The latest installment in Redemption Films and Kino Lorber’s rollout of Jean Rollin titles making their Blu-ray debut actually forms a kind of diptych, a matched pair of films that—however far apart in tone, not to mention levels of graphic gore—are at bottom poetic reveries on the paradoxical condition of those accursed creatures known as the living dead. Rollin was always more interested in exploring the misty mid-region between life and death than he was, for instance, in the bounteous bloodshed he was forced to incorporate into The Living Dead Girl in order to secure the film’s funding. With Two Orphan Vampires, Rollin situates his undead protagonists at the center of a decidedly literary landscape, repurposing the stock figure of the vampire, grown overly familiar to genre aficionados through countless incarnations stretching from Nosferatu to the Twilight franchise, all the better to interrogate the figure’s archetypal appeal.
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Probably it’s best not to dwell too long on the rationale of this setup, since plausibility was never really Rollin’s strong suit. At any rate, the metaphorical value of the situation is obvious; like the obnoxious Americans who keep turning up like bad pennies, eager to acquire aristocratic demesnes at cut-rate prices, this wastage symbolizes the ugly face of the consumerist condition to which Rollin opposes his essentially nostalgic vision.
Catherine dispatches the moving crew with her razor-sharp talons, before wandering off to resume residence in the family chateau, haunting her old homestead like some disconsolate wraith. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. Driven by her inexorable need to feast on flesh and blood, Catherine nevertheless remains little more than an opportunistic predator, availing herself of whatever victims stumble into her abode. Far more troubling is the course pursued by girlhood friend, Hélène (Marina Pierro), who arrives at the chateau only to stumble upon the bloody aftermath of Catherine’s latest killing spree. Because they’re bound by oath as blood sisters, Hélène decides to tidy up the place, and then sets out to procure fresh victims with an icy calculation that’s truly unsettling. (With her coal-black eyes and marmoreal complexion, Pierro makes for an exceedingly striking exterminating angel, as she often did for itinerant surrealist filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, to whom she was married at the time.)
The more Catherine kills, the more she becomes convinced of her own inherent evil, begging Hélène to destroy her. Hélène seems to believe, on the other hand, that if only Catherine could get her fill of human flesh, she might one day regain her own humanity. “You’re gradually abandoning death,” she encouragingly informs her. But the persistent meddling of a bickering American couple (Mike Mitchell and Carina Barone)—a two-person Scooby gang that decides, out of boredom more than anything, to investigate the sudden reappearance of Catherine Valmont—ensures that won’t be the case. The Living Dead Girl builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts.
Two Orphan Vampires seems steeped in all things literary. Based on a series of pulp novels Rollin cranked out when funding for his films became sparse in the mid-to-late 1980s, the film riffs on the oft-adapted 1865 play The Two Orphans (the basis for, among others, D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm). The opening credits play over illustrations culled from numerous books and manuscripts: images that portray two young girls (one light, the other dark), all of them echoing the titular orphans, Louise (Alexandra Pic) and Henriette (Isabelle Teboul). Books as objects of contemplation feature in the film: early on, the orphans identity themselves with Aztec goddess in a coffee table-sized tome; later, the girls swipe a vintage edition of Fantômas out of their would-be benefactor’s bookcase, admiring its sanguinary cover art; a random-seeming cutaway near the end of the film picks out Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’s Immoral Tales, the book that helped bring Rollin to the attention of Anglophone audiences, leaning against a cobwebby lectern.
Given the film’s serial origins, it’s hardly surprising that it often feels like a disjointed picaresque novel, lurching between episodes with the unsteady gait of a mesmerized sleepwalker. Hampered by his limited means, Rollin can illustrate but one or two of the girls’ allegedly countless reincarnations. (Second-unit work set atop the Brooklyn Bridge calls to mind the apocalyptic finale of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.) Nevertheless, it’s a deeply personal work, amounting almost to a private mythology that Rollin has elaborated out of shards of shattered imagery. The wonderfully ambiguous ending plunges the girls back into the fuggy marshland of the archetypal feminine, two orphan animas in search of their apotheosis.