Wednesday, May 31, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2014) by Year # 0114 - VAMPIRES, LES (Louis Feuillade, 1915, France, 440m, BW)


VAMPIRES, LES (Louis Feuillade, 1915, France, 440m, BW)


VAMPIRES, LES (Louis Feuillade, 1915, France, 440m, BW)

Directed by Louis Feuillade
Produced by Gaumont
Written by Louis Feuillade

Starring Édouard Mathé
Marcel Lévesque
Music by Robert Israel (2000)
Éric le Guen (2008)
Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (2012)
Cinematography Manichoux
Distributed by Gaumont
Release date
13 November 1915 – 30 June 1916
Running time
10 Episodes (417 minutes)
Country France
Language Silent (with French intertitles)


This is a silent serial told in 10 chapters about subversive vampire thieves as they suck the blood out of sleeping bourgeois Parisian society, stealing their jewels in novel ways. The public loved these films, until the "talkie" pictures came into being and this film was forgotten until rediscovered in the 1950s by Henri Langlois and popularized in the 1960s by noted French directors such as Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette. The vampires are led by the irrepressible Irma Vep (Musidora), her name being an anagram for "vampire." Musidora was a former Music Hall star whose raven hair and seductive looks suited her villainous black-garbed heroine role in contrast to the sugary sweet-blonde American heroines at the time, who starred in popular serials such as The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine.

The films were shot cheaply and fast in the Gaumont studios and on the surrounding Parisian streets. The film consists of combinations of lyrical and melodramatic scenes, and of an evolving crime-fiction story. The story line is full of disappearances and disguises, sudden deaths and uncanny resurrections, hidden trapdoors and secret tunnels, bus chases and rooftop escapes -- which gave the film its power and its sense of dread (perfectly matching the public's mood at the time of World War 1). And it was that, coupled with their almost anarchistic view of society (the vampires steal only from the rich), and their often contemptuous disregard of logic that made the films so popular. Les Vampires was treasured by Surrealists like Andre Breton and Louis Aragon, which gave it weight in intellectual circles.

The serial ran into some trouble with the Parisian chief of police, who had one of the  episodes banned for glamorizing the criminals. Feuillade, the former cavalryman and journalist, atoned for his 'sin' with more moralistic films in the future, such as his Judex (1916). Les Vampires is one of France's great classic contributions to the world of popular cinema; and fortunately, this once lost film has now been restored and is available on video.


English title French title Released Runtime

1 "The Severed Head" "La Tête Coupée" 13 November 1915 33 mins.
2 "The Ring That Kills" "La Bague Qui Tue" 13 November 1915 15 mins.
3 "The Red Codebook" "Le Cryptogramme Rouge" 4 December 1915 39 mins.
4 "The Spectre" "Le Spectre" 7 January 1916 30 mins.
5 "Dead Man's Escape" "L'évasion Du Mort" 28 January 1916 35 mins.
6 "Hypnotic Eyes" "Les Yeux Qui Fascinent" 24 March 1916 54 mins.
7 "Satanas" "Satanus" 15 April 1916 46 mins.
8 "The Thunder Master" "Le Maître de la Foudre" 12 May 1916 52 mins.
9 "The Poisoner" "L'homme des Poisons" 2 June 1916 48 mins.
10 "The Terrible Wedding" "Les Noces Sanglantes" 30 June 1916 60 mins.


Édouard Mathé as Philipe Guérande, a crack newspaper writer, investigating the Vampires.
Marcel Lévesque as Oscar-Cloud Mazamette, Guérande's friend and coworker, who is working undercover for the Vampires.
Jean Aymé as the First Grand Vampire, a master of disguise.
Frederik Moriss as Venomous, the Third Grand Vampire, a chemist genius.
Fernand Herrmann as Juan-José Moréno, head of a ring of crooks rival to the Vampires. Moréno possesses a hypnotic gaze that he uses to control people.
Musidora as Irma Vep, the mistress of succeeding Vampire leaders, she carries out many of the ring's plans.
Louis Leubas as Father Silence, a deaf mute working for the Vampires / Satanas, the Second Grand Vampire.
Delphine Renot as Mme. Guérande, Philipe's mother.
Louise Lagrange as Jane Bremontier, Philipe's fiancée and later wife.
Jeanne Marie-Laurent as Mme. Brémontier, Jane's mother.
Germaine Rouer as Augustine, widow of a Vampire victim and eventual fiancée of Mazamette.
René Poyen as Eustache, Mazamette's son.
Stacia Napierkowska as Marfa Koutiloff, a dancer and early love interest for Philipe
Rita Herlor as Mrs. Simpson, an American multimillionaire.
Émile Keppens as George Baldwin, an American millionaire.
Renée Carl as the Andalusian.
Suzanne Delvé as Lily Flower (sometimes Fleur-de-Lys), an accomplice of Moréno.
Miss Édith as Countess de Kerlor, a Vampire.
Georgette Faraboni as the Vampire Dancer.
Suzanne Le Bret as Hortense, Irma's servant.
Maurice Luguet as De Villemant.
Mademoiselle Maxa as Laure.
Gaston Michel as Benjamin, Mazamette's servant.
Laurent Morléas as Grand Army Officer.
Thelès as the Magistrate.
Jacques Feyder as a party guest.
Françoise Rosay as a party guest.

Episode Overview

The serial “Les Vampires” is often confused for a more typical horror movie by writers who haven’t seen it, because of the title. In fact, it is a kind of follow-up to “Fantômas” by Louis Feuillade – another crime and detective serial involving a master criminal. The name of the “Vampires” is simply a moniker chosen by the criminal gang that leads this movie. Still, with secret passageways, mysterious notes, a murder in a police station, and, of course, a severed head, there is plenty here for horror fans to enjoy.

Episode 1 - "The Severed Head"

This first episode begins by introducing the intrepid reporter Guérande (Édouard Mathé), who returns to his office after some thrilling investigation, only to find that his files on the criminal gang known as the Vampires is missing. He accuses his co-worker Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) of pilfering them, then finds the folder on his person after his denial. Mazamette convinces him not to turn him over to the police by showing him a picture of his children, and says he will be forever in Guérande’s debt when he agrees. Now Guérande’s boss calls him in and assigns him to investigate the case of Inspector Durtal, whose body was found in the swamps without its head. After a farewell scene with his mother (who packs his clothes for him by rolling them into tubes), Guérande cables ahead to an old friend of his father’s, Dr. Nox (Jean Aymé), to request permission to stay at his chateau near the crime scene. Dr. Nox agrees, although he is in negotiations to sell the house to Mrs. Simpson, a wealthy American.

The three dine together, and Guérande thrills Mrs. Simpson with stories of the exploits of the Vampires and Mrs. Simspon impresses the men with her valuable jewels, which she always carries with her as a security precaution. That night, Guérande receives a note warning him of tragedy if he doesn’t give up the case. At midnight, a thief uses a secret passage to creep into Mrs Simpson’s room wearing a distinctly Fantômas-like costume and steals the jewels. In the morning, evidence has been planted to incriminate Guérande and he rushes out when the crime is reported, leading Dr. Nox to accuse him in his absence. But, Guérande tells his story to the local Magistrate, who agrees to hold Nox and Simpson at the police station while they investigate the chateau together. Instead of the jewels, what they discover is the missing head of Durtal! Now, they go back to the station to confront Dr. Nox, but they find that he has murdered Mrs. Simpson and fled the scene, leaving a mocking note in the name of “The Grand Vampire.” The audience, though not the characters, are treated to the image of the Grand Vampire escaping across the roof and down the drainpipe of the police station unobserved.

Episode 2 – "The Ring That Kills"

Grand Vampire in disguise as Count de Noirmoutier, reads that ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), who is engaged to Philipe, will perform a ballet called The Vampires. To prevent her from publicizing the Vampires' activities and to deter Philipe, he gives Marfa a poisoned ring before her performance, which kills her onstage. Amidst the panicking crowds Philipe recognizes the Grand Vampire and follows him to an abandoned fort and is captured by the gang. They agree to interrogate Philipe at midnight and execute him at dawn. Philipe finds that the Vampire guarding him is one of his co-workers, Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque). They decide to work together and capture the Grand Inquisitor when he arrives at midnight. They bind and hood the Grand Inquisitor, and set him up for execution in place of Phillipe. At dawn the Vampires arrive for the execution, but the police raid the lair. The Vampires escape, but as they flee they mistakenly execute their own Grand Inquisitor, who turns out to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Episode 3 – "The Red Codebook"

While faking illness to get off work, Philipe tries to decode a red booklet that he lifted from the Grand Inquisitor’s body, which contains the crimes of the Vampires. He discovers that his house is under surveillance by the Vampires, so he leaves in disguise. Following clues in the booklet he arrives at "The Howling Cat" night club. Performing there is Irma Vep (Musidora), whose name Philipe sees is an anagram for vampire. After her act, the Grand Vampire assigns Irma to retrieve the red booklet. As Philipe returns home Mazamette arrives, along with a poison pen he stole from the Grand Vampire. A few days later, Irma arrives at their house disguised as a new maid, but Philipe recognizes her. She tries to poison him, but fails. His mother (Delphine Renot) leaves to meet her brother after receiving word that he has been in a car accident, but it turns out to be a trap and she is captured by the Vampires. While Philipe is asleep, Irma lets another Vampire into his home but he shoots them. They escape, however, because his gun was loaded with blanks. In a shack in the slums, Philipe’s mother is held by Father Silence (Louis Leubas), a deaf-mute, and is forced to sign a ransom note, but she kills him with Mazamette’s poison pen and escapes.

Episode 4 – "The Spectre"

The Grand Vampire, under the alias of a real estate broker "Treps", meets Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), a businessman, who asks for an apartment with a safe. The Grand Vampire puts Moréno into an apartment whose safe is rigged to be opened from the rear through the party wall of an apartment belonging to Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire. However, the case Moréno places inside contains the Vampires’ black attire. Later, in disguise as bank secretary "Juliette Bertaux", Irma learns that a man called Mr. Metadier has to bring ₣300,000 to another branch. In the event that he is unable to make the delivery, Irma will. Soon afterward, Mr. Metadier is murdered by the Vampires and his body thrown from a train. When Irma is about to take the money for him a spectre of Mr. Metadier appears and takes it instead. The Grand Vampire pursues the spectre, who escapes down a manhole. Later that day, Mme. Metadier appears at the bank, saying she hasn’t seen her husband in days. They also find out that the money hasn’t been delivered. Philipe learns of this and goes to the bank in disguise. Recognizing the secretary as Irma, he finds her address and a few hours later sneaks in, using Mazamette as a ploy. Irma and the Grand Vampire open the safe from their side, only to find Metadier’s body and the money. Philipe tries to capture them but is knocked down and they escape. Philipe calls the police just as Moréno enters and finds his safe opened from the other side. He walks through and is caught by Philipe. Moréno is revealed to be another criminal in disguise, and claims not to have killed Metadier, but to have found his body by the train tracks where the Vampires had dumped it. Moréno found Metadier's letter of authority on his corpse, took Metadier's body home, disguised himself as Metadier, put the body in his safe, assumed Metadier's identity, took the money, and put it too in his safe. The upshot is that the money is now in the Vampires' possession. The police arrive and arrest Moréno.

Episode 5 – "Dead Man's Escape"

The examining magistrate from Saint-Clement-Sur-Cher relocates to Paris and is assigned to the Vampire case and the Moréno affair. After being summoned to the magistrate, Moréno commits suicide using a concealed cyanide capsule. His body is left in his cell, but during the night he wakes up, very much alive. He kills the night-watchman and takes his clothes, escaping from the prison. He is noticed by Mazamette, who is suffering from insomnia. The following morning, Moréno is found to have escaped. While writing an account of the events, Philipe is pulled out of his window by the Vampires and whisked into a large costume box. He is driven away and the box is unloaded, but incompetently, and it slides down a large flight of stairs. The Vampires retreat and Philipe is let out by two bystanders. He visits the costume designer Pugenc whose name and box number (13) are on the costume box, just missing Moréno and his gang who have bought police uniforms for a scheme of their own. Philipe learns from Pugenc that the costume box was to go to Baron de Mortesalgues on Maillot Avenue, and realizes that "Mortesalgues" must be another alias of the Grand Vampire. Later, Moréno confronts Philipe in a café, but when Philipe calls for the nearby policemen, they turn out to be part of Moréno’s gang and he is again captured. Meanwhile, Mazamette breaks into Moréno's hideout. Philipe is taken there to be hanged by the gang, unless he can give them means to revenge themselves against the Vampires. He tells them that Baron de Mortesalgues is the Grand Vampire, and they spare him, tying him up. Mazamette appears and frees him. That evening, the Grand Vampire, in disguise as Baron de Mortesalgues, holds a party for his "niece", who is Irma Vep in disguise. The party attracts many members of the Parisian aristocracy. "Mortesalgues" reveals that at midnight there will be a surprise; but the "surprise" is a sleeping-gas attack on the guests. The Vampires steal all of the guests' valuables while they are unconscious. The Vampires flee with the stolen items on the top of their car, but Moréno, forewarned by Philipe, robs the Vampires and sends Philipe a letter telling him that, for the moment, they are even. Mazamette visits Philipe; he is angry with their lack of progress and wants to quit. Philipe opens a book of La Fontaine's Fables and points to the line, “in all things, one must take the end into account”, and Mazamette's resolve is renewed.

Episode 6 – "Hypnotic Eyes"

Fifteen days have passed since the events at Maillot. Moréno is looking for clues to lead him to the Vampires, and reads in a paper that a Fontainebleau notary has been murdered by them; as he happens to possess a gaze with a terrible hypnotic power, he takes control of his new maid, Laura, to turn her into his slave. Meanwhile, Philipe and Mazamette happen to see a newsreel on the murder inquest, in which they spot Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire. They cycle to Fontainebleau to investigate. En route they spot an American tourist, Horatio Werner, riding fast into the forest, and follow him. He places a box under one of the boulders, and they take it. The Grand Vampire, who is staying in the Royal Hunt Hotel under the pseudonym of Count Kerlor, along with Irma in disguise as his son, Viscount Guy, reads in a paper that George Baldwin (Émile Keppens), an American millionaire, has been robbed of $200,000. Whoever can capture the criminal, Raphael Norton, who has fled to Europe with the actress Ethel Florid, will be awarded the unspent balance of the loot. "Kerlor" notices that Mr and Mrs. Werner, who are staying at the hotel, are distressed by this notice, and concludes that Mr. Werner is Raphael Norton. Philipe and Mazamette arrive at the hotel and find that the Vampires are based there. In a different hotel they force open the box and find Baldwin’s stolen money inside. Moréno comes to the Royal Hunt in disguise. While the Grand Vampire tells the hotel guests a story, Irma breaks into the Werners' suite, finding a map leading to the box in the forest. When she leaves, she is captured and chloroformed by Moréno, who takes the map. While his gang take Irma away, he dresses his hypnotized maid, Laura, as Irma and tells her to give the Vampires the map. Once one of the Vampires (Miss Édith) follows the map to get the treasure, Moréno’s gang ambushes her, only to find that Philipe has already taken it. Moreno demands that the Grand Vampire ransom Irma Vep. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Werner is actually Norton, so Philipe and Mazamette win the money. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her involvement in the murders of the Fontainbleau notary (in this episode), Metadier (episode 4), the ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (episode 2), and Dr. Nox (episode 1). The Grand Vampire comes to meet Moréno, but Moréno by hypnotic command compels Irma to kill him. The episode ends with the now-wealthy Mazamette informing a dozen adoring journalists that "although vice is seldom punished, virtue is always rewarded".

Episode 7 - "Satanas"

A mysterious man (Louis Leubas) arrives at Moréno’s home, and shows that he knows that the Grand Vampire’s body is inside a trunk. Moréno tries to get rid of him, but he is paralysed by a pin in the man’s glove. The man reveals himself to be the true Grand Vampire, Satanas, and that the first was a subordinate. While at a cabaret called the "Happy Shack", Moréno and Irma receive a note from Satanas saying they will see proof of his power at two o'clock. At two he fires a powerful cannon at the "Happy Shack", largely destroying it. Meanwhile, Philipe decides to visit Mazamette, but he is out "chasing the girls." He hides as Mazamette arrives home, drunk, with two women and a friend, who he later chases out angrily at gunpoint. The next morning, Irma and Moréno go to Satanas’ home to surrender, and Satanas offers them the chance to work with him, informing them that American millionaire George Baldwin is stopping at the Park Hotel. Satanas wants Baldwin's signature. One of Moréno’s accomplices, Lily Flower (Suzanne Delvé), goes to the Park Hotel and poses as an interviewer from "Modern Woman" magazine and through trickery gets Baldwin to sign a blank piece of paper. Afterwards, Irma enters and dupes Baldwin into recording his voice saying "Parisian women are the most charming I've ever seen, all right!" Lily Flower brings Baldwin's signature to Moréno’s home, and Moréno writes out an order (over Baldwin's signature) to pay Lily Flower $100,000. Moréno’s gang seize the hotel telephone operator of Baldwin's hotel; Irma takes her place by using a forged note. When the bank cashier calls Baldwin to confirm that he has given a very large draft to an attractive Parisian woman, Irma intercepts the call, and plays the recording she made of Baldwin's voice, and the cashier is persuaded. While Lily Flower is taking the money, Mazamette comes in, recognising her as his old squeeze from the "Happy Shack", and follows her, seeing her hand the money to a man in a taxi – Moréno! Moréno gives Satanas the money, but he is given it back as a present. Philipe and Mazamette capture Lily Flower at her home and make her call Moréno and tell him to come, but when he and Irma arrive they fall into a trap and are caught by the police.

Episode 8 – "The Thunder Master"

Irma, sentenced to life imprisonment, has been sent to St. Lazarus’ prison. A transfer order is sent to the prison to send Irma to a penal colony in Algeria. On the day of her departure, Irma finds out that Moréno has been executed. Satanas follows Irma’s transportation route, stopping at a seaside hotel in disguise as a priest. At the port, he gives some religious comfort to the prisoners, but Irma’s copy contains a secret message saying “the ship will blow up” and giving her directions on how to safeguard herself. Satanas destroys the ship with his cannon. Meanwhile, Philipe finds through the red codebook that the explosive shell that landed on the “Happy Shack” came from Montmartre, and Mazamette goes to investigate. His son, Eustache Mazamette (René Poyen), is sent home from school for bad behaviour, so they go to "investigate" together. They find some men loading boxes into a house, and notice one of the top hat cases contains a shell. Later, reading that no survivors have been found from the exploding ship, Satanas visits Philipe to avenge Irma’s death. Satanas paralyses Phillipe with the poisoned pin in his glove and leaves a bomb in a top hat to kill him off. Mazamette arrives and throws the top hat out the window just in time. At Satanas’ home, Eustache is used as a ploy to hide Mazamette in a box, but Satanas sees this through a spy-hole. Satanas threatens Eustache, but Eustache shoots at Satanas, and the police raid the building and arrest him. After the action, they find that Mazamette’s nose has been broken by Eustache’s shot. Meanwhile, Irma is shown to have survived the blast on the ship, and is on her way back to Paris as a stowaway under a train. She is helped by the station staff and police, pretending that she is in “one of those eternal love stories beloved by popular imagination.” She makes her way to the Vampire hangout, the “Howling Cat” nightclub, where she performs, and is rapturously greeted by the Vampires. Upon hearing of the arrest of Satanas, one of the Vampires, Venomous (Frederik Moriss), appoints himself the new chief. By Satanas’ orders, they mail him an envelope containing a poisoned note, which he eats to commit suicide.

Episode 9 – "The Poisoner"

Irma is now a devoted collaborator of Venomous, who is set on getting rid of Philipe and Mazamette. He learns that Philipe is engaged to Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), and the following day Irma and Lily Flower rent an apartment above hers. Irma’s maid, a Vampire also, hears that Philipe and Jane’s engagement party will be catered for by the famous Béchamel House. Venomous cancels their catering order, and on the day of the party the Vampires appear instead. Jane’s mother (Jeanne Marie-Laurent) gives the concierges one bottle of the Vampires' champagne as a present, and just as dinner is served the male concierge, Leon Charlet, drinks it, is poisoned and dies. His wife stops the party guests from drinking their champagne just in time, and the Vampires make a hasty escape. A few days later, Mazamette and Philipe’s mother pick up Jane and her mother in the night in order to take them to a safe retreat near Fontainebleau. Irma, who tries to fill the getaway car with soporific gas, is spotted by Mazamette, but Irma gasses him, and he is taken away asleep while Irma hides in a box on the car. Mazamette is dumped on the street and taken to the police station, believed to be drunk. When he wakens, he calls Philipe to warn him, but Irma slips out of the box and gets away in the car before Philipe can catch her. Irma jumps off the car near the Pyramid Hotel, and calls Venomous to meet her there, but Philipe has also arranged to meet Mazamette there. Philipe spots Irma at the Pyramid Hotel, captures her and ties her up. Philipe and Mazamette leave Irma in Mazamette's car and attempt to ambush Venomous, but Irma honks the car horn to warn him. Venomous saves Irma and drives off in Mazamette’s car, so Philipe and Mazamette chase him in his. Venomous leaps off; Philipe chases Venomous on foot, following him onto the top of a moving train, but Venomous gets away. Mazamette, enraged at the police for not letting him help Philipe on the train, hits one of the officers, who arrest him. At the police station, Philipe and Mazamette carry on so dramatically that the police decide not to book Mazamette, who is after all a famous philanthropist. But the Vampires are still on the loose.

Episode 10 – "The Terrible Wedding"

A few months have passed, and Philipe and Jane are now married. Augustine Charlet (Germaine Rouer), widow of the poisoned concierge, is hired by the Guérandes to be their chamber maid. Augustine, still tormented by the mysterious poisoning death of her husband, receives an advertising circular for a psychic, Madame d’Alba of 13 Avenue Junot, and decides to consult her. Madame d’Alba, a Vampire, hypnotises Augustine and instructs her to unlock the door of Philipe’s apartment at 2 am. Mazamette, who has taken an attraction to Augustine, awakens that night and sees her descend the stairs to unlock the door. The Vampires enter, tie her up, and feed poisonous gas into the Guérandes’ room. Mazamette shoots at them and they flee, and Augustine explains her actions. As they go to the police, Venomous tries to break in through a bedroom window, but Jane shoots at him. When she looks out the window she is lassoed down and carried away. At daybreak, the police raid Avenue Junot; however Irma and Venomous escape through the roof and a bomb is left behind. Augustine is recaptured by the Vampires during their escape. Mazamette shoots at the getaway car, causing an oil leak. Philipe follows the trail to the Vampires’ lair and discovers Augustine and Jane, to whom he passes a gun before leaving. Returning at night, he sets up an escape during the celebration of Irma's marriage to Venomous. At daybreak, the police prepare for a massive raid as the party continues. The police burst in and a running gun battle ensues, ending when the remaining Vampires (save Irma) are driven out onto the balcony which Philipe earlier rigged and are killed in the fall. Irma prepares to kill Jane and Augustine, but Jane shoots her dead. A few days later Mazamette makes a proposal of marriage to Augustine, which she accepts. The film ends with the two couples (Philipe and Jane, and Mazamette and Augustine) standing side by side.


In the early years of the last century, a film genre was invented that became hugely popular - the adventure serial. Just as the publication of novels in installments had fired public interest for almost two centuries, so the serialized film story had audiences waiting in suspense for each succeeding episode. The most famous was Pathé's The Perils of Pauline (1914). Ever in competition was France's other big studio, Gaumont, and from that company came a series of works by its principal producer and director, Louis Feuillade, that are still considered the high point of the form.

Unlike Fantomas (1913-14), his first success in the genre, Les Vampires was not based on previous material, but written by Feuillade himself. The story concerns a criminal gang called The Vampires, mysterious and resourceful, that terrorizes France with a succession of swindles, robberies, and murders. Aiding the often ineffectual police is Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé), a crusading journalist, and his comic sidekick (and former Vampire) Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque). On the other side are a host of villains, notably a woman with an anagram for a name, Irma Vep (Musidora), Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), a fiendish rival of the Vampires, and a master plotter named Satanas (Louis Leubas) who includes a portable cannon in his arsenal of evil.

Shot on the back streets and alleys of Paris, the adventures have a loose, improvised feel. Characters and plot threads come and go without a great deal of logic or consistency. There are ten episodes, adding up to about seven hours - all beautifully presented on a DVD from Water Bearer Films (or on five videos). At first, it's slow going. A lot more time is spent on mundane set-ups and establishing shots than a modern audience is used to tolerating. The straight-on camera placement, medium shots, and box-like confinement of the indoor sequences would be readily accepted by the audience of that time, but tend to be tiresome for us.

Around the fourth episode, however, it seems that Feuillade and his crew started getting more into the feel of things. The plots become more and more outlandish, with missing bodies, trap doors, hypnotism, death-simulating serums, daring prison escapes, and so forth. The introduction of the Irma Vep character around this time also adds life to the proceedings. Watching the episodes back-to-back (in my case, not all in one sitting, but in three), while not the experience originally intended for audiences, habituated my mind to the form, until I was captured (or perhaps worn down) and under its spell. Eventually the film became a kind of alternate world of imagined crime, living in my head like the vision of a lost time.

In 1915, sensational crime stories were a relatively new thing to movie audiences, so one can see why Les Vampires was so popular. (The police even banned the series for glorifying crime, until they were placated by a visit from the alluring Musidora.) Of course the stories are implausible and ridiculous, but Feuillade intended them to be just what they are - wild escapist entertainment. The fact that he made them up as they went along, with scenes being determined by factors such as the availability of an actor or a setting, gives the series a strange, darkly amusing, almost surrealistic quality. One cannot accurately evaluate the impact of the cinema without taking melodrama into account. The most popular art form was shaped in response to mass audience taste, and Les Vampires was a fascinating milepost along the way.

Additional Information

Louis Feuillade was a motion-picture director whose internationally popular screen serials were the most influential French films of the period around World War I. Feuillade was a journalist who began his cinema career in 1906 as a scriptwriter. He soon was directing short adventure films. Fantômas (1913–14; Master of Terror), Feuillade's first serial, established his popularity in both France and the United States. Its swift-moving, intricate plot features a series of thrilling episodes involving clever disguises, trapdoors, kidnappings, hairbreadth escapes, and rooftop chases. It was followed by Les Vampires (1915), which centres on a group of criminals. Despite allegations that it glorifies crime, the film was a huge hit, and it became one of Feuillade's most influential works. Judex (1916) and La Nouvelle Mission de Judex (1917–18; “The New Mission of Judex”) feature Judex, the daring detective with the sweeping black cape, a righter of wrongs who was the prototype of many future film heroes. The tremendous success of these pictures saved the French film industry, which had been threatened by competition from foreign imports.


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