a.k.a. Sexualterror der entfesselten Vampire, Strange Things Happen at Night, Sex and the Vampire, Thrill of the Vampires, Terror of the Vampires. France. 1970. Horror.

Director: Jean Rollin. P: Les Filmes Modernes. Sc: Jean Rollin. Dp: Jean-Jacques Renon. E: Olivier Gregoire. M: Acanthus. Sets: Michel Delesalle. Sound: J. P Louhblier.

Cast: Sandra Julien, Jean-Marie Durand, Michel Delahaye, Jacques Robiolles, Marie-Piere Castel, Kuelan Herca, Dominique.

Together with fellow maverick Alain Jessua (Traitement de Choc 73), Jean Rollin was effectively the only French director regularly contributing to the fantastic genre during the 1970s and into the 1980s. While Jessua tended to work in the science fiction genre (often featuring elements of satire and parody), Rollin made a niche for himself in erotic horror. Le Frisson des Vampires was his third official feature, the second in colour after what is considered his breakthrough film La Vampire Nue (69). The work reviewed here shows him developing the style and obsessions that would become familiar throughout his oeuvre.

In the graveyard of a chateau in a remote part of France, a funeral cortege places two coffins in a tomb sealed by a wrought iron gate. Attending the funeral appears to be a widow along with two young female servants. Later the two servants sit pensively at a table in one of the many room within the chateau. They then make the decision to venture into another part of the chateau and eventually come to a tower where the sounds of someone in great pain are heard. There they discover their two employers wrapped in chains and attempting to stake themselves through the heart. In order that the two retainers’ souls along with their masters’ souls be saved, they implore that the two women remove the stakes from the two men’s bodies and destroy unidentified individuals in the chateau’s burial chamber. However, they are told that if they fail at this task, then they must swear total obedience to these individuals, as accomplices will be needed to them with victims. The two men then kill themselves by exposing their bodies to direct sunlight. The women remove the stakes and go about their task. Later that night they enter the graveyard and make for the tomb. As they unlock the gate a woman emerges from a grave from behind them and confronts the pair. The next morning a newly married couple are driving through the countryside on their way to Italy. They intend to visit the bride’s cousins, whom she has not seen since her childhood and whom she considered quite strange at the time, at their nearby castle. They arrive in a village overshadowed by the building seen at the start of the movie. The husband goes and asks for directions and meets the woman seen at the funeral. She informs him that the bride’s cousins had died the previous day and that their home is now empty except for the two servants. She then makes make references to strange occurrences since the cousins died before urging him to leave. The husband gives the bad news regarding the death of her relatives to his wife, with her being understandably shocked. They decide to go to the castle anyway. There they are impressed by the building and its bizarrely furnished interior. They are surprised to be greeted by the two servants who were expecting them and show them to their room. There the bride tells her husband that she must go and pay her respects to her cousins at their tomb. He agrees. She then ventures in to the graveyard and makes her way to the tomb and prays. The mourner seen at the funeral appears and makes obscure comments about being married to both cousins at the same time. Back in her bedroom the wife asks to sleep alone that night as she is deeply distraught. The husband reluctantly concurs and leaves. Later when she is preparing for bed, a grandfather clock in the room strikes midnight and the young woman is astonished yet mesmerised to see a woman to emerge from the pendulum chamber with in the clock. The is the woman seen to emerge from the grave earlier on. She begins to seduce the bride…

Within horror movie fandom Jean Rollin is often mentioned in the same breath as another maverick director, Spanish-born Jess Franco (Les Avaleuses 73).

Both have to toil with impossibly low budgets and choose to work mainly in the area of erotic horror. Within this sub-genre a common recurring (especially during the 1970s) theme is that of a naïve younger woman becoming enthralled by a lesbian or bisexual female supernatural entity, often a vampire, with whom the woman may be linked in some way, in certain cases her alter-ego.

Another notable feature of these filmmakers output, and possibly the most irritating for the uninitiated, is the general lack of linear narrative or plot development. Champions for Franco compare much of his output, especially from the start of the 1970s and into the early 1980s to the style of a free-form jazz composition. Rollin, on the other hand, tends to use a loose structure to forma sensual, dream-like world, where he can display his own particular themes and fixations.

Although only the third completed feature film from Jean Rollin, Le Frisson des Vampire already shows many of the motifs that would become familiar throughout his career. Among the most obvious are the presence of the pair of mysterious females (usually twins in later productions) her played by Marie-Pierre (Levres de Sang 75) and oriental actress Kueron Herce, exotic graveyards featuring elaborately carved gravestones and sepulchres and a large, imposing mansion or castle. Other visual cues recurring throughout Rollin’s career include the desolate beach at Dieppe, elaborate candelabras and railway lines. Surprisingly another fetish of the filmmaker’s, clowns, do not appear.

Like Franco, Rollin is also a serious film buff. The influences on show in Le Frisson des Vampires are impressively wide-ranging and date at least as far back as Louis Feuillade’s epic serial Les Vampires (15), notably in the appearance of the female vampire played by Dominque. The way the chateau in which most of the action takes place is presented by Rollin implies that it may in fact be alive which either controls those occupying it, or responds to the emotional psychological states of those under its roof, echoes many of the properties seen in the Roger Corman Edgar Alan Poe adaptations of the 1960s, especially The Fall of the House of Usher (60), as well as Robert Wise’s The Haunting (63). The impression that the house may be organic is underlined in a number of scenes such as where the sceptical husband (Jean-Marie Durand) is attacked by the contents of the chateau’s private library and the exterior of the building taking on different aspects depending on whether it is day or night.

Other cinematic influences that become apparent are the general theme of a couple facing some sort of supernatural menace seen in the likes of Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (63) and especially the Halperin Brothers White Zombie (32), while the possibility that some sort of border has been crossed into a chaotic alternate world echoes a similar situation in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (32). Meanwhile the climax in which a vampire cannot return to its coffin as it has been torched is reworked from Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (43).

Stylistically Le Frisson des Vampires additionally borrows from other works like Alain Resnais’ L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (61) with the vampirised cousins’ highly elliptical dialogue while the various characters’ overlapping dialogue suggests that Rollin was an admirer of Orson Welles.

Some scenes also have a marked theatrical quality about them. This is most noticeable whenever there is a lengthy dialogue exchange between the vampirised cousins and the newlyweds in which the cousins appear to be performing to the audience of an imaginary auditorium, even bidding a dramatic adieu (along with a bow) at the end of these performances. They also tend to make their entrance from behind a curtain to add to the theatrical atmosphere. The female vampire also on occasion makes her entrance from behind a curtain and when she murders the cousins’ lover Isabelle (Nicole Nancel) she completes the act with a very melodramatic flourish. Another notable sequence, sometimes dismissed as a continuity gaffe, is where the husband’s advances are spurned by his bride, and he apparently leaves the room. However, a mirror hanging from a wall reveals that he is merely sitting in the wings. While this could be interpreted as an error, it does seem deliberate and adds to the film’s bizarre air. With its air of improvisation and strange situations, some viewers may be reminded of the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement that dated back to the 1920s but really flourished in the 1950s and 1960s and represented by the likes of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

Rollin’s penchant for flamboyant surrealism throughout his career is very evident in Le Frisson des Vampires. Among the most striking imagery on show are Dominique, the vampire queen, emerging from within the case of a grandfather clock, descending down a chimney in slow motion and appearing from within the blue smoke spiralling out of a well. Another striking visual has a dove lying bleeding onto the lid of a very ornate coffin seen lying in the grounds of the chateau in broad daylight. The air of surrealism is heightened by the inclusion of what would normally be considered a wildly inappropriate progressive rock score by short-live student band Groupe Acanthe. Here it proves to be an inspired choice, being absurdist in a highly theatrical manner.

Special mention should be made of the art direction by Michel Desalles whose ornamentation and decoration owe a lot to French and Belgian surrealist artists. Skulls features heavily in the décor, peering from the top of a four poster bed and from within fishtanks. Assorted grotesque and bizarre figures (some mechanical) also litter the rooms in the castle, apparently meant to represent the deities of some arcane and ancient religion.

Cinematically, Le Frisson des Vampires is a visual tour-de-force. While Jess Franco, at this point in his career, was relying heavily on crash zooms and hand-held cameras for effect, Rollin was adopting a different approach entirely. Here one of the movie’s most notable features was cinematographer Jean-Jacques Renon’s use of camera movement, in which Renon (Les Demoniaques 73) goes to extraordinary lengths to follow the performers around rooms or through the labyrinthine chateau, often employing 360 degree pans to achieve this. Renon also makes use of lengthy tracking shots and extreme camera positions, especially during conversation pieces.

Rollin additionally makes quite stunning use of colour, from the purple chiffon worn by the servants to the use of coloured spotlights that give the chateau a unique, almost organic quality, while the use of primary coloured lighting provides the graveyard and the chateau’s chapel, where a significant amount of action takes place, a weird, otherworldly quality, again underlining the bizarre nature of the entire film.

While noted for the surrealist nature of his work, Jean Rollin is equally well-known for his use of eroticism, and like many of his contemporaries moved into hard-core in the mid-1970s., although he has always expressed a preference for soft-core erotica. As with a number of producers at this time, producer Monique Natan later added additional, “harder” scenes to the existing footage contained in Le Frisson des Vampires, primarily for overseas consumption. Some of this material was shot by Rollin himself, but reportedly much was shot by others, with the director merely acting as an observer. A grey-market DVD of the alternative version of the film is said to contain more graphic Sapphic sex between the two servants, a lengthier rape scene involving Dominique and the two cousins along with some sado-masochistic footage. The official French theatrical release reviewed here, is considered by Rollin to be the definitive version of Le Frisson des Vampires.

In this version, instead of graphic coupling between the performers, Rollin relies on erotic imagery for effect. This includes shots of Sandra Julien positioned, nude, against a grandfather clock, the servants writhing naked under a fur blanket and the decidedly fetishistic fashions worn by Dominique. The most overtly sexual scene is that where the bride is first seduced by the female vampire, although this is somewhat compromised by Julien’s attempts to stifle a giggling fit.

Sandra Julien was in fact a real find for Rollin. The striking red-head, an ex-model, easily dominates a large portion of the film, and became a superstar of French soft-core cinema as well as a major cult figure in the Far East, especially Japan where she made at least two movies. Former exotic dancer Dominique (Requiem pour Vampire 73) is remarkable mainly because of her ability to radically change her appearance from scene to scene. Against the sensual charge created by the female actors, the male performers tend to pale into insignificance, although this may be more attributed to Rollin’s tradition of employing crew members, friends and film critics to act for him.

While it is fascinating to chart recurring themes and elements in this and other Jean Rollin works, Le Frisson des Vampires features some intriguing concepts of its own.

Although the plot for this production is generally considered absurd, it does make sense in a broad fashion. On one level it concerns itself with the efforts of a husband to rescue his new bride from her recently vampirised relatives and a predatory female vampire. However, things are actually more complicated than this description would suggest.

Essentially what Le Frisson des Vampires concerns itself with is the conflict between the rational and irrational world. The husband, an electronics engineer (and the owner of a revolver), and to a lesser extent the cousins’ former lover (Nancel), represent the rational while the cousins and the female vampire represent a sensual, chaotic universe in which space, and especially time and its perception, wax and wane.

It appears that Sandra Julien’s character is in the process of making a very profound decision about whether she should leave the chateau with her husband or stay in the world inhabited by the likes of her cousin. The details of the actual choices to be made are somewhat vague (deliberately so) but it may whether she succumbs to madness, or even death, since at times her wedding dress looks disturbingly like a funeral shroud.

A variation on the madness theory is that since the three female characters share very similar names (based on the long-form name Isabel) Julien has to make a choice between adopting the personality of Nancel or that of Dominique. Since the latter eventually murders the former, thus severing an important link to the rational world for both the cousins and by extension Julien.

Some of Rollin’s work alludes to science fiction elements as part of their plotlines, notably the last acto of La Vampire Nue, and influences from that genre should not be precluded when discussing this movie. It is entirely possible that the chateau where much of the action takes place may be conduit where a number of parallel universes collide and where Julien, Dominique and Nancel represent the same character in different planes of existence. The fact that time is so elastic in this environment adds to this impression as does the presence of the bizarre animal and other unidentified noises heard on the soundtrack which suggests other worlds exist just outside of the characters’ perception.

Yet another explanation for the events depicted in the film is that the house literally is alive and has taken on the form of Dominique to manipulate those who occupy it.

Like the majority of Jean Rollin’s canon, Le Frisson des Vampires ends bleakly with the husband failing in his attempt to rescue his bride, although he does succeed in having Dominique’s character destroyed with the aid of the servants. As dawn breaks on the beach at Dieppe, the cousins and his bride disappear, either into madness, a parallel world or oblivion. The husband then descends into his own insanity, running screaming along the shorefront, blindly firing his pistol. The entropy encountered in the chateau has invaded the real world.

©Iain McLachlan 2003