Friday, 21 January 2022

Two Orphan Vampires (1997)

In the latter part of the 80s Jean Rollin’s film-making career started to peter out, due as much as anything to his failing health. He began to devote most of his energies to novel writing, with a certain amount of success. One major writing project he undertook was a series of linked short novels (Rollin loved the old-fashioned serial or feulliton format) about two blind orphan vampire girls.

The first of these novels, Little Orphan Vampires, is alas the only one to have been translated into English. It’s very much worth reading for is own sake and also for the subtle differences between book and film. The two girls are very much younger in the novel and the fact that they’re little more than children whereas in the movie they’re played by much older actresses does change things. Not in a sexual sense since these two vampire girls are more or less asexual, but in the novel their youth makes them seem more convincingly vulnerable.

The movie is based on all six books so if you’ve read the novel you’ll find that there are a lot of additional incidents in the movie that are clearly drawn from the later novels in the series, including flashbacks to the girls’ past lives.

The two girls are Henriette (Isabelle Teboul) and Louise (Alexandra Pic). They are blind and they are orphans. They live in an orphanage run by nuns. The nuns think the girls are angels. Little do they know. The fact is that Henriette and Louise are only blind during daylight hours. When the sun goes down they can see very well indeed and they slip out of the orphanage in search of the blood that they crave.

Dr Dennery, a famous eye specialist. Has been called in. He can finds no reason for their blindness but confirms that they really are blind. It is suggested that if the doctor were to adopt the girls he might be able to find a cure. Dr Dennery, basically a kind-hearted soul, does indeed adopt Henriette and Louise.

He shares the view of the nuns that the two girls are innocent angelic creatures. He takes no precautions such as locking them in at night because that would be unnecessary. The two girls are so obviously helpless and timid that they would never dream of leaving the house after dark. But they do leave the house at night, and they start to leave a trail of corpses behind them.

Henriette and Louise have some strange obsessions. Having read a book on the subject they are convinced that they are, or were, Aztec goddesses. They also reminisce about their past existences including some adventures in New York.

During their nocturnal adventures the girls encounter other creatures of the night, such as the enigmatic bat girl, a strange woman who haunts railway yards and a wandering ghoul (we think of ghouls as hideous creatures but this one is young female and pretty which makes her more creepy). And they encounter a woman of the carnival, played by Rollin favourite Brigitte Lahaie. The girls gradually come to feel trapped in Dr Dennery’s house.

The movie has a slightly episodic feel, which is what Rollin was aiming for.

The true nature of the girls remains enigmatic. They do have retractable fangs and they do drink blood but are they true vampires? Have they really lived previous lives as vampires and been killed and reborn many times? Are they supernatural creatures? Or even actual goddesses? The girls live in a world in which their dreams are more real to them than reality so it’s quite possible that all these things are just dreams or fantasies. But then that raises the question of whether reality actually is more real than dreams. Maybe we all live in a dream.

Rollin had made a series of strange surreal vampires movies in the late 60s and the 70s (ending with the superb Fascination in 1979) and in this movie he picks up where he left off. That does not mean that he is simply retreading his old movies. Rollin returned to certain themes agin and again (two girls who are doubles in some mysterious unexplained way being the most notable) but he always found a totally fresh approach to those themes. He made a lot of vampires movies but he never made the same vampire movie twice.

Rollin is often associated with the lesbian vampire craze of the 70 so it’s worth pointing out that there’s not the slightest suggestion that Henriette and Louise are lesbians. Rollin always made the nature of his doubled girls mysterious but they certainly behave like sisters. There’s no indication that they experience sexual desire of any kind. That’s not say that the movie is lacking in eroticism - the girls’ lust for blood definitely has an erotic tinge. For Rollin eroticism was more than just sex.

Making the girls in Two Orphan Vampires blind during the day but able to see at night is a nice touch. It emphasises that they live in a world totally separate from our world. They live in the world of shadows and dreams. It also makes them extremely vulnerable during the day which certainly adds dramatic tension. It’s also useful because these two girls are killers but we have to empathise with them. Their vulnerability during the day makes us constantly anxious that they are going to get a dangerous situation they can’t get out of.

The girls are both innocent and evil. They have zero understanding of the real world and are not even convinced that it exists. A treasured possession is a book on illusionism but they believe that all the stage illusions depicted in the book are real. They can be merciless killers and then they will spare a victim because the person seems to be just as adrift as they are. One thing they do understand is that people are afraid of them and will try to kill them.

At one point we see that the bat girl has been reading Immoral Tales, the seminal book on eurocult cinema by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill who played a major role in establishing Rolion’s cult status in the English-speaking world. And we see the two vampire girls reading one of the Fantomas novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, these early 20th century thrillers being a major influence on Rollin’s work.

The Black House Blu-Ray release doesn’t offer any extras but it’s a pretty good transfer.

Two Orphan Vampires was a very worthy addition to Rollin’s vampire cycle. It has everything that Rollin fans loved about the earlier movies but it takes a slightly different slightly fresh approach, just as each of the earlier movies took a slightly different approach. This is vintage Rollin and it’s highly recommended.

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