Director: Jean Rollin
Stars: Sandra Julien, Marie-Pierre Castel, Kuelan Herce
Usually, the term “style over substance” is used to denote a negative connotation but, when it comes to the unapologetically erotic stylings of French exploitation master and vampire enthusiast Jean Rollin, the style is the substance. From the mid-’60s through to the new century, Rollin peppered release schedules and film festivals with numerous intersections of horror and soft-core titillation. And while cheap grindhouse-y sexpolitation fare was ten-a-penny once censorship laws slackened, Rollin backed up his carny barker’s routine with evidence of genuine craft and style. In this sense and in his often-derided field, Rollin was only matched by Spaniard Jesús Franco or Poland’s Walerian Borowczyk. But, even so, Rollin’s gaze felt a mite less debauched than that of his aforementioned brethren in the Euro-sleaze scene, suffused with melancholy and something of the romantic gothic.
My personal pick of the bunch – perhaps unsurprisingly – is the film that acted as my initiation into all things Rollin; 1971’s The Shiver of the Vampires. I was guided to Rollin’s lustful, campy oeuvre by preeminent film historians Kat Ellinger, Samm Deighan and Heather Drain; names I have become familiar with over the years through countless boutique blu-ray extras, commentaries and podcasts. It’s always refreshing to hear marginalised work spoken of with genuine consideration and affection. Listening to their podcasts Daughters of Darkness and Hell’s Belles, I came to feel as though Rollin’s work was a particular oversight in my self-applied cinema schooling. Springing from an era I adored for its grubby aesthetics, indie graft and wildcard ideas, Shiver was the first of his efforts I got my hands on.
Within minutes I was in love. The film opens in sepia-tinged monochrome at the staging of a funeral for two men; deceased owners of a gothic property in rural France. Switching to colour, we watch as two of the strikingly pretty mourners – maids played by Marie-Pierre Castel and Kuelan Herce – visit the newly resurrected dead where they are chained and staked in one of the property’s turrets. This journey in itself reveals Rollin’s explosive attitude to colour. Their walk takes them through vividly unnatural blues, while the tower itself is flooded with red light. I had found a proto-Argento; a reckless stylist keen to evoke the hyperreality of his imagination. The film’s swift titles – backed by a rollicking, era-specific prog dirge by Acanthus – only confirmed my suspicions; this was going to be exactly my shit.
Shiver calms down, gets talky… eventually. Before that, newlyweds Isle (Sandra Julien) and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) arrive to visit Isle’s cousins, unaware that they were buried the previous day. Not especially grieved, the pair decide to hang around for a day or two’s sightseeing of the cold and musty grounds. It’s not long before Isle (bare-breasted, naturally) is being harassed by a hippie-looking vampire queen Isolde (Dominique) who sports spikes on her nipples, who emerges hilariously from inside a clock in Isle’s quarters. Cue plaintive guitars, sapphic stares and long-held takes of neck examinations and titty fondling. Suddenly night, she’s lured to the graveyard by her new seductress, who speaks obliquely of the site’s vampiric sanctity. Of course, by now, we’re bathed once more in Rollin’s music video gels. The graveyard is blood red, while the house itself is lit up like the site of an outdoor rave. Dry ice wafts on ill winds. Glorious!
It’s wryly amusing that when occupied by the quasi-lesbian antics of Isle, the maids and the film’s vampire queen, Rollin’s film is at its most vivid and cinematic. Minimal dialogue. Images telling a story. Visually arresting compositions designed to amplify erotic potential. One dialogue scene inventively finds the camera moving in a restless circle, with dialogue timed to take place only once the device has found the next speaker. But when the menfolk get involved – Antoine and the vampire cousins (Jacques Robiolles, Michel Delahaye) – Shiver can seem almost comically dry. The men prattle on as if trying to outdo one another with their earnestness and pretentiousness, while Rollin’s creative virility uses such scenes to recuperate. Still playful, they are often more plainly shot sequences, almost disinterested in spite of the intensity that the actors try and muster. Rollin acknowledges that we sort of need exposition but treats it a little like paying taxes. Disinterested, he often cuts away to curiosities in the set design (wait, was that a desiccated monkey with a human skull?), or berates the prattling vampires via Antoine’s chastising inner monologue.
So there’s fun to be had even when the women are away frolicking. Antoine has a doolally time in a haunted library (a scene which proffers the marvelous insinuation that books are somehow sentient themselves; as if the knowledge and creativity within them were its own life-giving force – analogous to Rollin’s movies!). But it’s all undeniably more excitable whenever the maids are roaming the grounds in their nighties, leading a procession of wild rituals.
The vampire myth itself is inherently erotic. The biting of flesh entwined with the sensual and the sexual, the idea of the regenerative power of intimacy, etc, etc. Rollin plays with this legacy to his own self-gratifying ends. Watching one of his films – and, especially for me, this one – one senses a creative of self-serving intents, confident in the assumption that so long as he pleases himself his work will find kindred spirits in the dark of theatres. That, alone yet in numbers, perverts will commune in rapture of his fantasies. I guess I’m one such pervert.
Rollin is still a little too dubious to be embraced by the mainstream. I’d love to see Shiver in a cinema. And, while the inhabitants of major cities might be afforded such a blessing once in a blood moon, I’ve more or less discounted getting the opportunity myself. It’s a shame. And while Indicator’s gorgeous new home release betters all previous discs, Rollin’s work looks like it belongs on a cinema screen. Should Picturehouse endure, their occasional Culture Shock season might need to get a mite more open-minded before such a treat is rolled out to the unsuspecting masses. But I’d be there in a heartbeat.
Shiver is an indulgence. A gift to fantasists and sexual fantasists. Mingling sex and death it offers us both safety and danger. Danger that echoes in the tribal drums of Acanthus in scenes that prefigure the heart of darkness finale of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Baroque, campy and glorious, The Shiver of the Vampires represents the heights of ’70s Euro-sleaze for this viewer. Preposterous and beautiful, it exists purely to please. The shiver of it’s title quite evidently the tremulous throws of a female orgasm. Huzzah.