French filmmaker Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires, a ten part serial that runs over six hours that was made and shown theatrically during the winter of 1915 through the spring of 1916, is an impressive piece of work. Although the director's Fantomas is possibly better known than this project, Les Vampires has also gone on to be rightly considered an influence on the likes of fellow French filmmakers like Franju and Melville but also on filmmakers who operated in different countries, Alfred Hitchcock being a prime example, Fritz Lang another. Surely one of the most important of the early crime thrillers, its lengthy running time may seem daunting but when viewed, as intended, in ten parts it makes for pretty exciting stuff even by modern standards.
The storyline follows a group of criminals who operate on the fringe of society in Paris lead by a man known only as the Grand Vampire (Jean Ayme), a brilliant master of disguise. Calling themselves The Vampires, they dress completely in black and spend more time in the shadows than the light (though they're not blood drinking undead). Out to uncover the truth about this gang, who has proven to be a thorn in the side of upstanding citizens everywhere and who are believed to be behind the decapitation of a police officer, is a reporter named Philip Guerande (Edouard Mathe) and his accomplice, Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Levesque).
As Philip delves deeper into this strange part of the French criminal underworld, he has some run-ins with other members of the gang with diabolic names like Satanas (Louis Leubas) and Venomous (Frederik Moriss) while complicating things for both parties is the presence of a rival criminal gang lead by Juan-Jose Moreno (Fernand Herrmann), a man who possesses the power of hypnosis. Philip eventually uncovers yet another high ranking member of The Vampires in the form of a sexy lounge singer named Irma Vep (Musidora), a woman who is as beguiling as she is dangerous. As The Vampires launch attack after attack against society, Philip becomes more involved in his pursuit than ever before, eventually with the life of his fiancé, Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), hanging in the balance.
Wonderfully shot with a great eye for pulp aesthetic, Les Vampires almost seems to take place in a different world where anything and everything that happens can, and often does, lead to something sinister. Very violent for its time (we actually see the severed head of the police officer who is murdered and there's a fairly graphic and chilling gas attack sequence), some of the performances may seem a little ham fisted by modern standards but this is easy to take in stride once you start getting used to the methods that the various actors and actresses employ here. While Mathe and Levesque make for an intrepid hero and bumbling but well meaning sidekick respectively, the real stars of this serial are the villains, chief amongst them Musidora as Irma Vep (it doesn't take a genius to figure out why she's been given that name). As she spends much of the time zipping around in a black form fitting leotard with black circles painted around her eyes, she makes for quite an interesting looking heroine, both beautiful and mysterious and quite acrobatic as well. She's the most captivating presence in the entire six hour plus running time and if nothing else, she makes quite an impression.
Inspired in no small part by a gang called Les Apaches who were running riot through Paris years before, the film works in some interesting conspiracies into its storylines, Les Vampires starts off strong and gets stronger as it builds towards its conclusion. Inspired cinematic anarchy, the serial definitely portrays the villains as the more intelligent citizens of Paris. As the cops can't or won't do anything about The Vampires, it's only Guerande who can stop them but we don't feel for him the way we do the bad guys. The Vampires are smarter, sexier, and far more interesting than any of the other characters here, and you could certainly make the case that the series glorifies the criminal lifestyle. This doesn't take anything away from it, however, if anything it makes it all the more appealing in its own twisted way. There's never really been anything like this, before or after, and its importance on modern cinematic conventions is undeniable.
Some time ago, the Cinematheque Française worked with Jacques Champreux (grandson of Louis Feuillade) to restore Les Vampires and it's from that 35mm restoration that Kino's transfer is sourced. Given that the film is fast approaching its one hundredth birthday, the print damage and debris present throughout the presentation is forgivable and considering the age of the picture, for the most part it looks pretty good. As is common with films of this era, there are times where the contrast will blow out and there are times where the image will flicker but detail and texture remain strong for a standard definition presentation in spite of all of this. There are no issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or filtering of any kind and the result is a film-like presentation of what was obviously, and understandably, some source material that was not in the best of shape. It's completely watchable, however, and fans of the series should be quite pleased with the results as they appear on this DVD.
So obviously this is a silent film so there's no dialogue or sound effects but Kino did have the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra compose and record a brand new score for this release and that score is presented on the disc in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. In short, it sounds excellent. The music always feels appropriate and it does a great job of reflecting and complimenting the tension and drama and intrigue that plays out on screen in front of us. The score benefits from excellent clarity and features properly balanced levels and it turns out to be a very nice addition to the main feature.
Sadly, aside from some classy looking menus and chapter selection, the only extra that we get is a trailer for Fantomas - and it's great, but it doesn't amount to much.
Tense, fascinating and just really well made, Les Vampires gets a wonderfully restored DVD release from Kino. Yes, it's short on extras and some historical or contextual pieces would have gone a long way towards rounding out the package but that complaint aside, it looks better here than it has on past releases and the content itself is just about as cool as it gets. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.