“THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES” offers an interesting perspective on queerness and sexual liberation, along with Jean Rollin’s unmistakable style.
Jean Rollin is one of the most prolific filmmakers of 20th Century French cinema fantastique, a genre that exists at the crossroads between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His name also comes up frequently in discussions of lesbian vampires in cinema; Rollin directed over half a dozen vampire films, most of which featured a female vampire seducing and preying on other women.
It has to be said the Rollin’s films aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Heavy on aesthetics and lights on plot, 20th Century European arthouse horror is much slower paced than American horror films of the same period. It can be an acquired taste. My introduction was Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, and I was not immediately impressed.
But there’s something really great about these films.
Their genre trappings and low budget status allowed them to portray lesbianism at a time when mainstream cinema wouldn’t dare touch the subject. While no one today would call them progressive, Rollin’s films were certainly subversive and they offer some interesting perspectives on sexuality.
1971’s Le Frisson de Vampires, better known by its English title, The Shiver of the Vampires, is Rollin’s third vampire film and an absolute gem.
It has some great alternate titles like Sex and Vampires and Strange Things Happen at Night, both of which give you a pretty good idea of what this film is about.
Newlyweds Isle and Antoine are stopping by Isle’s cousins’ chateaux on the way to their honeymoon in Italy. Things immediately get confusing when a village woman informs them that Isle’s cousins have recently died, only for them to arrive at the chateaux to discover that’s not exactly the case.
Formerly dedicated vampire hunters, they are now vampires themselves under the control of a very stylish lady vampire named Isolde. (There’s some vampire hierarchy stuff going on that would have been interesting had it actually been explored, but it’s really just a side note to let us know Isolde outranks these dudes.)
The story is basically about the sanctity of Isle and Antoine’s marriage being threatened by all manner of deviant sexual behavior.
Lesbianism, polyamory, incest: this movie has it all.
And unlike traditional lesbian vampire narrives — like Carmilla and its various cinematic adaptations, namely The Vampire Lovers — the male hero doesn’t score any points for the heteropatriarchy. He loses the day and the girl. But the vampires lose, too. Everybody loses. Rollin films are like that.
The tricky part of talking about this film is that only half the characters have names. We have Isle and Antoine, Isolde, and Isabelle, a village woman who was in a relationship with both of Isle’s cousins (more on that later). The cousins are listed on IMDB as “1st vampire” and “2nd vampire.”
Their two female servants — who are essential to discussions of lesbianism in the film — are called “maid #1” and “maid #2.” Wikipedia refers to them as “the two female Renfields.” It makes things really confusing, but I’ll try to be as clear as possible when talking about the unnamed characters.
At the center of the film’s events is Isle.
Everybody wants Isle. Her cousins want her, Isolde wants her, and Antoine, of course, wants to keep her. Isle enters the narrative clad in her white gown and veil, the perfect image of a virginal bride. Upset by the news of her cousins’ death, she tells Antoine she wants to spend the night — their wedding night — alone. Antoine is understanding, but this is where things go awry.
By failing to consummate her marriage to Antoine, Isle leaves herself vulnerable to corruption and Isolde swoops in to seduce her. (She first appears inside a grandfather clock; later, she shimmies down the chimney. You never know where she’s gonna pop up. It’s ridiculous and amazing.)
Isle has removed her white wedding gown and Isolde replaces it with a heavy black cloak, the contrast intentionally unsubtle. Isolde begins to caress Isle, who smiles sublimely and welcomes the touch. Isolde then tells her, “I have some things to show you.”
Thus begins Isle’s disastrous bisexual awakening.
I use bisexual to describe Isle because, though the film’s selling point is the “lesbian” relationship and after Isolde’s seduction she immediately loses interest in Antoine, there is also a sexual connection between Isle and her two male cousins. The endgame is apparently for Isle to live eternally with them as a vampire. Initially Isolde seems to be merely procuring her for them, though she plans on sharing Isle with them whether they like it or not (they don’t).
In another instance of polyamory in the film, Isle’s cousins were both in a relationship with Isabelle. The cousins themselves are heavily queer-coded. There’s an intimacy in their body language and the way they interact with each other — they’re often touching and constantly finishing each other’s sentences — that makes them seem more like an old married couple than brothers.
They may not be directly incestuous but, through their shared relationship with Isabelle, they at least come pretty damn close.
In possibly the greatest moment of any Rollin film, Isolde kills Isabelle by literally stabbing her with her boobs.
She’s wearing metal spikes on her nipples, along with chains and her black cloak, which gives her a bit of a dominatrix vibe that I’m super into. It’s through this absurd murder that we learn Isle is susceptible to Isolde’s seduction because she has never has sex with a man. Isabelle, on the other hand, was immune to seduction because she was “too set in her ways” (translation: she’s too straight), having been “made a woman” by having sex with the cousins.
Isolde herself is a good old-fashioned misandrist lesbian. She declares her hatred of men — which is entirely justified, considering the statement is directed at the cousins as they rape her in retaliation for Isabelle’s death. When they call her a monster, she defiantly replies, “I’m proud of the way I am.”
They’re talking about vampirism, but vampirism is just code for queerness, and it’s pretty damn amazing to have a queer character make that statement in a world where her “monstrous” nature is punishable by death.
Even today, queer characters rarely get to voice pride in their identity.
I’m not trying to give Rollin brownie points he may not deserve, but it’s possible to feel a sense of validation in that moment.
There’s also a sense of validation in the presence of “the two female Renfields” (God, I wish they had names). These women are an anomaly in a genre where queer relationships almost always end badly. Though they are under the sway of Isolde and the vampire cousins, providing them with victims and blood from their own veins, their relationship exists outside of that.
We see them lying together, toying with Antoine while he sleeps, and wandering about the grounds in vibrantly colored outfits. We don’t know much about them, but we can tell they’re very much in love.
And the best part is, not only do they survive the film but they also help take down the vampires and reclaim their agency.
After burning Isolde’s coffin and trapping her inside the crypt (rather than face the sunrise, Isolde commits suicide by biting her own wrist — because that’s how that works, apparently), the two women kiss and dance around the cemetery.
Their celebration of their newfound freedom is possibly the most joyous moment of any Rollin film (the bar is not high). They’re happy and it makes me happy.
Alas, they’re the only ones who get a happy ending. Antoine makes a last ditch effort to save Isle, only for her to choose her cousins over him, forcing him to watch them make out and then disappear when the sun comes up. You almost feel bad for Antoine; he’s pretty boring but not a bad guy. He’s not an abusive creep like the husbands in Daughters of Darkness or The Blood-Spattered Bride, but that’s about all he’s got going for him.
At the end of the day, the traditional values he represents were no match for the allure of vampirism and various sexual taboos.
The Shiver of the Vampires is one of the best examples of Rollin’s signature style: a dream-like atmosphere, Gothic aesthetics, and naked women in graveyards.
The film was also inspired by the hippie movement, showcased particularly in the fashion and psychedelic soundtrack. The counterculture’s rejection of traditional gender roles and sexual values certainly feel present in Isle’s struggle between marriage to Antoine and the sexual liberation of Isolde and her cousins.
While I don’t think Rollin was deliberately trying to make any bold statements, it’s impossible to separate his films from their historical context.
Queer fans have long found a haven in their portrayal of queer characters as attractive and powerful. Even now as more varied and progressive offerings are becoming increasingly available, we continue to return to these films.