Friday, January 4, 2008

Shiver of the Vampires (1971): or, You Probably Wouldn't Shiver If You Put Some Dang Clothes On

What can you say about Jean Rollin? Perhaps other directors, before him and after, have captured with greater artistry the lush landscapes and glorious decay that so fascinated Rollin in the 70s. Perhaps others realized to greater effect the blending of expressionistic colors with surreal, dream-logic imagery to create a cinematic world unlike our own, frightening in its strangeness but alluring with its beauties. But while that case may be arguable, another is not--that Rollin's fascination and obsession drew him to two things that, when added to his other strengths, cemented his place among the great filmmakers of our time--for no one before or since has utilized as fully and beautifully the mysterious secrect ingredients that Rollin stirred into all his sumptuous dishes: heapin' helpings of nekkid Eurobabes and Blood.

Who knows why beautiful naked women and bright red blood so haunted young Jean that he had to make movie after movie containing them? Who knows what good they did him, or what tortures they inflicted? All we know is this--no one filmed them like Rollin. No one.

Shiver of the Vampires is one of the earliest examples of Rollin's vampiric obsessions, and everything you want is here. Glorious natural scenery. Wonderfully decaying castles, crumbling walls, desolate ruins and graveyards. Expressionistic lighting. Strange, dream-logic plotting. Gallons of tempra-paint blood. And the babes--dear sweet Beezlebub, the BABES!

We open with a somber sepia-toned funeral, as the two masters of the manor are being laid to rest. Their faithful servants, gorgeous petite Marie-Pierre Castel and exotic Kuelan Herce, are on a mission. After some shocking rock music credits over a foggy silhouetted graveyard, the girls go to the tower where they find two vampires in their death throes. As one of the vamps waits for the sunlight to claim him, he exorts the girls to go and kill "them" before sunset; but if they cannot, to serve "them" so that at least the girls can stay alive as their servants. Cryptic as these instructions are, the girls attempt to carry them out, but arrive too late to slay the strangely seductive female vampire who rises with a shriek from her crypt. Condemned to serve vampiric masters, we must leave the enigmatic maids there as we follow another thread of the story.

Ise and her new husband Antoine (aka "Scarf Boy") are en route to Ise's cousins' estate, where she has many happy memories, to spend their honeymoon. She arrives to find her cousins both dead (the corpses from the opening scene, presumably), but their maids waiting to take them in. After visiting the grave site and meeting a woman, Isabelle, who claims to have been mistress to both of the dead men, Ise goes back to the castle and the strangest honeymoon suite in history. Claiming to be too upset and tired to sleep with her new husband, she sends Scarf Boy to another suite and climbs in bed.

At midnight, though, the female vamp from earlier appears in Ise's room--crawling incredibly from the guts of the grandfather clock that struck the hour! The vampire langorously feels up the quickly-nude newlywed, and seduces her with a bite.

"Excuse me, do you have the time?"
"Yes. For whatever you're talking about, YES."

An amazing scene follows as the naked Ise sleepwalks into the graveyard and collapses nude on a tomb, while the maids (now in nearly-transparent gauze gowns and NOTHING else) watch silently. Meanwhile Scarf Boy, too sexually frustrated to sleep, is walking the castle grounds and discovers a strange scene unfolding in the crypt chapel--two men, obviously vampires (note the bloody drool) are praying while the maids, finished with Ise, stake a female vamp on the altar! The praying vamps say this must be done to prevent spreading their curse. Scarf Boy, confused, stumbles back to the castle, gropes his naked and unconscious bride (who is back safe in her bed) to no effect, and skulks off.

The next day stranger things happen. The maids tell their guests that the cousins are NOT dead, but just rumored to be so in the village. They're working in the study all day, and will join them for dinner that evening. Scarf Boy, the skeptic, investigates the library, only to be attacked by the books! True to their word the cousins appear that evening, and a stranger set of swingin' vamps I've never seen. It's an incredible scene as the brothers explain their studies, Mad Tea Party style, while Rollin's camera spins and whirls. Some great writing here and wonderfully weird acting by the brothers make this a favorite exchange of mine, as the honeymooners (and the audience) feel they've truly gone down the rabbit hole.

"Okay. I'll hold his arms, and you take
the blood-filled water gun away."

After begging off Scarf Boy's attentions again due to illness (anemia, no doubt), Ise is visited again by the female vamp, Isis, and once again bitten. Afterwards Isis meets the cousins, who are of course also vamps, the ones from the crypt. We learn they were famous vampire hunters in life, but recently fell to Isis's machinations and have now become what they once fought. Is there any humanity left in the brothers? Can Scarf Boy figure out what's going on and stop Isis before Ise is forever undead? What about Isabelle? What's with all these "I" names anyway? And how many times can we see the maids in those gowns before we explode in spurts of joy?*

This is my second visit to Rollin Country, and I'm seriously thinking of buying a summer house. I love this movie. The beautiful images--images of such decay, but also such beauty--the expressionistic red and green lighting, and of course the beautiful and regularly nude Eurobabes, all kept me mesmerized. And Rollin's eye for an arresting image can't be questioned--witness early on, when the self-sacrificing vamps in the tower die (whose backstory I'm still completely lost on), we get an amazing shot of the exterior castle, blood pouring out the window so that the building itself seems to bleed--red blood on white stone. Beautimous. And later, a white dove on a dark coffin in a pool of thick red blood might as well be a painting. It's art.

And need I mention the women? Ise waiting nudeby the grandfather clock for her vampire lover, the maids naked togther on furs (Zang!), women in coffins with blood trickling from their lips--I felt visually drunk.


Add to that the wild 60s/70s fashions and the great weird performances by the cousins, and this movie is nothing but wonderful all the way through.

This one is off the thumb scale. I could go on and on about what I loved here--the great ending, for instance, could take another page--but really talking about Rollin's movie is like talking about how wine tastes. It's fine, but there's no way you can really tell what it's like without tasting it yourself. So I encourage everyone to open some vintage Rollin, put on your paisley smoking jackets, and get drunk as I did. Trust me, you'll love it.

(*Answer: 12)


Anonymous said...

Got drunk, loved it and now I'm an alcoholic.

And are there no more vacant summer houses in Rollin Country, a hole in the ground will do just fine.

Nine-Fingered Menace said...

Shiver of the Vampires is one of my all-time favorite Jean Rollin movies as well. Here's the review I recently wrote up on it.

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