Monday, May 7, 2012

Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

The Movie: We open with a black and white view of a funeral for several people, with two unnamed girls (Marie-Pierre Castel, one half of the delectable Castel twins, and Kuelan Herce) standing silent witness. Later, said girls are sitting around a castle looking bored, and decide to take a trip to one of the towers. There they encounter two dying men, chained up and with stakes in their chests. One of the men warns the girls to take his stake after he has perished, and go put a permanent end to “Them.” However, he warns that the girls only have until nightfall; and adds that should they be too late, they should offer themselves as servants, thereby ensuring their own lives. As it’s not quite ten minutes into the film, you can probably guess how that turns out.

An undisclosed, though undoubtedly fairly small, amount of time later; Isle (the lovely Sandra Julien), and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand), a young just-married couple, are on their way to Italy for their honeymoon. Along the way they intend to stop at the local castle and visit Isle’s two cousins (Jacques Robiolles and Michel Delahaye), who are her only still-living relatives, and who she hasn’t seen in years. When the couple asks directions in the village they are told that the two men are dead; but at the castle the two servants inform them that no, they aren’t dead at all, and that everything is prepared for the newlyweds.

It turns out that Isle’s cousins were actually great vampire hunters, but that they have recently been turned into the creatures themselves by the vampire Isolde (Dominique). Now all three vampires, but particularly Isolde, have plans for Isle; ones that, unfortunately for Antoine, she seems more and more receptive to as time goes on. Antoine has some potential allies in his fight to take his wife back from the monsters, but even then it looks to only end in tragedy for the young couple…

The Review: If you’re into movies with a very strong dose of the weird, the bizarre, the erotic, the Fantastique, or that otherwise engage the emotions that Hollywood shies away from; it’s hard to do much better than the works of the late French director Jean Rollin. Rollin was an artist with his own unique vision; one that he worked hard and made sacrifices to bring to the screen. His best works (and even many of his more obviously flawed offerings) play like they were shot in a dream; scenes straight from the realms of the subconscious that have a bizarre logic all their own, and that resonate emotionally with the viewer on a far deeper level than most movies have any hope of coming close to.

Shiver of the Vampires, one of my personal favorites of Rollin’s movies, also happens to be one of his earliest. If memory serves, it was his third general release. Watching this movie, it is clear that this is an amateur effort. Now, I’m not saying that in a bad way; Shiver is a very well made piece of work. I describe it as ‘amateur’ in that this is a work that is very obviously from early in an artist’s career. This is the point where the artist in question is familiar enough with the basics of his medium to create a competent piece; but is now playing with those basics, tweaking them, experimenting to see what it’s possible to do with them and how he can use them toward creating his own unique artistic vision.

This experimental quality is very evident all throughout the film. For example, the aesthetics are quite unique from what I’ve seen in other movies. In fact, Shiver of the Vampires looks a lot like how I’d expect a gothic horror put together by hippies to turn out; the colored lights used to illuminate the nighttime scenes, the rock score, the styles of the two male vampires (that’s right, there are euro-hippie vampires). However, overall Rollin is able to blend the two seemingly disparate sets of aesthetics and make it work. There are only a few places where the experimenting doesn’t quite work. The one off the top of my head is a tracking shot used throughout the film, where the camera follows a character or characters around in a circular motion. It always stops just short of motion sickness, but it could have been dropped after the first or second time.

Shiver was made on a fairly low budget, but it’s hard to tell by looking at it. One of Rollin’s greatest strengths in all of his movies that I have seen is his masterful use of location shots. Now admittedly, he has a bit of an advantage there. Europe is full of ruined castles and large cemeteries, and the majority of euro-horror films I have seen have made use of them. Not only that, but even the most ineptly made of them that I have born witness to have been unable to detract entirely from the atmosphere of the ruins.

Rollin, however; whether ancient ruins or modern buildings, had a real knack for wringing every bit of atmosphere he could out of wherever he was shooting, and incorporating it into his movies. In Shiver he makes adroit use of both the ruined castle and the old cemetery where the majority of the movie takes place; as well as a certain beach, present in many of his films, where we witness the tragic ending.

One thing that I find interesting about Rollin’s movies is his depiction of vampires. Vampirism was a favorite theme of Rollin’s, and it was the core of many of his plots. However, whatever variations on the theme Rollin used, I’ve noticed a few things all his movie vampires seem to have in common. First of all; even when Rollin romanticized his vampires or played them for sympathy, it is still clear that they are monsters. They may be monsters against their will (a la Lips of Blood), but there is a clear distinction between not evil and not dangerous; and being the former doesn’t necessarily guarantee the latter. Secondly, Rollin’s vampires are always outsiders; and not in the tragically hip way. In Rollin’s cosmos; even when vampirism is actively sought by the protagonist, it is always an irrevocable act that forever separates you from normal humanity.

The vampires in Shiver are particularly interesting. When we first meet them they are sympathetic, and even kind of goofy. The scene where the young couple first sits down to dinner with Isle’s cousins is hilarious; the two men giving this long-winded lecture on their studies, constantly posturing, interrupting each other, and ending each other’s sentences. The two actors play off each other beautifully. However, as the two vampires come to accept and even embrace their new nature, they become less sympathetic and more monstrous. When we reach the point just before the climax when all masks are dropped and they are lecturing Antoine on how he should be feeling pity for them instead of anger, I rather find them downright repulsive.

Isolde is even more interesting as the main villain. Rollin was strongly influenced by surrealism; and most of the surreal elements in Shiver revolve specifically around her. Isolde’s entrances are always dramatically bizarre; slinking out of grandfather clocks and popping down chimneys. At one point she even kills a victim with spiked nipple-caps. It’s almost as if Isolde is an avatar for the things in this world that are terrifying because there is no sense or logic to them. Dominique also adds to the character of Isolde with her looks; she possesses unconventional features that can switch from exotically sexy to downright terrifying depending on the situation.

Finally, there are our two young lovers caught in this dreadful mess. Rollin’s movies tend to revolve more on emotion than dialogue; and in particular he focused a lot on the emotion of loneliness. In Shiver, the horror, sadness and loneliness of the story comes mainly from how the vampires come between the young couple and destroy their relationship. Julien and Durand do a perfect job of portraying the strain and awkwardness that is increasingly interfering with Isle’s and Antoine’s new marriage. It is hard not to feel for Antoine as dark influences take his love away from him and he is unable to do anything about it.

Of course, some of my readers will want to know about the exploitation elements of the movie. Shiver of the Vampires is usually billed as an exploitation movie, and it does deliver on some of the goods. On the one hand, there is very little violence, and what we are given is very discreet. However, this being a Jean Rollin movie there is plenty of female nudity; from Dominique’s outfits, to the translucent veils worn by the servants that Rollin put on a lot of his female characters, to Sandra Julien constantly wandering around in the buff. I ain’t complaining. I should point out, though, that aside from one very brief throwaway scene, it tends to be less tawdry and more chaste and artistic.

In conclusion, Shiver of the Vampires is an odd, experimental, artistic movie that serves as a great example of Rollin’s oeuvre. Beautiful and bizarre, sensual and surreal; watch this one if you’re after something different.

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