Sunday, December 5, 2010
By the time of Killing Car’s brief release in 1993 most mainstream critics and filmgoers aware of Jean Rollin were all but ready to write him off as just a strange anomaly in French film history. Of course, Rollin had been a critical punching bag for years so the idea of relegating him to just footnote status would have have been fine to the most blood-thirsting critics. However in the mid-nineties, thanks to a series of articles and semi-legitimate video releases, Jean Rollin finally began to get some of the respect that had always alluded him. Most unexpectedly an ailing Rollin launched a cinematic creative comeback at the age of sixty with a work that would be defiantly ‘Rollinesque”, the startling Les deux orphelines vampires (Two Orphan Vampires).
The revival of Jean Rollin really began with the publishing of the Cathal Tohill and Pete Tomb’s Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, a landmark book released in 1994 in Britain and then the United States. One of the great and most important film books ever published, Immoral Tales was at its most inspired and impassioned in its long chapter on Rollin, offering up one of the first retrospectives of his work up to that point. The chapter on Rollin was also respectful and fiery, as Tohill and Tombs had their critical arsenal fully-loaded against twenty-five years of undeserved and unfair criticism against Rollin’s distinctive brand of filmmaking. Immoral Tales introduced many younger film fans to the world of Jean Rollin, and Rollin himself would include a shot of the book in Two Orphan Vampires as a thank you to two film historians who finally saw value in his work.
Immoral Tales opened a floodgate of writing on Rollin’s once forgotten films, mostly in British publications like Flesh and Blood and Eyeball. The most important follow-up article came in from America though in Issue 31 of Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog. Issue 31 of VW is still one of their shining moments and it offered a Rollin cover story that included a huge Peter Blumenstock interview with Rollin, as well as a number of Rollin reviews from Lucas himself. The issue, not coincidentally, also included a review of the American version of Immoral Tales.
The Video Watchdog Rollin issue coincided with grey-market dealer Video Search of Miami’s “Authorized Jean Rollin’ VHS collection. These over-priced (near 40 bucks a pop) tapes looked attractive enough in their clamshell cases and some even came with an exclusive camcorder filmed intro by Rollin, but once the packaging was broken what was inside were blurry looking dupes of British pre-records. The VSOM tapes did at least make some of Rollin’s greatest films available for the first time in the United States and, unlike Something Weird’s Rollin releases, they were uncut.
It was in this exciting period that Les deux orphelines vampires (Two Orphan Vampires) appeared. Taking its title from Adolphe D’Ennery’s French Novel Les Deux Prphelines and adapted from two novels Rollin had penned in the early to mid nineties, Two Orphan Vampires would be the first vampire themed film Rollin had shot in nearly 15 years. Rollin would explain to Blumenstock in the pages of VW that his, “recent increase in popularity had put (him) in a very favorable position”, and that he was the also producer with , “complete creative control”.
Rollin would explain to Blumenstock that, “the story of Two Orphan Vampires involves two little blind orphans (that) can only see at night because they are vampires and the film film tells of their adventures”. In other words, it was to be a classic Jean Rollin film running the same ground as essential works like Requiem for a Vampire. In hindsight Two Orphan Vampires might not be one of Rollin’s greatest works but it was astonishing to see in the mid-nineties, as it was a potent reminder that Rollin’s creative force hadn’t been diminished by health problems or nearly three decades of critical flogging.
Rollin described Two Orphan Vampires as his, “most accomplished and professional film”, in the essential book Virgins and Vampires. He also celebrated the fact that he had time to truly prep the film and that he got to, “rehearse with the two lead actors long before the filming took place”. Despite the fact that his health was very poor during the time of filming Two Orphan Vampires, the experience was a happy one for Rollin, his cast and crew. It would give him the opportunity to reunite with his greatest muse, Brigitte Lahaie, and work with fellow French legend Tina Aumont for the first time. It would also allow him to make a film in an atmosphere of appreciation and when his health made it impossible for him to work at full capacity collaborators like Veronique Djaouti and Nathalie Perrey were their to offer assistance.
In the spirit of some of his greatest casting choices, the leads chosen for the Two Orphan Vampires were almost complete novices, but they would both turn out to be quite inspired picks. Future-filmmaker Alexandra Pic had never shot a film before Two Orphan Vampires and the same goes for Isabelle Teboul, a talented young actress who sadly hasn’t worked much since. Rollin would write that both were, “full of invention and ready to do anything” and their delicate performances guide Two Orphan Vampires splendidly throughout.
Photographed by cinematographer Norbert Marfaing-Sintes, who would later work with Rollin on Fiancee of Dracula and Night of the Hourglass, Two Orphan Vampires operates as basically a series of connected vignettes, all of which deliberately recall Rollin’s past works as well as some of his major influences. It’s a gentle, almost childlike, film made up of, as Rollin would put it, “images that had been lodged in (his) head for a long time”. Like his best work, Two Orphan Vampires is extremely poetic as well and Rollin admitted that it followed his books closely, “even down to the dialogues”, so the striking, “literary feel” was very deliberate. Rollin would go so far as to have his two young actresses read sections of his book for the moments that the budget wouldn’t allow him to film, an act that makes Two Orphan Vampires an almost avant-garde film marked by experimentation.
Surprisingly perhaps Rollin decided to scale back the erotic quality that had driven so many of his past films and he noted that Two Orphan Vampires was indeed a “tamer” film. He thought this helped make it, “better constructed and more controlled”, but I am among those who miss the fierce eroticism of his greatest works. Ultimately it doesn’t matter though as Rollin in that Summer of 95 finally once again had “the freedom to film” exactly what he wanted.
Jean Rollin’s creative rebirth culminated at Fantafestival, where Two Orphan Vampires played, when he was awarded a much deserved lifetime achievement prize. It was a triumphant moment and it is fitting that the film he was presenting that night was such a strong statement of purpose. Jean Rollin was back on his own terms and, minor flaws aside, Two Orphan Vampires was a cause for major celebration.
Two Orphan Vampires is available in the States courtesy of Shriek Show and the DVD contains some really splendid extras including long interviews with Rollin, Pic and Teboul. Sadly the picture quality is lacking and is too dark (early copies of the disc were also not progressively scanned correctly, a fact that caused some horrendous blurry fogging in certain sections of the film). I haven’t seen any import copies of the film and would appreciate any input available on what the best currently available version might be.