The Shiver of the Vampires, released in 1971, is another strange vampiric entry in Jean Rollin’s filmography. This was his third feature, and the first one to feature explicit lesbian themes. Lesbian eroticism was more subtextual in previous films, but in this film, it takes the forefront of the movie and the narrative. The story and narrative structure of the film is much less surreal and dreamlike than Rollin’s previous two films, The Rape of the Vampire and The Nude Vampire, but the film is still quite strange and bizarre. I found myself laughing at some of the weirder scenes in the film, but whether that was intentional on Rollin’s part I do not know.
The Shiver of the Vampires follows two newlyweds, Isle and Antoine (played by Sandra Julien and Jean Marie Durand, respectively), as they are visiting Isle’s cousins after their wedding. Isle and Antoine are told by the townsfolk that her cousins have passed, but when they arrive at their castle, the cousins are talked about by their two unnamed servants (played by Marie-Pierre Castle and Kuelan Herce) as if they were still alive. We soon learn that the cousins are newly initiated vampires who eventually want their cousin, Isle, to join them in a weird incestuous plot.
The cousins are not the only vampires who live in the castle; also residing there is a female vampire named Isolde who quickly begins to prey on Isle on arrival. The interactions between Isle and Isolde are where we see Rollin playing with lesbian themes. There is always a subtextual erotic element to vampiric works–the exchange of body fluids being an apt example–and we see that eroticism amplified in The Shiver of the Vampires in ways Rollin hasn’t explored before.
One could look at Rollin’s use of vampirism as a metaphor for non-traditional sexuality. Isle refuses to sleep with her new husband, instead choosing to go off at night with another woman who kisses and bites her. We also see this subversion of norms in the cousin’s religious practices. They have long diatribes on their study of pagan religions in the area and how they are subversive to traditional Christianity. The movie frames the relationships in the film in a strange way too. Isle and Antoine’s relationship does not seem entirely healthy since she refuses to have sex with him, and he sneaks into her room at night to peak and lust at her naked body, all while she is sleeping. This sexual assault puts Antoine in a weird position as the hero of the film. It is hard to root for him after you see him acting the way he does. The only relationship that does not seem entirely toxic is the relationship between the two maids who seem to have a loving relationship with each other–although there is one moment where they tease Antione sexually while he is sleeping, much in the same way he touches his wife while she sleeps.
There are moments in the movie that also borderline on comedy–at least for me. Rollin likes to feature moments where the camera is spinning around, and during one of those moments, I could have sworn that one of the maid’s actresses was about to laugh. I can honestly understand if she was because the movie’s bizarreness and strange nature give it a comedic feel–I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. In one comedic moment, Antoine goes to find the cousin’s in their library and is attacked by books falling off the shelf on top of him, which made me think of a slasher-themed episode of Boy Meets World in which Jennifer Love Hewitt is killed by stacks of books falling on her. There is another moment when Isolde, the vampire lady, descends from chimney like a lesbian vampire Santa Clause.
All in all, The Shiver of the Vampires is a strange, unintentionally funny movie that amps up the eroticism of the previous films while toning down some of the more surreal and dreamlike narrative aspects. While this was a departure in tone, it still featured signature elements we have seen in previous Rollin movies such as castles, eroticism, ending at an oceanside, and surrealism–although it has been toned down. It will be interesting to see what elements he keeps throughout his work and whether the surrealism will be toned down again or amped back up to 11 like previous works.