Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Le Frisson Des Vampires - review


Directed By: Jean Rollin

Release date: 1970*

Contains spoilers

* listed as 1971 on imdb but most sources show as 1970. Also known as Shiver of the Vampires, this Rollin movie hasn’t much of a storyline – if the truth be told - and yet is a fine example of the director’s work as it is so richly evocative in a visual sense and chock-a-block with symbolism that it is a joy to watch.

the funeralThe film begins with a section in black and white, something Rollin filmed as a tribute to the Universal monster movies of yore – as he tells us in the director’s commentary. The scene is outside a crypt and undertakers take two coffins in. Three women stand as mourners, when we meet them later we discover that they are the two maids (Marie-Pierre Castel and Kuelan Herce) and Isabelle (Nicole Nancel).

The credits role and the soundtrack begins. I specifically mention the soundtrack as it is a wonderful composition of swirling psychedelic guitars that is reminiscent of very early Pink Floyd.

We cut to a castle and the two maids from the funeral sit in a room. I should mention here the lighting in the castle, which is fantastic. Each room of the castle has a different lighting offering a different feel to the various rooms. They stand and begin to journey through the castle, eventually coming to a room bathed in an orangey-red light beyond a spiral stair. As they climb the stairs we hear a hacking cough. At the top of the stairs one vampire falls, staked, another, also staked, is chained to the wall. He tells the maids that they must remove his stake, leaving him to the light, and use it to kill those in the cemetery. This will set them free. If they fail they must promise to serve *them* as they will need daylight servants and this will save their lives.

Isolde awakensThey reach the cemetery as night falls. They attempt to enter the crypt but the slabs of a nearby grave disappear revealing a female vampire, Isolde (Dominique), the girls scream.

A newly-wed couple, Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) and Isa (Sandra Julien), Antoine and Isaare driving through the countryside. Note here that on the encore collectors’ edition DVD Isa is shown as Isle in the subtitles. They journey to Italy for their honeymoon but Isa wants to first stop off to see her cousins (not named as characters in the film but played by Michel Delahaye and Jacques Robiolles), her only remaining family. They stop in a village, under the shadow of the castle, and Antoine speaks to Isabelle. She tells him that Isa’s cousins are dead and they were buried the day before.

They continue to the castle and meet the maids, who do not indicate that the cousins are dead (indeed they intimate they are still alive) but show them to their rooms. Isa tells Antoine that she wishes to visit her cousins’ tomb alone and walks there, still in her wedding dress. in prayerAs she kneels before the tomb, in prayer, the vision of her is iconic and I couldn’t help but think of the Virgin Mary, interesting as later the Virgin Mary is mentioned in connection to the goddess Isis and I think Rollin deliberately set the shot up like this. Isabelle approaches, dressed in mourning clothes. She explains that they were to be married and indicates that it was likely she was to marry both cousins.

Isa returns to her room, she wishes to be alone and Antoine has to sleep elsewhere. She strips and the clock strikes midnight, the case opening to reveal Isolde. doorway between universesNow the idea of the vampire emerging from the clock seems, on a casual glance, simply psychedelic. However none of the imagery used in the film is accidental as far as I can tell. In Rollin’s own words, “Les Frissons Des Vampires is my first film where there appears the grand-father clock, serving as a link between two universes and out of which characters appear.” Later in the film Isolde springs from behind a curtain over the bed and emerges from a chimney flue.

Isolde touches the strangely still and yet still responsive Isa and then leads her to the cemetery. The two maids appear, one holding a bowl and the other a chalice. Isolde drinks from the bowl and then Isa the chalice. Isolde kisses the girl and then bites her and she gently falls naked onto a grave.

Antoine goes to Isa’s room but she is gone. He searches the castle and sees the two maids he follows them and watches them in a room, with two men (the cousins). There is a girl on a table, whom the maids stake as the cousins hide their eyes. When they reveal their faces they have blood at their mouths. The maids ask why the girl had to die and they say that they will not pass their taint on. Antoine returns to Isa’s room and she sleeps peacefully. The next day, after realising it was no dream or hallucination, Antoine rationalises the staking as a human sacrifice.

the cousinsThe story, as emerges, is that the two cousins researched their family, discovering a path that led beyond Christianity to older religions and, amongst others, the worship of Isis. Their research led them, eventually, to vampirism and they became vampire hunters. They were hunting one vampire (unnamed) when Isolde, a wandering vampire, appeared and her gaze paralysed them. They were both bitten and bled to death to rise again as vampires.

unusual weaponryIsolde kills Isabelle, through spiked breast pieces, essentially to destroy their link with the living but it is also intimated that they will rise in the ranks of the vampires, beyond Isolde, if they father a child upon Isabelle. They are offered Isa in return, whom Isolde has seduced, though they rape the strictly lesbian Isolde in that scene. It is interesting, given the mention of Isis earlier, that Isabelle is lured to her doom by the cousins’ dog Anubis, named for the Egyptian jackal headed god who led the souls of the dead. The disposal of Isabelle in a stream not only reminds us of the use of running water in vampire myths but also seem pre-Raphaelite in its imagery.

The film sees the seduction of Isa and Antoine’s inability to stop what is happening. In many respects he represents us, the watchers who are impotent to stop what happens on screen.

There is little vampiric tastes emergeother story, though I will discuss the ending as it is richly symbolic, but the symbolism comes thick and fast through the entire film. From electronic engineer Antoine in a library where the books attack him, representing perhaps the futility of modern science in the face of the supernatural to the hauntingly beautiful scene of the light-sensitive, not quite turned, Isa holding a dead dove and tasting its blood.

The vampires do not have fangs in this, in some respects just as well as Rollins did have a tendency to use comedy fangs. They fear the cross, each night before they awake the maids cover the crosses in the cemetery to allow them to rise. Stakes and sunlight destroys them.

vampiric suicideThe vampires meet their demise at the end. Isolde is trapped in the tomb by the maids. Her coffin has been burnt and a cross placed before the door to prevent her leaving. In desperation she suckles at her own wrist, in a bizarre form of vampiric suicide. The maids dance through the cemetery, now free.

Antoine has run away with Isa and reaches the beach, a favourite Rollins location that symbolically can represent the meeting of two worlds. The cousins call to her and she goes to them willingly; abandoning her husband. As they feed from her in an incestuous ménage à trois, where the blood drinking is almost – for all three – orgasmic, the sun catches them. They twist in pleasured agony until they suddenly vanish. We ask ourselves, has the sun destroyed them or merely transported them to that otherworld, unseen but hinted at? Antoine is left alone, distraught and calling the name of his lost wife.

As often happens in Rollin’s films the acting is odd, almost distracted at times. In this however, it serves to amplify the otherworldly feel. That said the two hippyish cousins are played with manic gusto and their joined up dialogue is a joy.

If you watch this for a relayed story, especially in the dialogue, you will find it unsatisfying in its simplicity.vampire bite If you watch it casually then it will merely seem psychedelic, clinging on to the just passed 60s in style. However if you watch it for the beauty of the filming and the richness of the symbolic images that Rollin spreads liberally through the film you will find it transports you to another world, perhaps one that we cannot fully comprehend as it almost surely is only truly knowable in Rollin’s mind. It is a dreamscape and we are merely observers.

I must mention that fact that there are three alternative scenes on the encore collectors DVD and I mention them because of their strangeness. There is much nudity within the film itself and this perilously walks the line of exploitation and yet remains simply erotic and artistic. These scenes, all three concerning the maids, cross that line and become exploitation scenes – in fact they are fairly hardcore. What is strange is that, whilst in the third scene we see Michel Delahaye and Sandra Julien, the maids themselves are played by different actresses. In fact in the first scene we inter-cut between the alternative actresses engaged in full on lesbian love to scenes from the movie of the actual actresses embracing.

This film is not going to be to everyone’s taste. It is not Rollin at his commercial best, but for the Rollin fan it must rank high in his filmography. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Marvin The Magnificent said...

You have really got to watch out for those spiky breasted vampires!

That's Vampire Hunting Lession 101.
If you're not careful they could poke your eye out.

Marvin The Magnificent

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Too true Marvin, too true