Two Orphan Vampires (1997) – By Cary Conley

Jean Rollin, who built his fame on vampires, seemingly abandoned this favored theme to explore other types of horror as well as other genres. But after a quarter century, he would finally return to the subgenre he was most well-known for, that of the vampire film. The result not only marked a return to his beloved cinematic monster but was likely his most straightforward and coherent vampire film up to that time.

Henriette and Louise are sisters who are both blind. They are also orphans and live in a convent with a group of nuns who love them dearly. But at night, when it becomes dark, the two orphans regain their vision and under cover of darkness sneak away from the convent to play mischievous jokes and to drink the blood of unsuspecting victims, for these two orphans are also vampires. The two well-behaved and very pretty young girls are adopted by an ophthalmologist who meets them in the convent while examining their eyes. This allows the girls real freedom as they sneak away at night; no longer are they relegated to the rural countryside where the convent was located. Now they can wander the rooftops and back alleys of the city searching for unsuspecting victims and planning their adoptive father’s death.

But unlike the brutality in Rollin’s previous The Grapes of Death (1978) and The Living Dead Girl (1982), the two lovely young vampires aren’t particularly violent or terribly messy. Fans of Rollin’s early vampire films will most likely be pleased to see this return to his roots. Two Orphan Vampires plays more as a fantasy, a les cinefantastique, as the French would say, more than a straight horror film, and that was the way Rollin liked it. There is very little overt violence and even the blood-drinking is reserved. This makes for a striking juxtaposition in one particularly awkward and violent (though bloodless) scene whereby one of the orphan vampires stabs their adoptive father with a butcher knife. There is also much less nudity on display than is typical of Rollin–only one brief scene in the entire film–as well as a decided lack of lesbian undertone, another typical Rollin flourish. No, these vampires are not meant to be sexual; rather, their bond is that of familial love.

The look of the film is typical of Rollin, with garish colors and pretty landscapes, and he populates the film with some of his favorite people: Tina Aumont is here, as is Brigitte Lahaie, Natalie Perrey, and others. So even though Rollin generally couldn’t afford "real" actors for his films–and, indeed, his two leads were both starring in their first film–the result here is a more mature film because of the many Rollin veterans playing supporting roles. The leads, Alexandra Pic as Louise and Isabelle Teboul as Henriette, may be new, but they seem quite natural. And as with most of Rollin’s "horror" output, the emphasis is more on playful fantasy than on true horror elements.

Another particular characteristic of a Rollin film is its slow and tranquil unfolding. Rollin was never in a hurry to tell his stories and there is more than one legend of he and his ubiquitous muse, Natalie Perrey, arguing over the editing of certain scenes in his films. The result can be a uniquely gentle flow that contributes to the dream-like quality of many Rollin films. But in this case, tranquility can sometimes border upon tedium. The one complaint I have with the film is its length. At 107 minutes the film seemed a bit overlong, even to this unabashed Rollin fan, and the director could have used a bit more editing to tighten scenes up. For example, one scene where three women remark upon the two lovely orphan girls has a close-up for each woman to speak a line, but then Rollin ends the scene with several seconds of a medium shot containing all three women simply looking after the girls as they move away from the church. But Rollin is also a master of the very French concept of mise-en-scene, the idea that everything–set dressing, color, even the placement and/or movement of actors–is purely intentional and has an underlying meaning, even if that meaning isn’t always readily apparent to the viewer. And Rollin famously created his films first and foremost for himself; the audience was secondary. So while some viewers may describe several scenes as overlong, each scene probably had a distinct meaning for the director. And hey, anyone who managed to stay in the business as long as he did making his own brand of stylish and quirky films on threadbare budgets, probably deserves some leniency. Throw in the fact that this film was made while he was undergoing hours-long dialysis treatments several times each week and we probably should cut him a break.

So while a bit long in the tooth and perhaps a tad too slow, Two Orphan Vampires is still a welcome return to the Rollin of old. Kino-Lorber has again outdone themselves with this DVD package. Along with the option of standard DVD or Blu-Ray, extra features include a very nice 12-page booklet by Video Watchdog Tim Lucas, a 40-minute retrospective of the film by some of its major players, a 20-minute interview with the director himself, the original theatrical trailer, and nine other trailers for Rollin films. For more information, see www.kinolorber.com.