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In the Fall of 1915 France was entering the second year of an endless, endlessly murderous war on its own soil. Conditions at the front were intolerable, but life in Paris continued apace, as if the young men of the country weren't being systematically slaughtered just a couple of hundred miles away. The twenty years of French peace and prosperity known as La Belle Époque came to a crashing end as France was introduced to the horrors of the 20th century. But was the hottest movie in Paris a nostalglic look back at better times, perhaps? No, the crowds were mesmerized by Louis Feuillade's fantastic crime fantasy Les Vampires, a ten-chapter serial released intermittently over a period of six months. Feuillade specialized in pulp fiction thrillers about super-criminals (Fantômas) and noble vigilante avengers (Judex).
Just a few years before, armed robbers scandalized Europe by making the first use of automobiles as getaway vehicles. Perhaps inspired by highly publicized anarchist crimes, Feuillade invented a fiendish group of thieves and murderers that exist seemingly to shock society and defy notions of morality. "The Vampires" crimes are spectacularly vicious. They utilize every stock idea in pulp thrillers of the day, and invent many more: mysterious threatening notes, hidden passageways, mysterious hideouts, concealed weapons, secret identities, severed heads, an on-stage murder in mid-performance, torture interrogations, bombings, poisonings, deadly gas, pistol shoot-outs, and an artillery cannon neatly hidden in traveling luggage.
Just as in a conventional American serial, the characters are caught up in a constant game of pursuits and escapes; the difference is that the Les Vampires episodes don't use cliffhanger endings, and the action is always subordinated to the diabolical ingenuity of the villains. Forever on the trail of The Vampires is Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), an investigative reporter who dedicates his life to bringing the villains to justice. His main helper is Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), a semi-comic sidekick who does a lot of the detective legwork. The Vampires' victims include millionaires and public officials, and a ballerina (Stacia Napierkowska) who happens to be Philipe's fianceé. The gang's ruthless attitude toward killing extends to its own members, one of whom commits suicide under orders from a superior. With names like Satanus and Vénénos, the Vampires are masters of escape and disguise, especially the nefarious Grand Vampire. The handsome Juan-José Moreno is an accomplished hypnotist.
But the iconic center of the show and one of the main reasons for its popularity is Irma Vep (Musidora), a dedicated conspirator-murderess who formulates many of the anarchist gang's nefarious schemes. Vep first appears as a singer on stage, but her key disguise sees her donning a black full body stocking as an aid to prowling in dark corridors and on rooftops. According to critic Raymond Durgnat, this revealing (for 1915) costume earned Les Vampires a reputation for immorality. It also fired the imaginations of a generation of young men -- so that's what women really look like under those heavy dresses! It is said that French soldiers carried photos of Musidora posing as Irma Vep into the trenches, as an erotic pin-up. Surrealists already impressed by Louis Feuillade's "eruptions of the fantastic in the midst of ordinary reality" loved everything Irma Vep stood for. Sticking out like a beacon of eros in an era of repression and bourgeois good manners, the curvaceous Musidora promised hidden delights lurking below mundane normalcy -- the sensual equivalent of Les Vampires' outrageous criminal acts.
Just as Judex is credited as the 'original' caped vigilante character, Irma Vep may be first in a long line of sultry, deadly femmes that don leotards or leather cat suits to carry out crimes -- jewel thieves, Catwoman, etc. A very good 1996 French film called Irma Vep is about a movie crew attempting a remake of Les Vampires. Intrigued by the mystique of prowling like a super-villainess, the actress playing Irma Vep dons the skin-tight vinyl cat suit on her off-hours, just to see if any sensory thrill results.
Although frequent impressive tableaus turn up, yet Les Vampires is not particularly progressive as cinema. The static camera often holds wide on a room for an entire scene. The big innovation is the fast pace and the steady accumulation of incident. The only time things slow down is when Feuillade lingers on details to keep things clear for his 1915, such as a window entry is accomplished with the use of a glass cutter. When Philipe follows a trail of oil left behind Irma Vep's speeding (20 mph) automobile, he stops several times to point out the clear path splattered down the middle of the road. These moments are quaint, yet the matter-of-fact use of deadly weapons and poison is still rather shocking. The Grand Vampire has a map of Paris that helps him aim his cannon with deadly accuracy, as when he blows up an entire packed restaurant just to kill one enemy. A woman leaning out of a second story window is lassoed and pulled out, so that she can be kidnapped. To escape from a multi-story building, Irma Vep winds a long rope around her body and then leaps out a window. On the way down she unwinds like a yo-yo, landing unhurt (and not dizzy!) on the sidewalk below. Although a dummy appears to be used in this instance Musidora was said to be a former acrobat who did her own stunts.
The comic relief provided by the charming Mazamette is very welcome, as the characters do not develop in any normal dramatic sense. Mazamette pauses during a raid on The Vampires' hideout to do a funny double-take at a chalkboard caricature of his long nose, drawn by the Grand Vampire. Both of the heroes have girlfriends and Philipe marries Jane Bremontier (Louise Legrange) in the course of the show. Mazamette's love interest is Augustine (Germaine Rouer), the widow of one of The Vampires' victims. Augustine inadvertently helps the villains. Only later did serial heroines become typed as helpless innocents. When both women are kidnapped in the final chapter, Jane hides a pistol to surprise her captor Irma Vep.
As it turns out, the good guys can play dirty too -- when the villains flee from their hideout, a fire escape booby-trapped by Philipe gives way, dropping them several stories. The gendarmes then rush forward to investigate the heap of broken bodies. Despite its depiction of anarchistic super-crimes, Feuillade's show ends with the terrorists vanquished and complacent normalcy re-established.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Les Vampires splits the ten episodes across two discs, using English translations for the inter-titles and credit cards: "The Red Cryptogram", "The Eyes that Mesmerize". Sourced from a Gaumont / Cinémathéque Française restoration from 1996, most of the episodes are in fine shape, with a few scenes looking somewhat soft. I noticed missing frames only a couple of times. The music track is provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which does a fine job, especially considering that the show is over 6.5 hours in duration. Kino's disc producer is Bret Wood.
The influence of Louis Feuillade on a century of pop art and entertainment has been recounted many times. There's no denying the connections: looking at the original cover art for the production, with Irma Vep reclining in a curtained room with a red carpet, reminds me of various surreal dream settings in David Lynch movies -- especially with the face of the voyeur peeking in through the yellow drapes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Les Vampires Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.