Catherine Valmont is dead, except she isn’t. Which is horrible news for everyone in her village, not least Catherine herself. In the opening scene of the film, a pair of gave robbers knock over a barrel of toxic chemicals, which (somehow) reanimates her beautifully preserved corpse. Nearly the opposite of hilarity ensues.
She eats them both, sort of. As she plunges her fingers into one of their throats, we hear what sounds like a straw sucking up the last remaining contents of a mostly empty cup. Whatever it is she’s doing, it kills them both pretty dead.
Instinctively, she stumbles her way across the outskirts of the village and back to the mansion of which she was once the heiress. It is being looked after by her life-long best friend, Hélène, with whom she had a blood oath of sorts to remain loyal to one another, in life and death.
Hélène finds her only moments after she drinks a young couple to death. Catherine is more or less catatonic when she isn’t compulsively mutilating strangers. Remembering their vow, Hélène commits herself to sustaining Catherine by bringing her fresh victims.
This is approximately twenty minutes into a ninety minute film, so I haven’t spoiled anything noteworthy. To say that this is one of my favorite horror films is an understatement, because it’s more than that. To put it lightly, Jean Rollin’s Living Dead Girl is heartbreaking. I will be spoiling everything. Consider yourself warned, and consider yourself charged: You should see this film. It’s sometimes considered one of Rollin’s worst. It’s probably his best.
Gradually, Catherine begins to return to herself. Though she begins as a kind of ‘zombie’, she slowly becomes aware of her actions, her memories return, her conscience reemerges. But her compulsions do not wane. Every few hours, her appetites co-opt her body, and anyone within reach becomes her victim, in spite of her best efforts to fight off her murderous impulses. When she manages to isolate herself from others as the urge comes on, her body begins to digest itself. If she abstains for too long, she will die. She can either embody the appetites that make her a monster or die denying them.
Hélène will not give her friend over to death, and is remarkably unbothered by the prospect of luring innocent villagers to the mansion and feeding them to Catherine. She’s nothing if not devoted. In one scene, she pretends to be stranded along a country road. When an altruist pulls over and offers to help, Hélène brings her to the mansion and locks her in a room with Catherine, who sobs as she eats her.
“I’m evil.” Catherine laments to Hélène, who disagrees. So long as Catherine is back, in any form, Hélène will go to whatever lengths necessary to preserve her. She takes her blood oath very seriously.
While she is distracted, Catherine throws herself into the river, hoping to drown before Hélène can save her. She doesn’t, and her increasingly unhinged friend manages to pull her out just as the hunger is coming on again.
“Get away from me!” Catherine begs.
Hélène refuses, “You are the most important thing in my life.”
“I am your death!” Catherine sobs.
Despite her best efforts, Hélène insists upon offering herself as Catherine’s next victim, chasing her down, and holding her as she begins to lose control. The final images of the film are traumatic: As the hunger takes over, Catherine slowly bites off Hélène’s fingers, then her neck, then her stomach. Blood pools around her as she sobs hysterically. The credits begin to roll.
My first viewing of Living Dead Girl left me sick to my stomach, and not because of the violence. To say it ends on a down note doesn’t even begin to do justice to its heart-wrenching climax.
It might be a film about friendship, how our purest devotion might yet end in our losing ourselves to another’s unsearchable emptiness. Or it could be about loss, and how our refusing to let the dead be gone can (literally) consume us and (metaphorically) bring our own lives to a premature conclusion. Or it could be something vague and undercooked about how society-perceives-female-sexuality-as-monstrous-(or-something), draped in a stylish grindhouse flick that’s far better than its subtext. (That’s a good subtext, but if that’s what Rollin was getting at here, he did a piss poor job).
Or it could be relatable in the worst way. Intentional or not, Catherine’s predicament ought to resonate with everyone, because we are like the living dead girl: Born monstrous, in one way or another, with horrifying appetites – some subtler than others, of course – that we can hardly control, which mold us into predators – some more clearly than others – and damn us to a lifetime of wishing we were better than we were, or wishing we weren’t anything at all.
Almost none of us compulsively cannibalize our neighbors (I hope?), but all of us, if we have one iota of introspective tendencies, ought to feel like liabilities, simply by virtue of our existing. Good Calvinists like myself call that ‘total depravity’, which doesn’t mean that everybody’s super awful and we should all feel bad, but does mean that whatever nauseates you in your enemies indwells you just the same. Which also means that we should be every bit as sympathetic as we are nauseated. And which also means that seeing other people’s badness ought to remind us of our own badness.
That is, like Catherine, we do not turn out to be ‘protagonists’ in our own stories, or even the proverbial ‘damsels in distress’. Before anything else, we emerge as our own ‘antagonist’. Sometimes, of course, we prove to be more than that. But we never prove to be less.
Because, you know, nobody lies to me more than I do. Nobody betrays me more than I do. I’m not primarily a victim of ‘the system’, in some Kafkaesque fashion. Nor am I primarily at the mercy of the people who wrong me. A bit like Jake Gyllenhaal in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Rollin’s gruesome melodrama suggests, perhaps, that my heart’s a totalitarian regime, of sorts, making havoc upon my every endeavor.
“I do not understand my own actions, ” says the apostle Paul. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom. 7:15)
“For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” He goes on. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (7:18-19)
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” And more, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (7:21-23)
Finally, he throws up his hands, “Who will deliver me from this living death?” (7:24)
Nothing like hope is even hinted at by the end of Rollin’s film. This is simply what Catherine is now: A monster. She may die of hunger, or kill herself, or embrace her murdeous compulsions, but she will not change. There is no un-becoming a monster, no cure for devilry.
For all of its insight into the human condition, the film’s chief intuition is, at best, half right. We are all Catherines, yes. But we are not irreparably doomed to exist as such forever. Although we are constrained in varying degrees of monstrousness now, the scriptures look to a future when the opposite’ll be true.
“Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Paul writes, in the same letter. “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (8:9-11)
That is, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:19-21)
He goes on, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” And yet, “Not only the ‘creation’, but we ourselves, who have the ‘firstfruits’ of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (8:22-23)
So there’s hope amidst our living death, which ought to comfort us if we’re prone to despair our unsavory dispositions, and ought to challenge us if we’re prone to complacency.
That is, however stomach churning our inclinations, whatever they may be – however deep our living death runs – we are being transformed, as Paul says (in a different letter) into “the same image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another” by the life-giving power of the Holy Ghost (2 Cor. 3:18).