When film criticism began being taken seriously, critics first turned their attentions to great genre directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Gradually, heretofore-ignored lower-budget filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman were recognized, and the search for diamonds deeper in the rough continued, and has continued in the generations of movie scholars that followed. Within the horror movie genre, the last quarter-century has seen a complete reappraisal of Italian director-cameraman Mario Bava, whose best films, lo and behold, inarguably are masterpieces of style. For genre fans particularly, seeing good 35mm prints and video transfers of their original Italian versions was, truly, a revelation.
The rediscovery of Mario Bava in turn spurred another mad scramble to uncover the Next Big Thing. An encyclopedia of horror movies edited by Phil Hardy teased its readers with dozens upon dozens of outré but tantalizing possibilities. Writer and Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, more responsible than anyone else for Bava's reappraisal, even before his gargantuan Mario Bava - All the Colors of the Dark was published, has along with several other prominent genre scholars been championing prolific Spanish filmmaker Jesús "Jess" Franco and Frenchman Jean Rollin, but they've been a hard-sell. Many, including this reviewer, argue Franco is simply incompetent, and Rollin merely pretentious.
Both Franco and Rollin built a large part of their reputations (or infamy, depending) on extremely low-budget exploitation films made during the late-1960s through the 1970s, particularly thriller/horror films awash with nudity, sadism, lesbianism, soft-core (and later, in Franco's case, hardcore) sex scenes, and graphic violence. Franco, for instance, made Vampyros Lesbos, Eugenie de Sade (both 1970), The Bare-Breasted Countess (1973), and Lorna the Exorcist (1974), while Rollin directed The Rape of the Vampire (1968), The Nude Vampire (1969), Requiem for a Vampire (1971) and, with Franco, co-directed A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973). Many of these films had little or no release in America when they were new.
Franco has soldiered on, albeit mostly direct-to-video porn, while Rollin, who died in 2010 at 72, took a somewhat different career path, at least judging by Two Orphan Vampires (Les deux orphelines vampires, 1997). This film sharply divides Rollin's admirers because while it explores the same themes as his '60s and '70s female vampire films, it does so with a bare minimum, so to speak, of nudity and less violence than your average Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. It's also extremely talky and, to put it kindly, methodically paced.
Two Orphan Vampires plays as if Rollin began believing the high praise being heaped upon him. His case is much like eccentric Japanese genre filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, whose painfully self-conscious and pretentious later films, e.g., Zigeunerweisen (1980) - See, even the title is hard to pronounce! - baffled those fond of his '60s yakuza thrillers.
Comments about Two Orphan Vampires on the IMDb make for entertaining reading, with some passionately supporting what they describe as a poetic art film while others, expecting to ogle at a parade of naked women making love to and biting one another, have exactly the opposite reaction, some calling it among the worst films ever made.
I find myself somewhere in the middle of this debate. Rollin's '60s and '70s vampire films never impressed me all that much, playing like gussied-up exploitation masquerading as art. To their credit they do occasionally exhibit flashes of intelligence and style that put them way ahead of Franco's amateur hours, but partly too that's because most American horror films of the same period with similarly low-budgets (think Al Adamson, Ted. V. Mikels, et. al) were comparatively artless and even unwatchable.
If anything, Two Orphan Vampires was made for even less money than Rollin's bigger '70s productions. It was shot in 16mm and at times resembles a student film. Some of the acting is pretty bad, and it's not clear whether it was even released theatrically in its native France. But the themes Rollin's champions keep pointing to are explored more intelligently and interestingly than his early genre efforts, and without the commercial concessions of nudity and sex scenes in every reel.
Redemption Films' Blu-ray is excellent. Despite the limitations of 16mm, even on big screen TVs the image holds up remarkably well. Further, the disc includes loads of extra features making the case for Rollin as great auteur.
Though it aims for and largely succeeds at a Victorian atmosphere, the story is actually set in the present day. Most of the film was made in France and everyone speaks French throughout, but without explanation and out of nowhere there's a sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge (with the World Trade Center visible in the background) as if it were part of the same neighborhood.
Henriette and Louise (Isabelle Teboul and Alexandra Pic) are two blind orphans of about 17 (though they look older) living in a convent. The nuns adore the two tragic girls, praying constantly on their behalf. Unbeknownst to them, however, is the fact that the girls are vampires. While indeed blind during the day, after dark they can see just fine* and frolic in nearby cemeteries, preying upon passersby and luckless animals for their blood.
And they talk. Incessantly. They yammer on existentially with overwrought emotion about their place in the undead world, their relationship to their human caretakers, speculate about their next planes of existence should they be killed in this world, etc. "Our disorder is mad poetry," says one immodestly. Together they have more dialogue than Christopher Lee did in all of his Dracula movies combined - possibly more than all of his movies combined.
In its defense, visually the film in some ways anticipates the wonderfully moody and unique Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008) while, in terms of content, it's reminiscent of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), which seems to have been a major influence.
But the low-budget and occasional incompetence frequently gets in the way of this. Philippe D'Aram's musical score, for instance, is excellent but limited to a synthesizer arrangement, undercutting its effectiveness. When the girls drink the blood of a stray dog, its supposedly lifeless body is clearly anything but. The girls have interesting encounters with other undead monsters similarly wandering the streets of Paris (New York?) at night, including a she-wolf and a more advanced female vampire calling herself the "Midnight Lady." Her hideaway is a wonderfully atmospheric environment, and she's very striking despite the fact that her costume consists of purple spandex and giant rubber bat wings.
Video & Audio
Though filmed in 16mm, even on big TVs Two Orphan Vampires barely suffers at all, and the results are roughly equal to the 16mm-derived Blu-rays of British TV shows like Poirot and Pride and Prejudice, the latter released 1.78:1 full frame like the Rollin's film. Two Orphan Vampires has more than its fair share of white speckling and other imperfections, but all things considered, the 1080p, region A transfer far exceeded my expectations. The film is offered in French with English subtitles, and in a perfectly dreadful English-dubbed edition (both PCM 2.0 stereo) worth a short listen purely for laughs.
Supplements include a fat, comprehensive essay by Tim Lucas; a 42-minute making-of documentary about the film, in HD, with interviews with much of the cast and crew; in standard-def, a 20-minute interview with Jean Rollin from 2008; and a collection of trailers for various Rollin features.
Two Orphan Vampires is a difficult, at times imaginative but also borderline inept film that those sold on director Jean Rollin's alleged visual poetry will find worthwhile, while others likely will be bored stiff. But the fine transfer and useful extra features certainly put the film in the best possible light and I'm glad to have had the chance to see it. I think. Recommended.
* Shrewdly, the script has them describing their nighttime world as in a blue tint, apparently to explain the blue filters used for the often-unconvincing day-for-night photography.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.