The Shiver of the Vampires / Sex and the Vampire / Strange Things Happen at Night / Redemption / Le Frisson des Vampires (1971/1978) **
When I first embarked on this Netflix-instigated binge of early Jean Rollin movies, I was concerned that I’d have a hard time keeping them all straight in my head. In fact, though, that hasn’t been a problem at all. For all their similar subject matter and unifying stylistic similarities, Rollin’s vampire films have such strong individual personalities that remembering which one is which requires almost no effort once you’ve seen them. The Rape of the Vampire is the one that suffers from multiple personalities. The Nude Vampire is the one that takes mystery to such counterproductive extremes that the viewer never has any idea what’s going on until the very end, at which point he or she is rewarded with an explanation that doesn’t make any sense, either. Lips of Blood is the capital-R Romantic one. And The Shiver of the Vampires is the one that plays like a mescaline-trip version of The Blood-Spattered Bride.
The Shiver of the Vampires, weirdly enough, begins with the vampires being destroyed. In what I’m coming to recognize as the Rollin manner, the undead don’t actually get names, but there’s a younger, foppish one (Jacques Robiolles, from Clockwork Bananas and The Girls of Don Juan ) and an older, fussy one (Michel Delahaye, of The Nude Vampire and Alphaville). There are also two sexy female Renfields, one European (Marie-Pierre Castel, from Sweet Penetrations and Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack) and one Southeast Asian (Kuelan Herce, of Dirty Lovers), who arrive at the vampires’ castle too late to save them, but before the elder has completely expired. The dying vampire gives the servants cryptic instructions on how to arrange for his and his brother’s resurrection, and sends them off to prevent them falling into the hands of the mob that stormed the castle earlier.
Not long thereafter, a pair of newlyweds by the names of Isle (Sandra Julien, from The House of Lost Dolls and The Insatiable) and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) arrive in the village surrounding the castle as a detour from their honeymoon itinerary. Isle was cousin to the vampires (although she has no idea that they were undead), and when she realized where her and her husband’s route was taking them, she conceived a desire to drop in on her cousins and introduce them to Antoine. It naturally comes as a shock when Antoine stops to ask directions in the village, and a strange, severe woman named Isabelle (Nicole Nancel) informs him that the two lords of the manor died not long ago. You will notice that Isabelle says nothing about the circumstances of their deaths. In a way, though, the sad news only makes it seem more urgent that the couple delay their regular honeymoon plans for a visit to the castle. They are greeted by the Renfield girls, who curiously seem to have been expecting them, even though their arrival was completely unplanned and unannounced; there’s a room all ready to receive the guests up in one of the towers. Later that day, when Isle goes to the family cemetery to pay her respects, she encounters Isabelle from the village, who has also come to pay her respects to Isle’s cousins. Evidently she was engaged to marry either or both of them. However, from the rather confusing chat that ensues between the two women, it seems they have rather different understandings of what “paying their respects” means. While Isle has come to pray for the deceased, Isabelle seems almost to be praying to them.
A weird thing happens that night. Under the circumstances, Isle feels that it would be disrespectful for her and Antoine to consummate their marriage on the usual schedule, so she sends him off to sleep in a different room. Consequently, Antoine isn’t there to see it when a woman very similar to Isabelle, who calls herself Isolde (Requiem for a Vampire’s surname-less Dominique), emerges from the grandfather clock near Isle’s bed, and escorts her out to the cemetery for a little Lesbianism 101— vampirism 101, too, for that matter. He does, however, see that the room is empty when he gets up during the small hours, and changes his mind about the whole “postponing the wedding night” thing. Antoine understandably goes looking for his wife, and stumbles upon the castle’s chapel, where a fussy older man, a foppish younger man, and the two servants are conducting a human sacrifice. Antoine of course doesn’t recognize the two men as Isle’s purportedly dead cousins, but we certainly do. Freaking out a bit, Antoine races back to Isle’s room, where he finds her sleeping peacefully, exactly as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on, and everything he just thought he saw were merely a bad dream.
In the morning, the servants tell the newlyweds over breakfast that Isle’s cousins are not dead, no matter what people might be saying in the village; in fact, the supposed deceased put in a personal appearance a little later, at which point Antoine realizes to his horror that he’s seen them before. Antoine has another bizarre and inexplicable experience when he is knocked senseless by falling books in the castle library, the books seeming to have minds and wills of their own. Isle continues to insist upon sleeping alone, with the result that she falls ever deeper under the sway of Isolde. Eventually, Isabelle comes forward with the back-story, revealing that Isle’s cousins were once not vampires, but vampire-hunters; evidently they fucked with the wrong bloodsucker one night, and have played for the other team ever since. That wrong bloodsucker would be Isolde, who is apparently Isabelle’s sister. Now you might think their sisterhood, combined with that whole business about Isabelle being engaged to marry the former Van Helsings, would imply fairly cozy relationships all around, but no. Isabelle and Isolde have it in for each other something fierce these days, which arguably makes the former a natural ally for Antoine. Not surprisingly, he’s none too excited about losing his wife to a lesbian vampire, and he wants nothing more than to get himself and Isle the hell out of this crazy situation as quickly as possible.
The Shiver of the Vampires shows how the very qualities that made Jean Rollin an interesting director were also his most serious weaknesses. This was his most visually stimulating movie to date, with beautiful shooting locations cleverly exploited, top-notch cinematography, and wildly imaginative production design. Its story puts novel spins on a slew of familiar tropes, and the elliptical, stream-of-consciousness narrative style makes The Shiver of the Vampires one of the most sustainedly dreamlike horror films I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, Rollin falls so head-over-heels in love with the images he creates, and commits so fully to the structureless surreality of his storytelling, that the film simply falls apart upon the slightest exposure to rational thought, like some fantastical deep-sea fish hoisted up to the low-pressure waters near the surface— or indeed like one of the dreams Rollin works so hard to mimic once the sleeper has awakened. Even the details of the plot become slippery to the grip of memory once the credits roll, because there’s so little real-world logic to the order in which they follow each other, or to the effects that one event has on the next. Also, it sometimes happens that the movie’s wanderings carry it into places where the idea of following holds little appeal, as when we spend far too much time listening to Isle’s cousins discuss their intellectual hobbies with all the insight and cogency of a freshman philosophy major. Writing in Immoral Tales, Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs argue that the vampires’ discourse is a casualty of the dubbing, that the original French-language dialogue track makes it clear that Rollin understood how ridiculous they sound, but knowing that is little help to Anglophone viewers stuck listening to them prattle on. The least compelling material is unfortunately placed, too, so that for most of its third act, The Shiver of the Vampires is in imminent danger of collapsing under its own weight. No movie this joyfully garish should ever feel unsustainably heavy.