Concocted as a homage to the swashbuckling adventure movies Jean Rollin loved as boy, Les Demoniaques delivers a charming storybook intro for each character complete with narrator providing mini biographies. Led by the unforgettable Tina (Joëlle Coeur), who has the face of an angel and the heart of a she-wolf, a motley pirate crew are raiding a shipwreck off the coast of Normandy when they encounter a pair of pretty blonde waifs (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier). As crazy Tina goads them into a violent frenzy by gyrating naked atop the rocks, the gang brutally assault the girls and leave them for dead.
Almost immediately afterwards the Captain (John Rico) is haunted by visions of the bloodied girls at the local tavern, where psychic barmaid Louise (Louise Dhour) senses something amiss. Barely alive, the girls elude their pursuers and are discovered by a friendly spirit disguised as a clown (Mireille Dargent), who leads them to a spectacular ancient ruin where dwells a suave supernatural being (Miletic Zivomir). After a quick change into some fetching peach and purple mini-dresses, the sexy girls indulge in a lengthy bout of voodoo lovemaking with their ghostly benefactor amidst the evocative ruins. In return for this sexual communion he gives them all his power till sunrise, so they may exact revenge.
Typically with Rollin, Les Demoniaques unfolds virtually like a silent film, led by a succession of powerfully poetic images. And yet it features some of the strongest acting in any of his movies, free of the somnambulant non-emoting that marks his other, in fairness equally beguiling, work. This is a film about demons in both the literal and figurative sense. The pirates are already ridden with guilt well before supernatural forces manifest themselves as the embodiment of their psychological torment. Rollin’s cast pitch their performances into a delirium that matches the hallucinatory tone of the movie. Notably American actor John Rico, though undoubtedly the star turn here comes from the ravishing Joëlle Coeur.
Coeur had worked with Rollin twice before, in his zesty but less ambitious sex romps Bacchanalles Sexuelles (1973) and Schoolgirl Hitchhikers (1973). Originally a painter, Coeur starred in several significant films by major sexploitation filmmakers from this period: Seven Women for Satan (1975) by actor-director Michel Lemoine, Black Love (1975) by political provocateur (and Rollin admirer) José Bénazéraf, and Playing with Fire (1975) by the legendary Alain Robbe-Grillet. She turns Tina into a terrifying force of nature that destroys everything in its path and coos with ecstasy over every misdeed (“I want to overpower them and drink the blood from their wounds!”). And Rollin ensures she flaunts her voluptuous beauty whenever possible.
In Rollin’s hands the potentially sordid, simplistic story attains the grandeur of myth, darkly magical and sensual. Les Demoniaques transcends its low budget origins via surreal production design by regular Rollin collaborator Jio Berk and the atmospheric locale of the island of Chausey, near Granville on the Normandy coast. Aside from a few awkward moments involving some comical deaths, the film flows beautifully and is enlivened by quirky touches such as the slow pan away from one dying character to catch a piano playing by itself, the strangely moving removal of the clown girl’s makeup and the portrayal of the supernatural as a benevolent, life-sustaining force. The climax involves another of Rollin’s reoccurring beachside finales. It is a beguiling and rather astonishing merger of pagan sex and Christian self-sacrifice and repentance that is really quite powerful.
A lifelong film fan, French director Jean Rollin worked consistently since the 1950s, but it was his horror films that would bring him most attention, starting with Le viol du vampire in 1968, a work that caused a minor riot on its initial showings. This showed Rollin the way to further dreamlike entertainments, often with a strong sexual element. Other films included Le vampire nue, Le frisson de vampires, Les Raisins de la mort, Fascination (often regarded as his masterpiece), The Living Dead Girl, Zombie Lake and a number of hardcore porn features. He was working up until his death, with his latest Le Masque de la Meduse released the year of his demise.