn into the filmmaker’s unique vision upon first laying eyes on his work.

A micro effort that rolls through Rollin’s life (both personal and professional) with a fine tooth comb, the documentary also gathers a nice mixture of talking heads. There are collaborators (such as actresses Brigitte Lahaie and Francois Pascal), personal friends, and lots of cultist researchers and film writers who all talk reverently about Rollin. If this seems non-confrontational, it is. Rollin appears to have been one of the nicest guys out there, despite the savage beauty presented on screen.

Borne out of the French New Wave and rubbing shoulders with just about everyone who crawled from its Gallic ashes, Orchestrator of Dreams has access to so much Rollin footage that not even his early student films are missing. Directors Ballin and Ellinger work with a robust spate of images…. something that’s nice to see since my early days of exploring Rollin’s films were challenging and thanks must go to Salvation Films and their efforts to procure and release so many of his films on DVD. From his early days sitting in Henri Langois’ theater to the continual financial struggle he faced with each new film, Ballin and Ellinger tromp through his cinematic life that was both blessed and hard earned. It’s not a secret he often worked in hardcore pornography to support himself. He borrowed and schemed with partners. He took on assignments deserted by other filmmakers (Jess Franco multiple times) and then used his ingenuity in splicing several strands into one (semi) cohesive trip. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and the kids of the 90’s eat your heart out. As actress Pascal comments in the film, “If Jean had a lot of money behind him, he would have made the most incredible films.”

Besides all that, what makes this celebration of Rollin’s life so special is the eventual outpouring of fandom that would emerge around the world for Rollin and his films. There’s a great story about the surprise emitted from Rollin when a retrospective of his work drew sold out crowds in London. For a filmmaker who helped to spearhead one specific genre of ‘Eurosleaze”, Orchestrator of Storms makes sure to emphasize the lasting legacy of such a frowned upon genre to impact the larger cinematic world.

Though his output dwindled in the 80’s and 90’s due to health issues, he was still working right up to the weeks before his death, often directing a scene and then returning to a stretcher for rest. Orchestrator of Storms spends just as much time on his enduring legacy as it does his formative years and it’s a terrific documentary whether you’re invested in horror films or not. This is a study in hard nosed movie crafting. And even if Rollin had millions of francs to produce each of his films, I wouldn’t change one thing about his mesmerizing, adventurous, and deathdreamy oeuvre.

Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin debuts on Arrow Video’s streaming service beginning February 14th.