Jean Rollin made films in several different genres over his career, but he always returned to his favorite source material: vampires. In this, Rollin’s third feature film–and third vampire film–he weaves a characteristically outlandish story around some of the most arresting visuals to come out of Europe during this period.
The plot of the film is very basic and revolves around a newlywed couple, Isle and Antoine, who stop by an ancient castle to visit the bride’s two cousins before embarking on their honeymoon. The bride hasn’t seen her cousins since she was a child and is quite excited to pay them a visit; unfortunately, the new couple are met with the terrible news that the two men are dead and have just been entombed in the family vault. As it is rather late by this time, the couple decide to bed down for the night and leave for their honeymoon the following day. The next day, the cousins mysteriously show up, dismissing their "deaths" as a village rumor. Separated from the wedding bed by a period of mourning, Antoine spends his nights wandering about the castle grounds. Unbeknownst to Antoine, the vampires visit Isle each night. She deteriorates rapidly, but Antoine cannot convince her to leave the castle. He knows all is not well and is forced to solve the mystery before his new bride succumbs to the danger within the castle.
While Rollin’s films are generally classified as being part of the horror genre, his vampire films were never meant to be scary. In fact, up to this point, his vampires never even bare fangs (that would change a few years down the road with Lips of Blood). There is very little blood-letting, with only a few drops present on the lips of a vampire or the neck of a victim. Rollin’s films are closer to fantasy than to horror, many of them having a dream-like quality with a few classic vampire trappings the only overt horror present in the films. What his vampire films do contain–and The Shiver of the Vampires is no exception–is plenty of nude women. Most of the women are very scantily clad or wrapped in a wispy, see-through fabric so as to display their bodies. The women are beautiful–if sometimes quite strange– examples of seventies European nudes–no nips or tucks or implants here. Everything is natural. Rollin typically puts on display for the viewer many female vampires as well, so there are some lesbian overtones, but nothing that comes close to soft core sex. There are a couple of pecks between female vampires and one tame scene where two women are caressing each other, but Rollin was never really about sex as much as he was interested in filming the basic female form.
The set design is as gorgeous as it is strange. The Shiver of the Vampires is Rollin’s most Gothic atmosphere up to this point, and the characters spend a great deal of time wandering ancient castle grounds to great effect. The lighting is superb as well as quite striking, with the white walls of the castle being lit with garish greens and reds as well as subtler tones of blue, violet, and pink. Entire scenes are bathed in a single color while other sets alternate between bright shades of blue and red: witness an early scene as the two female vampire servants climb the winding staircase of a castle turret. As they stand midway up the turret, beneath them is an atmospheric and icy blue while above them is a very warm red. In a graveyard scene, one tomb is again bathed in red as the vampires are chased through the cemetery. The Shiver of the Vampires is Rollin’s most visually arresting film of the three he had made to this point.
Rollin is never afraid to use entire scenes with no dialogue, and perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that he is at his best during these scenes. Dialogue was never a strong suit for Rollin and I became quickly bored with the vapid back-and-forth banter between cousins. But as soon as another eerily quiet scene with characters wandering the castle grounds began, I was immediately drawn back into the film. It’s hard not to be interested in Rollin’s striking visuals like the vampire girl who climbs out of the grandfather clock (I wonder if Rollin had ever seen the silent film Genuine, it too, having a very similar scene) or the 360-degree shots as the camera moves around the dinner table allowing each character to make a statement. This shot is utilized several times, most notably the library scene when Antoine is attacked by an unseen force that dumps hundreds of books on his head. The spinning camera gives quite an effect as the viewer feels as off-kilter as the character. The progressive-rock soundtrack is also a high point of the film and is a vast improvement over the avant-garde "noise" of Rollin’s previous film, The Nude Vampire.
If you are looking for a deeply erotic or bloody vampire film, you need to look elsewhere. But if you enjoy a languid, artsy film with elements of magic and fantasy rather than horror, then you may be as vastly entertained with this film as I was.
Kino-Lorber, in conjunction with Redemption Films, has just released The Shiver of the Vampires in a newly mastered, HD version from the original film negatives. They include a wealth of extras such as an introduction by Rollin himself along with an interview with Rollin and both French and English trailers for the film. There is also the choice of a dubbed English soundtrack or the original French soundtrack with English subtitles. The same very nice 20-page booklet, authored by the original Video Watchdog, Tim Lucas, is included.
The Shiver of the Vampires was released in late January and is readily available at many retail outlets and online stores on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as on video-on-demand at Amazon.com.