While the American serial tradition began with What Happened to Mary (1912) and The Perils of Pauline (1914), a parallel serial tradition developed in France and director Louis Feuillade was its greatest practitioner. From 1913 to 1914, he adapted a wildly popular serialized work of literature called Fantomas and many of the elements in Fantomas (poisons, murders, black-hooded villains, etc.) would find their way into Les Vampires.
Filmed in 10 episodes that vary in length from 15 minutes to over 40 minutes, Les Vampires is a masterpiece of storytelling that focuses on the exploits of a notorious band of criminals called "the vampires" and the journalist, Philippe Guerande, who exposes their activities. Women are lassoed as they peer out of windows and pulled into the hands of kidnappers below. Cannons roll out of secret panels and fire upon buildings and ships. Ballerinas stumble and convulse in the middle of performances--the victims of poisonings. Partygoers inhale a sweet-smelling vapor and pass out--to arise several hours later with all their valuables missing. Rival criminal gangs steal each others loot. Black-suited villains run across roofs and climb the sides of buildings. Les Vampires provides one outrageous plot twist after another as it moves like a whirlwind through the streets of Paris and the French countryside.
Whereas American serials frequently degenerate into a repetitive series of struggles over a central whats-it, where the same sets and situations get recycled ad infinitum, Les Vampires provides us with a constantly changing canvas. Instead of using the American cliffhanger format, in which each episode would end by placing a hero or heroine in dire danger, Les Vampires provides us with new situations in each episode. As a result, the episodes can almost stand on their own (almost but not quite). In one episode, the criminals might attempt to steal from an American millionaire; in the next, the criminals might plot to free an imprisoned comrade; and in the next, they might use poisonous champagne in an attempt to murder an entire wedding party. In each episode, the story takes off in new and unexpected directions--as if large parts of the plot were improvised.
In fact, improvisation played a crucial role in the development of Les Vampires. According to his biographer Francis Lacassin, director Feuillade would take the entire company to "the new avenues being built at Montmartre, to the forest of Fontainebleau, or to some quiet, deserted street picked at random. The hazards of fate would play an important part in the improvisation of whatever scene was on hand." This approach to filmmaking gives Les Vampires an unpredictable rhythm, as if anything and everything might happen. Seemingly important characters get killed off. Strange side stories develop. Months suddenly pass.
Largely because of this unpredictable development, the surrealists championed Les Vampires. Luis Bunuel said his artistic models were Fantomas and Les Vampires, works which he described as direct transcriptions of "an unwonted reality." While Les Vampires contains a fantastic set of events, the characters and situations never stray too far from the plausible. Filmed during WWI, Feuillade creates an environment where the criminals seem capable of accomplishing any feat that they desire; however, the scenario never drifts completely into the realm of fantasy. As a result, nothing and no one appear safe, as if an ominous force were waiting to strike at anytime--an atmosphere no doubt inspired by the impending dangers of war.
Les Vampires takes place in a world where all appearances are deceiving. Living rooms can become gas chambers and hotel rooms can suddenly sprout heavy artillery. Feuillade creates a frightening world where the ordinary and mundane may suddenly be overwhelmed by the mysterious. It's a world where security can suddenly be replaced with chaos.
Feuillade's filmmaking technique, in which he frequently nailed the camera in place while the actors moved in the foreground, makes the movie feel akin to a documentary, as if we are being given a privileged glimpse into another time period. Feuillade's simple camera placements are frequently static, but unlike American cinematic models, where doors and exits are typically placed at the right or left edges of the screen, Feuillade emphasizes doors by placing them near the center of the frame. He fills the doors with activity as clerks carry papers to officials and criminals creep into hotel rooms. This emphasis on doors heightens our awareness of the exterior world and the threat posed by the vampires.
One of the greatest threats comes from a seductive female criminal named Irma Vep (whose name is an anagram of "vampire"). Portrayed by Musidora, Irma Vep is a master of disguise who frequently infiltrates the homes and offices of her intended victims by posing as a maid or a clerk. But she's most fondly remembered as a female cat burglar in black tights that accentuate her every curve. She's a sexually-liberated character who changes lovers several times in the course of Les Vampires. (A recent movie titled Irma Vep pays homage to Les Vampires.)
This video version of Les Vampires features several key enhancements. Scenes have been tinted to match the originally intended tinting: night exteriors are blue, night interiors are red, and day exteriors are green. Title cards have been digitally altered to include English text. And Robert Israel has scored the entire series with vintage silent film compositions. David Shepard of The Film Preservation Associates oversaw the restoration efforts, but don't expect the same clarity of image that he provided to The Art of Buster Keaton. The source print for Les Vampires appears to have been in an advanced stage of decay. Some scenes, particularly in the final episode, are so burned out that faces nearly disappear. Nonetheless, Les Vampires is still wonderfully entertaining. This video set is a revelation for serial lovers everywhere.
Les Vampires is now available from Water Bearer Films as a set of four videos. Suggested retail price: $99.95 for the entire set. For more information, we suggest you check out the Water Bearer Films Web site and Water Bearer's Les Vampires Web pages.