The Grapes of Death (1978)

I try to impose a bit of organization on my time, and sometimes it even works. I’m not insane about it, because that would make me insane; I am able to put aside blocks of time for The Show, for the various City functions at which I run audio, interviews and events I am videotaping. Past that, life is too chaotic to plan more than two, maybe three days out, usually in the form of “I will watch Movie A Friday night, and then Movie B on Sunday night.” That gives me some free play during the day, and that is when stuff like this happens.

I check on Instant Watcher occasionally, mainly to see if anything I want to see on Netflix Instant is about to expire and vanish from the realm of possibility. This phenomenon once bit a Crapfest on the ass when Dave’s choice,  Jaws: The Revenge suddenly vanished from his queue. So I learned to keep tabs on this sort of thing, which is how I finally saw The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Not to mention Marwencol, which I didn’t write about, and I find that odd. Hm. “Marwencol is a good, interesting documentary.” There. I feel better now.

The upshot of the last 200 words is that, on Saturday last, I found myself adrift and saw that Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort) was expiring on Instant. My sole experience with Rollin to this point was Requiem for a Vampire years ago, and since it was dubbed into English, it was likely one of the alternate versions, like Caged Virgins. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable, either. But Rollin is held up as a minor visionary in the horror field, so I started buffering Grapes.

Okay, so the setup is we have a vineyard in France where the manager is mixing his own pesticides, and it’s making his workers sick. His advice is to wait for the new airtight masks which are arriving tomorrow, and then we’re off to our heroine, Elisabeth, who is traveling by train to meet him at the vineyard. Elisabeth and her friend have the train car all to themselves, as they are “Holidaying in October!” Until the train stops briefly at a station, one guy gets on, starts oozing green pus and blood from facial lesions, and murders Elisabeth’s friend.

Elisabeth pulls the Emergency Stop, which is sort of reasonable, but then engages in what is only the first of a litany of questionable actions she will commit throughout the movie: rather than running to the front of the stopped train, where the engineer and his assistant, at the very least, would be getting off to see what the hell the emergency is – and since Mr. Pus walks toward the back of the train, and doesn’t see her – we can only assume that Elisabeth runs off perpendicular to the train, into the woods. This is, to be sure, standard horror movie protagonist idiocy, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

And that’s what she gets for being blind!

You saw this coming, or read it in the many breathless blurbs about the movie: the pesticide resulted in a tainted batch of wine which was premiered at the local Wine Festival, and everyone who has been drinking it is turning into pus-spewing homicidal maniacs. After escaping from a house lorded over by one such murderous pus-fiend, she lucks onto an entire village of them, in which she commits the second and third of her extraordinary blunders: first, there is a blind girl she finds wandering around outside the village. Entering the village, she refuses to tell the girl what she sees, which is the aftermath of the maniacs killing (I presume) all the non wine-drinkers and beer drinkers. The blind girl, however, can smell burning buildings and keeps putting her hands on bloody faces, quite understandably does not trust this woman who keeps telling her everything is alright, and escapes into the night at her first opportunity. To be messily butchered.

“You’re wondering if I’m normal.”

The third instance is when she finds a woman in a house who is apparently unaffected by the madness (played by Brigette Lahaie, a fixture in French movies involving nudity) and is holed up in the mayor’s house. Elisabeth demands that they escape from the village right freaking now, although it is the middle of the night. Yes, that is the perfect time to get away from roving maniacs: when you can’t see them.

It gets established that the wine affects women more slowly than men, so of course Lahaie is insane, just not spewing pus yet, and throws Elisabeth to the maniacs. She’s rescued by two guys from a local road-building crew who show up with a shotgun and dynamite. They eventually make it to the vineyard, where Elisabeth’s fiance is still holed up, fighting off madness and blaming himself (and rightly so). It all ends up in a downbeat ending that makes you hate everyone involved.

Grapes is usually held up as a novel take on the zombie movie, which it is – if one ignores Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) wherein an ultrasonic pesticide substitute makes the dead rise, or George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) in which a leaked nerve gas turns people into violent maniacs. I also seem to recall that Grapes is regarded as minor Rollin, at best – but I could be misremembering that.

Here’s the thing: Rollin is best known for mixing eroticism with horror. In Grapes this takes the form of exposing a woman’s breasts – in Lahaie’s case, much more than that – and then bloodily doing away with the owner of said breasts. I admit it, I am male, and have the usual male regard for breasts. I like them. I like looking at them. I do not like seeing terrible things happen to, or around breasts. This probably does not make me the ideal target audience for this movie.

Or a whole lot of movies. I don’t like the Ilsa movies, for instance; generally speaking, I have no use for movies that simply function as catalogs of atrocities, but this is likely the true basis of that disdain.

Add to that the fact that I called it quits with zombie movies some ten years ago, and The Grapes of Death was doomed before that first scene even unspooled.