Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Shiver Of The Vampires

Pointy Breasts Of Doom

Shiver Of The Vampires
aka Le Frisson Des Vampires

France 1971
Directed by Jean Rollin  
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A

It’s about time I revisited some of my old Jean Rollin favourites for this blog and Le Frisson Des Vampires is the third of his famous vampire movies, following The Rape Of The Vampire (reviewed here) and The Nude Vampire (reviewed here). And like those and many others in his oeuvre, it has a lot of the Rollin obsessions and trademarks running throughout the film. So lesbian/bisexual vampires who walk around either in a state of total undress or wearing completely see-through, diaphanous robes is absolutely the order of the day here. Also, there are two girls who are helping the vampires with their work in this one, as there are two brothers who have recently become ‘vamped up’, so to speak... so Rollin’s obsession with ‘two’, although not quite yet ‘twins’, is already very much a thing.

The film starts off with a monochromatic pre-credits sequence when the lover of the film’s two brothers, Isabelle (played by Nicole Nancel), organises two coffins being taken into their castle. This is followed by a black and white opening credits sequence depicting a graveyard with fog billowing out, with blood red letters over the top on the credits and with the crude but haunting, brittle, small scale guitar and percussion score by Acanthus, coming in to belt out the music which, throughout the film, is sometimes spot on and sometimes less so but which, despite its unusual nature, never quite fulfils the function of a good movie score it seems to me. It’s kinda catchy though, in places.

Then, the rest of the film is shot in colour, beginning with some nice frames of the castle and surrounding grounds. One of the strong points of the great, surrealist vampire movie maker Jean Rollin is that, like Mario Bava, pretty much all of his shot set ups and frame designs would make perfectly composed, still images. Despite often having less than adequate acting skills demonstrated by the majority of the performers in his films and, frankly, stories which are either too simplistic or way too convoluted to convey what they are about, Rollin’s beautiful visions of his Gothic and sexually curvy domains are always absolute perfection. They haunt the mind and provide more than enough eye candy to maintain the interest of even the most casual viewer, the visual images of his works becoming the raison d’etre for seeking out this great auteur.

The plot is fairly simple in this one but it’s not revealed to us all at once, rather (and this is kinda subtle for Rollin, I guess) it’s released in little pieces of information scattered throughout, with each reveal building on the last one to give us a picture of the whole story and its background. In short, the plot and course of the movie are as follows but, I make no apologies for spoilers because, for most of Rollin's work, the plot isn’t actually the point of the movie (as you will probably know if you’ve seen one) so the concept of spoilerage is rendered redundant. In a nutshell it’s this...

Two nameless brothers, played by Michel Delahaye and Jacques Robiolles, have been lifelong vampire hunters and spent many years of their life dedicated to this, with the assistance of their lover Isabelle and their two young, pretty nameless maids (the main ‘two’ of this movie), played by Marie-Pierre Castel and Kuelan Herce. However, the two brothers have been bitten and so commit suicide by driving stakes through their own hearts. The next day, a young man called Antoine (played by Jean-Marie Durand) and his new bride Isle (Isa in some prints, apparently, played by Sandra Julien), still in her wedding dress, drive to the castle to visit her uncles for the first part of her honeymoon... who are, of course, the two brothers in question. They learn they are dead but, sure enough, the two brothers are back on their feet in no time (vampicide by stake through the heart seems bizarrely unsuccessful here) and the household is now all enslaved to the vampire Isolde (played by Dominique), who has them doing the normal fiendishly vampire things and who turns up after sundown from random places such as, in one famous case, popping out from inside a grandfather clock. She kills Isabelle by hugging her when she’s wearing her big, spikes on the ends of her nipples. She also seduces Isle and has her under her spell over the few days it takes Antoine to figure out what’s really going on and attempting to get out of there with his wife. The whole thing ends up on Rollin’s favourite beach (which turns up in quite a lot of his movies and is almost a character itself) and the two brothers and the, by now, fully vamped up Isle are exposed to sunlight while she’s cavorting naked on the beach. Due to a lack of special effects budget, they wink out of existence in a jump cut rather than with anything more subtler.

But. like I said, the story in this one, as it does with pretty much every one of this director’s personal works (he directed a lot of porn films to finance his own projects), takes a back seat to the astonishing mise en scène of the piece. In this one, the colours are absolutely smashing and what he does in a lot of the exterior shots, when people are lingering in cemeteries or standing outside the big open doors of a castle or some other location, is to use large washes of colour lighting and then, quite often, pitch them against each other. So a graveyard may be completely bathed in red light as the characters walk through it or, sometimes, he’ll split the lightning between levels of the shot. So the foreground objects like the castle walls or grave markers may be in red but, the space behind the open door of the castle or the ground where the actors are performing behind the gravestones, might be bathed in a wash of blue light. It’s astonishing looking stuff and it’s not quite the same as what a colour god like Mario Bava or the older Kurosawa might have done (or even Dario Argento in a few of his movies) but, well, it more than holds its own and is uniquely Rollin... who should be recognised as one of the great cinema forces of colour these days, I think.

There’s also the usual stuff which you can just tell the director wasn’t interested in enough to fix... such as one of the crew members being completely visible in a mirror in one shot. Or the moment when Antoine rushes into Isle’s room and the camera whips around to find it empty and he rushes out, only... it’s not empty, you can see the arm and leg of an actress sitting in a chair who thought she was out of shot on the far right of the frame. Or the fact that one of the two maids, who is holding a candelabra full of lit candles, has had one of the candles go out but it’s magically alight again in the next shot. So, yeah, sloppy too but, honestly, the whole thing looks so stunning that I don’t think most people will care about these little errors here and there... Rollin obviously didn’t.

There are also some interesting shots attempted here... not all of them are successful but they are at least interesting. For example, a camera spins around a room full of five people from the centre of them who are arranged in a circle. The camera does a ‘more than 360 degree’ anti-clockwise turn as it pans around to the left and then stops as each person in turn says their next line of the conversation. 

Another unusual way of visually punctuating a conversation is seen when the two brothers are explaining the more acceptable parts of their back story to Isle and Antoine... when each one speaks he leans dramatically from his place on either left or right of the frame to appear in the centre of the frame... and then back out again as the other brother swoops in for his next line, etc. It’s forced looking and unnatural but, hey, it’s certainly interesting. A similar scene where the two brothers are emphasising their lines by using their hands to clock their conversation to tip the trays of a scale in their direction (a bit like fast chess players hitting their clocks to usher in their opponent) is quite a bit less successful but moments like these still lift the sequence and add another dimension to the shots. 

 Sometimes these elabourate set ups make no sense, such as when the brothers are circling a tied up Antoin who has been dumped on the floor... the camera takes the point of view of the camera which spins way more than 360 degrees around the set as the brothers walk around in a circle talking at him. Which looks fine until you remember that this means the bound man on the floor would have to be spinning around somehow to be making that POV shot work.

So there’s all this and, of course, the usual Rollin inserts of startling, arresting imagery, such as a burning coffin or, in the scene where the vampires dispose of Isabelle’s naked body by dumping her on her back in a nearby river, there’s a striking shot which in no way imitates but, is somehow still reminiscent of, the Millais painting Ophelia.

So, yeah, what more is there for me to say about Le Frisson Des Vampires. It’s a classic Jean Rollin piece with the usual naked vampire women, vibrant colours and attention grabbing, surrealistic, Gothic laced imagery... any cinephile worth their salt should be exposing themselves to his work but he still remains, to this day, somewhat out of the limelight for such an important and, probably, influential director. Miss these marvellous pieces of art at your peril, is what I say.

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