Les Vampires is one of the great silent movies, if not one of the great movies of all time. It was directed by Louis Feuillade and was released in a series of ten installments during 1915 and 1916. The Vampires are actually a gang of criminals who have infiltrated all spheres of society to carry out their dastardly crimes. Anyone who stands in their way is murdered. This gang is fantastically ruthless. The only man who can stop them is Philipe Guérande, an investigative journalist, and his ally [and former gang member] Mazamette.
One of the Vampires’ leaders is the fearsomely sexy Irma Vep [an anagram of Vampire, just in case…].
Irma was played by Musidora, and is a magnificently amoral and cunning criminal who wore black tights and a black mask, stalking the rooftops and alleyways of Paris. Maybe there’s a fair element of her in Catwoman? The poet, surrealist, Dadaist and revolutionary communist Louis Aragon called Musidora “the tenth muse” and suggested that Irma Vep’s bodysuit inspired France’s youth to fantasise of rebellion. Irma, although not always present in the episodes, is most engaging character and really carries the scenes in which she appears. Guérande is rather dull and bland in comparison, despite being the hero.
Les Vampires are based on the real-life Parisian gang Les Apaches and the anarchist Bonnot Gang.
Europe was of course in the middle of the First World War and La Belle Epoque was pretty much at an end. In times of such turmoil, perhaps it is only natural that a society should to personify the threats they perceive, and particularly in the establishment, around them. The bourgeoisie was growing at the time and they were uncertain of the worlds they no longer fully visited and kept at arms-length. Except now, their enemies, who threatened to take their wealth and power were amongst them, part of the corrupt system. There is danger everywhere and no one can be trusted. The members of the Vampires seem to operate on their own to an extent, suggesting an enemy that is everywhere and that cannot be easily eradicated by removing the leadership. Does that ring any bells?
The film was also made in response to the American film “The Mysteries of New York” released a year earlier and the idea of an episodic structure is also taken from this film, which itself was no doubt inspired by the method of releasing novels, e.g. those of Dickens, to an enthusiastic public
The film is the best part of seven hours long, but because it’s in installments, it’s easy to watch and very easy to get carried away with. The plot is wildly amusing as characters escape, rise from the dead and betray one another. The film was made before the ideas of montage had been developed fully and Feuillade was a bit of a traditionalist and so it is very theatrical in its filming, i.e. there is often only one camera position and that camera films the whole act, just as though you were watching a play in a theatre. The use of edits and close ups is rare but this perhaps serves to emphasise the power and importance of these particular shots
There is a challenge in that many characters appear and disappear quite rapidly, which almost serves as a distraction. This was unavoidable for Feuillade, as his actors would be called up to the Front and he would have to quickly write them out of the series without the opportunity to see them leave. The Grand Vampire changes three or four times during the film. These were the first steps of the film industry and you don’t have to try too hard to imagine the struggles and pragmatic decisions being made to get the film finished and released.
You also notice that the film, despite being about tracking down a criminal, malignant organisation, doesn’t really feature the police and also suggests that the authorities were either incompetent or under the influence of Les Vampires. The head of the police refused to allow the showing of the film and so, all of a sudden, the police make a much more positive and active appearance at the end of the series.
Despite this, the story is fast-paced and, at the time, the ideas and stunts must have been astonishing to the audience. As is often the case, the public loved the films but the critics were fairly unanimous in their condemnation of them. Maybe Spielberg has some sympathy for this position. Fortunately that view has now changed and the series is regarded as one of cinema’s milestones.
The movie is available at the Internet Archive. Go on, you know you want to.
- Episode 1 – The Severed Head
- Episode 2 – The Ring That Kills
- Episode 3 – The Red Codebook
- Episode 4 – The Spectre
- Episode 5 – Dead Man’s Escape
- Episode 6 – Hypnotic Eyes
- Episode 7 – Satanus
- Episode 8 – The Thunder master
- Episode 9 – The Poisoner
- Episode 10 – The Terrible Wedding