Director: Jean Rollin
Cast: Tiki Tsang; Frederique Haymann; Jean-Jacques Lefeuvre; Karine Swanson; Jean-René Gossart
Synopsis: Seemingly random shootings are taking place across France, a toy car left with each corpse found by the police. As two detectives try to find the culprit, the viewer follows said shooter from the beginning, a mysterious and glamorous woman (Tiki Tsang) who acquires an old American car bloodily in the first sequence and is on her shooting spree for revenge against people all connected to a past transgression against her.
Killing Car, honestly, is one of the more spottier Jean Rollin films I've seen in terms of consistency. Still immensely rewarding but one where it has to be viewed in context of what it succeeds in despite the flaws. Rollin's films are mostly opaque anyway, an acquired taste, but his usual region of cinema in erotic horror movies adapted well to emphasis of atmosphere over plot. A revenge based thriller, grounded entirely in reality but filmed in the same way as his horror films, is an entirely different proposition, a nice break in convention in his filmography but in this case is one that needs a viewer to appreciate his films first, a perfect candidate for that idea, whether you believe in the auteur theory or just like to a follow a working director (or any artist), where there's films that are entryways for a person and others for the hardcore fan base. Far from something that's off-putting as an idea, it's more of a case for me as a huge Rollin fan that, unless a film director completely betrays their trademarks and seems to plummet in even personality as well as quality of a film, you can find virtue in even their more difficult work, whether its artistically extreme or in the case of Killing Car, an experiment for him outside his comfort zone which is marred mainly by over reliance on plodding dialogue sequences when he's always been someone who kept said dialogue brief, poetic and emphasised imagery instead.
Barring the last stage of his career in the 2000s before his 2010 death, I've seen most of Rollins' filmography that wasn't the porn films made to help fund his personal projects; arguably Lost in New York (1989) was the perfect swansong for him to have left on, a TV production less than an hour long which yet boiled down his obsessions into a piece that felt his most self reflective from what I've seen, peering back at the imagery and pop culture that fed his imagination as a young boy and what films he'd later make as a director in a film strange devoid in his usual eroticism but emphasising his beautiful interest in female comradery in the midst of strange, fantastical journeys. However it wasn't the end as, whilst released in 1993, also in 1989 he filmed what would be his return to cinema in the early nineties with Killing Car. Within Rollin' filmography it does have a lot to love, though as an experiment in an entirely different genre than he'd usually tackle, it's also an awkward experiment whose flaws also stand out, one of those films in a director's career who I love knowing fully its imperfections.
Appreciating the film comes from knowing, to Killing Car's credit, that it was made in less than a week on a meagre budget1, which as a challenge for Rollin is insanely strict to work under and few directors would be confident to even attempt. The greater emphasis on dialogue scenes to make up its length and explain its plot, as a mysterious gunwoman is leaving bodies around French locales, feels really like the result of having to work under strict dates of production, having to hastily think of how to connect up the seemingly random shootings of random people by Tiki Tsang rather than having more time to depict it in his usually visual form, which does drag scenes a lot. When he's entirely playing to his strength most of the other time in Killing Car, it does work immensely, knowing still in context of a career on mostly low budget where this is stringent in cost even for Rollin and accepting the issues that would have on the production. Playing Killing Car's tone in the opaque tones of his more well known work does create a strange hybrid as a realistic thriller, imagining the plot languors of other thrillers and revenge films by themselves to create an unconventional concoction. Rollin himself admitted to its flaws as his own creation, but admired it and when the film groans in atmosphere it succeeds.
Moments do feel like the worst indulgences of softcore Euro cinema but thankfully they don't undermine the film, merely making scenes feel like something from an American softcore film like Jim Wynorski's Hard to Die (1990) than from someone like Rollin with a lot of flair to his eroticism. Tsang and the female cast are stunning physically enough, making the constant undressing even in context of a director known for a lot of sex scenes and female nudity in his films more absurd. Likely it's because, in the context of the more atmospheric films of yore, the sensuality felt more appropriate and connected well, whilst here there are moments, such as Tsang in a night club dancing for minutes in a skimpy costume, which feel like part of having to quickly improvise scenes for such a short length of film production than for the sake of an erotic tone. One scene in a business tower goes as far as being silly for Rollin where, when the power goes out, a female character decides rather than hastily getting dressed to wander about in her underwear with an old oil lamp in hand. Aside from this, the film does a lot better especially with Australian model Tsang in her only film role as the lead, stunning and sensual in appearance alone without need for the prolonged night club dance scene in the middle or the more cheesecake moments, standing out more in fact for her masculine dress and her grave demeanour in a way that does help her stand out, with just one film, next to figures like Brigitte Lahaie in Rollin's previous work.
Credit is also due for Rollin as Killing Car emphasises how good his visual eye is even on such a low budget. Were it not for some of the exposition, plodding conversations between the two detectives etc., it cannot be argued that such a noticeably low budget film takes advantage of its resources well. The opening sequence is in fact a great one for any of his work to have started with, an attempt to steal the titular car for the purpose of a revenge streak becoming far more complicated with a group of female prostitutes being dragged into a running gun battle with the anti-heroine over many locations, Rollin's ability to find eye catching locations for distinct and surreal scenes exceptional, a theme park in the day followed by, more memorable, a night time conclusion in the midst of tens of replicated statues placed in line for an alarming visual sight. Even one of the cheesier technical details where, probably in the midst of the production of Lost in New York, b-roll of New York City streets is used to give the belief French speaking actresses are in the US, has a dreamlike quality in spite of being an obvious cost-cutting way to have a pulpy story dynamic.
The period the film was shot in, just about to enter the nineties, does effect Rollin's style, starker as a result. Sometimes it suffers from the lack of the poetic style whilst others Rollin is able to overcome it. Thankfully, as Two Orphan Vampires (1997) showed later, Rollin always through his career added a sense to the fantastical to ordinary French locations which helped him greatly. Even for one of his more reality based films, this still occasionally rears its head here. His obsession with the fantastique - filming at a funfair, little details in the background like a set of Thoth Tarot cards - is matched by his willingness to use everyday scenery and objects rarely found in cinema like this but what a viewer would grow up with as part of the fantastical reality. Sadly his trademark beach isn't found here, but from a car graveyard to the river barge Tsang is frequently stood on in shots have an effect to see, their rundown, ordinary natures imbued with a mystique to his work. Even when Killing Car does feel cheaper in tone to the earlier films due to its brisk production history, the sense of style does lift the film up immensely.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Fantastique/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Whilst it's an admirable attempt at crafting a surreal thriller, it's one of Rollin's more "normal" films in its heavy reliance on an actual plot than a genre shifting, elusive tone. With its digressions in expressionist dialogue and series of (at first) seemingly random shootouts and killings, its definitely its own distinct take on a revenge film, but its normal next to his more moodier and atmospheric horror films. It's reminiscent instead to another divisive film in his filmography, The Sidewalks of Bangkok (1984), an improvised pulp story shot on an incredibly low budget and whatever sets could be stolen on camera, more consistent in narrative drive here as its based around one key plot point, spoon feeding the reasons behind the shootings as scenes pass, but still with a sense of unpredictability in what's happening in the next scene. In context of other Rollin films however, with their deliberate artistic moodiness and more elaborate styles, Killing Car is one of the more grounded films in his unconventional career in spite of this. Tone is a huge factor to which films are his most abstract and staying within reality as a matter-of-fact world, Killing Car is normal if only in the context of a career which includes an alternative reality found behind a stage curtain and a female vampire appearing from out of a grandfather clock.
A minor Jean Rollin film for hardcore fans first, but I confess to loving it still. When it works, it succeeds on the gusto of its imaginative tone, overcoming its brevity of production. It also does possess one of the more tragic endings of his filmography, involving a small cameo by himself in bandages leading to a deeply melancholic scene which, if you can engage with the tone, does stand out in having following star Tsang throughout the film for most scenes. Even against some of the more sluggish moments, it's this ultimately which I'd take away from Killing Car alongside its more inventive moments.
1 Information taken from: http://requiemforjeanrollin.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/cinema-of-jean-rollin-killing-car-1993.html