LIST CANDIDATE: SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES [LE FRISSON DES VAMPIRES] (1971)

AKA Strange Things Happen at Night

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sandra Julien, Jean-Marie Durand, Dominique,  (as Marie-Pierre Tricot), Kuelan Herce, Jacques Robiolles,

PLOT: A honeymooning couple stops at a creepy castle to visit the bride’s distant cousins, but

Still from Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

find their hosts have been turned into vampires.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The films of Jean Rollin come with a reputation/warning: their mix of artistry and exploitation isn’t for everyone, and they’re all variations on the same idea. The director’s formula is thick Gothic atmosphere, beautiful visuals, mild surrealism, nude female vampires, and an indifference to rational plotting. In terms of making the List, what this suggests is that one Rollin movie might be appointed to represent the director’s entire canon; but, is Shiver the chosen one? We’ll have to see them all to decide for sure.

COMMENTS: Plotheads need not apply to a Jean Rollin movie. Shiver of the Vampires does have a story, but it’s thin and generic, full of the usual staples of the vampire genre: coffins, stakes through the heart, crumbling castles, crucifixes. Rollin approaches this film more like a painter than like a storyteller, and you have to engage with the film as if you’re looking at an art exhibit rather than listening to a ghost story. Certain startling imagery jumps out at you by design—the vampire emerging from the grandfather clock, the goldfish bowl containing a skull, the deadly spike bra—but the decadent backgrounds are just as appealing to the eye. It’s the kind of film where curvaceous maidens in diaphanous gowns walk through dusty corridors carrying candelabras, and there’s always mist wafting across the tombstones at night. There’s ample nudity—the women of Shivers doff their duds at the slightest excuse—but it’s shot with an artist’s rather than a voyeur’s eye for the female form. Otherwise, however, the sexuality of vampirism isn’t presented with much subtlety; a female vamp is dispatched in a phallic staking ritual, and when nude vampires are exposed to sunlight they writhe in a torment that looks remarkably like orgasm. With liberal use of red gels, aquamarine backlights, and pigmented fogs, the color schemes are brilliantly unreal (proving the Eurohorror tradition of crazed chromatism well predates 1977’s Suspiria). A prog-rock guitar, drum and bass trio dither ecstatically over the action; the electrified score contrasts with the Gothic atmosphere, but it works well to ground the otherwise timeless tale in its contemporary era. There are also unidentifiable, animalistic howls that show up on the soundtrack at strategic points. A pair of nameless “bourgeois vampires” who bow and scrape, finish each other’s sentences, and lecture on the worship of Isis adds further oddness to an already strange story. Shiver is partly a tribute to and partly a parody of bloodsucker conventions, but the film’s overall tone is hard to pin down, except to say that it’s detached and dreamlike. The human victims’ reactions to their predicament are dazed and out of sync with reality, as if they’re drugged or hypnotized. Isle appears not at all terrified when a strange woman emerges from a grandfather clock in her room (and her modest attempt to cover her bare bosom is woefully inadequate).  After the groom witnesses a vampiric ritual he returns to the conjugal chamber but, rather than rousing his bride to flee, strokes her naked sleeping body. Terror transforms into lust quickly inside Shivers hermetic dream. For decades, Rollins’ slow-paced, arty, irrational musings on the vampire myth have frustrated horror fans looking for old-fashioned bloodletting, but they are subtly strange artifacts that reflect the unique preoccupations of their creator. These fetishistic documents are ultimately of more interest to fans of neo-surrealism than of horror.

The French title, Le Frisson des Vampires, does literally translate as “Shiver of the Vampires,” but “frisson” has a secondary connotation of “thrill” (like the pleasant spine tingles provided a good horror movie shock). Rollins’ two previous features had more salacious titles: Le Viol du Vampire (Rape of the Vampire) (1968) and La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire) (1970).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] vexing piece of psychedelic nonsense…”–Robert Firsching, Rovi

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