Thursday, May 10, 2007


The ideosyncratic early French Chapter Serial "Les Vampires" is the subject of an essay in process now I am working on. The youtube flic is Chapter II. Is it about crooks, cupernatural crooks, vampires, or sort of vamps? Stay tuned....Henry_Allen

From goatdog's movies

In Paris, in the depths of World War I, a vast criminal empire, the Vampires

(not the blood-sucking variety), holds the city in a death grip. Nobody knows

who might be a member, and nobody knows when they will strike next. Residents

are so terrified of the gang—it can't be fear of the war, which is never

mentioned—that they don't leave their homes. Into this terrifying situation goes

Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe), an intrepid reporter who vows to solve the

mystery of the Vampires. With the assistance of his somewhat faithful and mostly

hapless sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Levesque), he attempts to track down the gang

and their leaders, the Grand Vampire (Jean Ayme) and his consort, the beautiful,

mysterious, and dangerous Irma Vep (Musidora).

This grand and sprawling serial, produced in 1915 by auteur Louis Feuillade, is

one of the great masterpieces of the cinema. In its ten episodes, ranging in

length from 15 to 60 minutes, Feuillade and company use the entire city of Paris

as their set, and they create something unlike anything I've seen before. That

it manages to be gripping through almost all of its nearly seven hours of screen

time is an amazing feat. It combines slapstick comedy, edge-of-your-seat

suspense, pretty amazing outdoor shooting and stunt work, and dramatic pathos in

a thoroughly enjoyable mix. The film isn't like a lot of Hollywood serials: each

episode has its own story, but each one advances the plot a little more, and the

episodes don't all end in cliffhangers. It doesn't need them. Each episode is so

perfectly mounted that a cliffhanger at the end might have been a little too

much. It's enough to be left wondering what horrible things the Vampires would

be up to next; thankfully, since I rented it on DVD, I got to find out right


Over the course of the episodes, Guerande and Mazamette come closer and closer

to defeating the Vampires. The film doesn't pull any punches: in the first

episode, the gang has beheaded a city official, and Feuillade and company

weren't afraid to have the head show up in a hatbox. For this, its glorification

of the criminal element, and its depiction of the Paris police as a bumbling

bunch of fools, several episodes of the film were banned from French screens.

Guerande and Mazamette do most of their sleuthing with guns blazing and by

themselves, with little assistance from the police, who tend to mess things up

anyway. Among their adventures, they solve the murder of a famous ballerina,

decode the Vampires' secret code book, capture the leader of a rival gang,

recover money stolen from a rich American businessman, and foil an elaborate

bank robbery. Captures and escapes abound, as does wanton murder and mayhem,

including the Vampires' free use of cannons to achieve their ends. Along the

way, the cast of the Vampires changes: the Grand Vampire gives way to Moreno,

the rival gang leader; Satanus, the true head of the Vampires; and Venomous, an

expert poisoner who ends up in charge. But Irma Vep is always present.

It's a travesty that Irma Vep and Musidora, the actress who played her, weren't

household names in the United States. She's one of the most magnetic characters

in film history. She's a strong female character, which is rare, and she's a lot

smarter than most of the men around her. Throughout the film, she reveals

herself as a dancer, an expert in disguise, an expert shot, an acrobat, and

surprisingly resilient woman. She often appears, to our pleasure, wearing the

uniform of the Vampires, a skintight black outfit that she fills most admirably.

She's a breath of fresh air to those of us who are sick of modern stick-figure

anorexic movie starlets. As the film progresses, the Vampires modify their

goals: instead of involving themselves in crime, they just want to kill off

Guerande and Mazamette. Through it all, both heroes find true love, which

ratchets up the stakes, as the Vampires target everyone and anyone involved in

their lives.

The DVD contains a beautiful restoration of the film. It includes the original

color tinting, which was used in silent films to indicate location or time of

day: blue for night, brown for indoors, yellow for outdoors, etc. The last

episode is a little washed out from age, and sometimes characters' faces appear

as white blobs, but overall it's very watchable. There's an orchestral score,

and while I don't know if it is based on the music that originally accompanied

the film, it works perfectly. There aren't a lot of extras, which is too bad,

because for once I would like to have read a little more about the film.

A lot of silent films, to be honest, are little more than historical artifacts,

and most viewers don't have the patience to sit through them. This is one

example of a relic from a bygone era that stands on its own as a great film with

both historical importance and relevance. The film's plotlines will be familiar

to just about everyone who has ever seen a mystery or an action film, but

they're presented here in a way that few of us have seen before. It's completely

accessible to modern audiences, and I hope that some of you go out and rent it.

It's worth the six-hour time investment.

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