Thursday, 16 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Shivers of the Vampires (1971)

Dir. Jean Rollin

Ah, Jean Rollin. An acquired taste for some but it was natural for me to become a fan of his. Even Zombie Lake (1981) couldn't damper my interest in him. Out of the directors in this season, he has one of the most distinct filmmaking styles within his movies. Rollin is a fascinating individual in terms of horror cinema, a director of mood pieces whose work is absolutely artistic yet has been only given its due by cult film fans. He's also one of the few strong cores in terms of French horror cinema, barring individual films, for a few decades up to the Millennium and the French New Wave of Extreme, making films from the late sixties to his death in the late 2000s, all with a completely independent attitude to making his own films how he desired them. While his films do have narratives, he prefers to concentrate on mood, characters travelling through scenes and events, connected or not, that require the viewer to absorb. Shivers of the Vampires has a plot straight out of a Hammer horror film, but it drifts through it, a slow considered pace that pulls you into the pacing the film is set to.

A honeymooning couple decide to spend their celebration time at the castle of her two cousins, unbeknownst to them taken over by a female vampire who has turned the cousins in underlings. The lead vampire targets the wife which the husband attempts to stop. Watching on, as servants of the vampires, are a duo of mortal women, a trademark of Rollin, and it's all scored to a prog rock score. Most of Rollin's films can quality as gothic Euro-horror, especially as he has an obsession with vampires that lead to many of his films being on said subject. With this film expect every trope - the castles, the graveyards, caskets and the like - but depicted through a methodical, contemplative mood, not in an intellectual deconstruction, but through an idiosyncratic tone that is thoughtful but as capable of having gore and sexuality like a lurid genre film, balancing between the two sides. He has also been viewed as an erotic film director because of his other obsession for the female body and lesbianism that, could be eyebrow raising in any other context, causing some to shake their heads in disbelief, but in his case was far from tasteless as it could've been. The reason why is that, while very gazing at the female body, usually naked, Rollin's attitude to depicting women in his films never becomes tacky or descend into nude women who "mysterious explored each others' bodies" as one would usually presume this sort of Euro softcore tone to end up in. In fact his depictions of women has a lot of evidence to praise him for, almost usually the main characters or outnumbering the males in his films, the male vampires in this film a rarity for him too when he usually has only female vampires, and never depicting actresses as merely sex objects, instead always figures in his dreamlike worlds that are sexual but can also remark on the circumstances around them or be part of the strange happenings that take place. This also has a remarked effect on this film's plot as well, where everyone is equal, the vampires not inherently evil whilst the husband character is in the hero role trying to prevent his wife from becoming part of the living dead. Actually, the depiction of vampires here, as within the other Rollin films I've seen, are so much more interesting than in most films, like the peculiar double act of the vampire hunters who were turned into vampires themselves, hilariously called " bourgeoisie vampires" by their female master while they spend most of the film as the eccentrics to her straight (wo)man in their puffy shirts and elaborate mannerisms. Even the lead actress, while the typical innocent seduced by the unnatural forces, isn't the damned buxom damsel in distress you usually get in horror films.

Out of many cult directors, Rollin has an immense advantage is being a capable and talented filmmaker, more so knowing how limited his resources and time could be per film, not only in creating mood, but also in the content, such as a scene, as the two male vampires walk around a room delivering a monologue, the camera follows them in a continuous spin, a circle around the room. There is a clear surrealistic to his films, using everyday objects and tropes of horror in unique ways. A scene with a grandfather clock, another obsession of his, without spoiling it, is not only a great image but the kind of image that says why I love horror cinema and continually watch them. What would've been a pretty conventional narrative is transformed into something very different, not only because of the ending of the beach, which goes against expectations, swerving the usual finale for this sort of story, but because as well as his lingering, methodical style turns it into something unworldly as a result. This film contains a freeness, to manipulate and play with the material, that is very memorable and very different from convention.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
One of the more narratively pinned films of Rollin I've seen, I can only give it a Low rating. Compared to other horror films though, this is drastically different because Rollin is inclined to use the horror template to create films that go against the conventions of this genre. It isn't about scares or a visceral reaction in Shivers of the Vampires, but a scenario that is sensual and radiates with a dreamlike tone, where an ordinary scene in another work, like the husband coming across a secret meeting that reveals the vampires' truth form, is taken as a moment that bleeds into everything else, out of conventional events taking place. He is completely anti-horror, frankly, in terms of the plotting and tones of his films, closer to supernatural surrealism with added eroticism, or difficult to fully define in terms of any sub-genre, yet he retains the most important parts of the horror genre in terms of mystery, the unexpected and how the viewer is taken into a scenario which exists out of reality, one which fused with a trippy rock score, has an added energy to it. There will be more Jean Rollin films on this list, all of the ones so far I've seen, even Zombie Lake despite the joke I made of it early in this review, having equally unconventional moods which would frustrate a genre fan expecting something traditional, but is more than just nudity and sexuality, instead something elegant and captivating.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
If it feels like i've had difficulty in reviewing the film, its only because trying to define Rollin as a film maker is still difficult in terms of peering him down, though things mentioned in the review give some potential reasons. He is so drastically different from many other directors, with only someone like Jess Franco comparable in ways, that it's entering a complete different type of genre filmmaking with him though factors, like the surrealism or the softcore erotica, are traceable to other films. He's a filmmaker absolutely for this blog, and in becoming more of a fan of his as I see and rewatch films, acquiring them, I'll be eventually able to give a clearer, more distinct take on what stands out with him, to the point I can get close to saying why I like his films so much.

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