Review: Shiver of the Vampires, aka Le Frisson des Vampires (dir. Jean Rollin, 1971)

Shiver of the Vampires

Shiver of the Vampires (Le Frisson des Vampires)
France, 1971
Director: Jean Rollin
Writers: Monique Nata and Jean Rollin

Review by N Emmett.

Le Frisson des Vampires – known in the English-speaking world variously as Shiver of the Vampires, Thrill of the Vampire, Sex and Vampires, Terror of the Vampires and Strange Things Happen at Night – is Jean Rollin’s third vampire film.  The story deals with newlyweds Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) and Isle (Sandra Julien) travelling to meet Isle’s cousins, only to find out that the two men have become vampires and their castle home a veritable nest of the undead. But it would be missing the point to go into too much detail here, as Shiver of the Vampires can hardly be called a plot-driven film.

The narrative, so loosely constructed as to become non-existent during certain stretches of the film, is primarily an excuse for Rollin to provide a series of choice images. Right from the opening credits, in which seventies rock music twangs away over a shot of a fog-shrouded graveyard, the director’s chosen motif is clearly the melding of the old and new.

The vampires reside in a centuries-old castle which is decorated with modern art. In turn, the modern art is largely based around gothic imagery, leading to such odd combinations as a goldfish bowl containing a skull. This approach extends to costumes: the two head vampires wear an odd combination of eighteenth-century-style lacy frock coats and glaringly seventies velvet flares. Into this concoction goes a dash of contemporary Neopaganism, with the vampires informing us about the “ancient religion of the horned god”.

shiv1Shiver of the Vampires is an unusual entry in the genre in that its vampires seem more interested in picking fights with each other than they are in preying on mortals. The film’s undead are a thoroughly bitchy lot, with the two patriarchs resembling nothing so much as archly camp forerunners to Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.

The film is awash with fetishistic imagery, including what is possibly cinema’s first death by spiked breast. Rollin makes particularly heavy use of lesbianism, something that was (Carmilla aside) a relatively recent introduction to the vampire mythos at the time. Isle is tempted towards joining the undead by the sexual advances of Isolde, a female vampire; but while both sexes prey on women, it is notable that female advances towards men are relegated largely to a single, rather frivolous scene.

There is more than a whiff of sexism here, as only the male characters show any real agency; the women mindlessly follow their lead. This reaches an absurd point when two girls, unwilling slaves of shiv2the vampires, dutifully cover up cross-shaped gravestones with cloths – even though they can get back at their masters simply by leaving the crosses uncovered. And yet, the thought does not enter their heads until Antoine suggests it to them.

To be fair, Shiver of the Vampires is not the kind of film to look at for convincing psychology. So scant is the Rollin’s attention to character that he leaves his two male antagonists unnamed, while the female leads are given confoundingly similar names:  Isle, Isabelle and Isolde. The characters are ultimately decorative objects; conversely, the objects in the film sometimes become characters themselves.

Parts of the castle appear to have lives of their own. When Antoine enters a library, the books fly off the shelves and pelt him, poltergeist-fashion. An early sequence contains a Svankmajeresque moment in which a set of slabs covering up a vampire’s tomb vanish one by one in a succession of jump cuts, each disappearance marked by an unearthly wail. Isolde’s first appearance sees her shiv3unexpectedly emerging from inside a grandfather clock, which later serves as a surrogate for the female vampire as naked Isle strokes and embraces its wooden frame. At one point Isle holds a long conversation with Isolde as the vampire is sealed unseen in her coffin, almost as though the coffin is the vampire.

This repeated blurring of person and object lends a distinctly surrealist flavour to a film which might otherwise be more at home with the pop art movement. Rollin barely scratches vampire legends, and only one scene – a dying vampire becoming so desperate that she is forced to suck blood from her own wrist – shows any true imaginative engagement with the vampire theme. Like Andy Warhol’s treatment of Marilyn Monroe, Rollin instead plucks familiar bits and bobs from Universal and Hammer films and gives them a lurid new colour scheme. In some ways, Shiver of the Vampires can be read as a parody of Hammer: we all know that the cast of Lust for a Vampire are people from the seventies pretending to be inhabitants of the nineteenth century, so Rollin was merely bringing things to their logical conclusion when he took the Fatal Man of gothic literature shiv4and slipped him into natty purple flares and a pair of John Lennon specs.

This DVD release from Salvation includes several trailers and a forty-minute interview with Jean Rollin conducted back in 2004; one of the main subjects of the discussion is gender, and it is worth mentioning that Rollin comes across as being rather less chauvinistic than this film might indicate. One thing that mars the disc is that the subtitles appear a few seconds after the dialogue, and during conversations it becomes unclear as to which character is speaking.

These days we often hear horror circles debating the relative merits of the old, sinister vampires portrayed by Stoker, Lugosi and Lee on the one hand, and the romantic, melancholy vampires of Rice, Meyer and Harris on the other. In films like Shiver of the Vampires, Rollin fleshed out a third pole: the pop surrealist vampire. Perhaps it is time this subspecies was rediscovered by today’s filmmakers…?