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Two Orphan Vampires
(Deux orphelines vampires, Les, 1997)

Jean Rollin


103 min, color, French (English subtitles)

Review © 2005 Branislav L. Slantchev

This much-maligned Rollin film is ostensibly an entry in his long-running vampire series but in fact is nothing of the sort. It is a feature fantastique about dreams and reality set in unabashedly surreal and occasionally gothic landscapes. Approaching this film expecting to see plethora of skin, lesbianism, and such (that is, the usual Rollin stuff) is guaranteed to disappoint. Even the brief nudity is actually totally gratuitous and actually contradicts the main premise, so I regret the director even left it in. So, Rollin fans - beware, and Rollin detractors - do not dismiss this film lightly, it's got much more going on than the capsule reviews would have you believe.

Two innocent orphans, Louise and Henriette Atmospheric shot of Mother Superior

The apparent story is easily told despite its incoherence (that is, it is incoherent if one only looks at what seems to be happening). Louise (Alexandra Pic) and Henriette (Isabelle Teboul) are two very young orphans who live at a Catholic orphanage in France. They are blind by day but see "in blue" at night. In fact, they are creatures of the night, two vampires who feed on people and the occasional dog. They have managed to conceal their nighttime hobby thus far but we soon find out that they have a long history of existing as vampires. Unfortunately, their previous lives have all ended in various "mishaps." That is, they were found out and killed only to be reborn with fading memories. In an extended flashback, they manage to remember their last deaths: they put a bite on a painter in New York but are then tracked and killed - in a beautiful scene, they stagger into an attic and collapse on the floor. Now, the nuns who run the orphanage really love the two. They pray that the girls find a good foster home, and soon god (well, someone) answers their prayers and a doctor (Bernard Charnace) takes them home.

Prowling the night, remembering Their last "mishap"

No sooner that they find themselves at their new place, the girls go out, not exactly on a rampage --- although they do suck dry Brigitte Lahaie who looks quite aged --- but more like on a sight-seeing tour which invariably ends at the cemetery (which they call their real home). Their infernal nature is discovered by a man who attempts to murder them but they are saved by a "bat-lady" (Veronique Djaouti) who allows them to hide in her crypt. On their way home, the girls get smashed and they barely make it before the doctor comes back from a conference. Unfortunately, they are forced to hide in the bushes and the doctor mistakenly shoots Louise. Although she recovers, the girls decide to off their benefactor, mostly because they are afraid he will eventually find out about them. When he does discover that they are not quite blind, his fate is sealed. After stabbing him in the back with a kitchen knife and setting the house on fire, the two girls return to the orphanage. They get thirsty again and put the bite on two newcomers but the nuns stumble upon them just as they are relaxing with all the blood dripping over their night gowns. They run again, hide in a barn, but soon decide to leave with the help of the local farmer girl Nicole (Anissa Berkani-Rohmer). As she leads them to a better hiding place, the man from the cemetery recognizes them and manages to shoot Henriette. Unable to part from her, Louise resolves to die as well, and the two drown themselves in a swamp.

An artistic drip of blood Gratuitous shot of the two vampires

Not much in terms of a story really, the entire film has two things going for it. First, the settings which are almost an actor by themselves. Second, it's what the story signifies that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Louise and Henriette spend a lot of time talking about themselves, their past, their lives, and their relationship to normal humans. They cannot remember many of their past lives but convince themselves that they used to be Aztec goddesses. They fondly reminisce about the human sacrifices in their honor and then bemoan the eradication of these beliefs by the advent of Christianity: the new religion has demoted them from divine beings and objects of worship to creatures of the shadows, relegated to an dangerous existence, forever hunted by the bigots of the new faith.

The quiet life at the orphanage Totally unnecessary

This, I think, is the clue to what the two represent: they are our dreams, our fantasies, our existence beyond the rational. Daylight, which enables most of us to see, actually blinds them. They cannot function in during the day except as pathetic and helpless children. But at night, their strength returns and they can regain some of the power they used to wield. Needless to say, it is at night that we relinquish the self-imposed rationality that tyrannizes us during our waking hours and succumb to the pleasures of the subconscious. Two two often ask each other who they are, and we know they are not "real" vampires for sunlight does not harm them beyond the blindness, they can walk into a church, they do not react to crucifixes, and so on.

Waiting for night at the cemetery The bat-lady in the church

It is quite revealing that they do not murder either of the two girls who accept them for who they are. Virginie (the little girl at the orphanage) believes their Aztec goddesses story and offers herself willingly as a sacrifice. Although Louise and Henriette make fun of her for being so stupid, they leave her alone. The other girl, Nicole, is not only unafraid, she is actually attracted to them. She wants to know more, and they willingly share with her. They give her a book with a reproduction of posters from various magic shows from the 19th and early 20th centuries, claiming that they have been participants in each of these. In other words, they are the magic that makes us wonder, that makes us enjoy life and experience it without knowing any of the answers, without even asking any questions. It is telling them, that it is the religious bigot who recognizes them and shoots Henriette in the back. Nicole begs them to stay with her to play, but they are forced to flee and they leave the innocent girl to the prison of this world that is surely coming.

Giving each other sustenance Recalling their glorious Aztec past

It is worth mentioning the three strange women our two vampires meet: the she-wolf, the bat-woman, and the ghoul. It is not actually clear if these are real supernatural beings or just crazy women who have convinced themselves of it. The she-wolf never actually loses her human form, the bat-woman's wings are obviously fake, and the ghoul (who drinks blood from cadavers) does nothing of consequence. One way or the other, however, these women are fellow travelers, even if Louise prefers to insist that she and her friend are unique. They dwell in an alternate reality and it does not really matter whether it is one of their own making.

Daylight blinds them Binge drinking fun

But Louise and Henriette are real enough and their struggle for existence is quite tragic despite all the exuberant blood-sucking and the occasional alcohol binge. They want to live but they know that they are doomed to be killed, to return to life and repeat the cycle. They cannot help themselves, for it is their nature that urges them on by making their mouths dry with thirst, that demands that they satiate themselves until it exposes them. In other words, they cannot simply dwell in the shadows, they have to make themselves known and in doing so meet their inevitable fate. In this non-Aztec society, where people do not recognize gods or goddesses except the One God, they have no prayer. Rollin's message is clear then: our rational society founded on the Christian religion stifles the magic, eliminates the fantastic, robs us of imagination, and dooms to a solitary existence where we can only clutch old reproductions of shows, trying to recapture their magic.

Regaining their freedom Virginie accepts them for who they are

This brings me to the final point about the film: the (lack of) nudity. I think that it works best if we imagine Louise and Henriette as sexually innocent, as sisters rather than lovers. Despite all the hugging and the one nude scene, the entire story actually demands such a relationship. Yes, vampires are seductive, perhaps the most seductive of the supernatural creatures. But making the two orphans lesbian partners makes them self-sufficient in the sense that they only need blood to survive. But it is quite clear from the film that they actually need human beings to complete them: after all, what are dreams without someone to dream them? Making them asexual then renders them perpetually thirsty.

Their last feeding frenzy Henriette dying

The Shriek Show DVD is average at best. Although the transfer is anamorphic at 1.78:1, the colors were muted, the balance was off, and the picture was rather flat. The screen caps for this review do not reflect the actual quality because I've touched them in Photoshop (as usual). Some of this has to do with the source: on his shoe-string budget, Rollin was obviously forced to shoot his night scenes in daylight and then filter them. The result is predictably atrocious, with all the graininess and bizarre color cast. The low budget curse also shows up occasionally when the entire picture loses focus, which is especially evident in the cemetery shots.

The film comes with an English dub but I did not bother: the French mono soundtrack is uninspired, which is a pity since the film depends so much on dialogue. However, the extras are pretty decent: a long interview with Rollin where he discusses the film, his books, surrealism, and vampires; interviews with the two leading ladies, and an isolated soundtrack (although I did not much care for the synthesizer music).

Overall an interesting surreal film that is a bit plodding in places and that requires some patience to decide, Two Orphan Vampires is nevertheless a rewarding viewing experience. In spite of the low budget, the somewhat stilted acting (first feature roles for both leads), and the lapses in logic (e.g., the gratuitous nudity), the film is not nearly as bad as many would have one believe. Incidentally, don't miss the totally incongruent shot of Immoral Tales, a great book with an informative chapter on Rollin. The DVD is atrocious, though.

November 23, 2005