In January of this year, the Criterion Channel did film lovers around the world a huge favor by adding Les Vampires, a title that had long sat near the top of my own watchlist for years, to their streaming service. At over seven hours, a screening of this Louis Feuillade directed thriller is a daunting task even for the most dedicated and patient of cinephiles. While full length versions of varying quality can be found on YouTube and across the internet, Criterion made the smart, and historically accurate, move of adding the film in ten distinct chapters.
Of course, even back in 1915 when our attention spans had significantly more endurance, Les Vampires was never exhibited as one continuous 417 minute film, but, like a television program, was released into French cinemas one “episode” at a time, starting on November 13th, 1915 and concluding on June 30th, 1916. Consumed by large groups of people at a time, one could compare its exhibition to modern screenings of “must-see-TV”, such as the finale episodes of Game of Thrones, which saw hordes of fans gather into pubs, theaters, and other public spaces to create a unique, communal viewing experience.
Despite its age, the synopsis of Les Vampires should be easy to follow for modern viewers. To summarize: Reporter Philippe Guérande becomes determined to unearth the operations of the underground society/crime ring “Les Vampires” that deals primarily with cash and jewelry theft. Les Vampires will go to any length, even through use of kidnapping and murder, to achieve their nefarious desires. Along the way, as Guérande becomes increasingly obsessed with bringing the organization to its knees, he encounters a slew of classic movie-thriller obstacles which are now staples of the genre: decapitation, trap-doors, disguises, poisoned jewelry, false-beards, knock-out gasses, secret hideouts, cryptograms, and seedy nightclubs.
Guérande is accompanied on many of his crime-solving exploits by his colleague Mazamette, played by Marcel Lévesque, whose antics make up most of the film’s comic relief. The target of the pair’s sleuthing is known as Le Grand Vampire, an elusive man whose identity, through the use of fake facial hair, disguises, and aliases, changes with practically every episode. Even casual silent film fans will likely recognize the name Irma Vep, whose presence, while unseen for the first two episodes, hangs over the film like the sword of Damocles. When she does appear, portrayed by actress, dancer, and director Musidora (born Jeanne Roques) the film’s fun truly begins, becoming a classic game of cat-and-mouse.
Musidora and her on-screen characters perfectly encapsulated the archetype of the “Vamp”. In America, her equivalent would have been the equally seductive Theda Bara, who played her fair share of exotic characters throughout the 1910s. Irma Vep has remained a cult-like figure of film history whose statuesque figure, kohl-lined eyes, and dominant demeanor has served as inspiration for both musicians and directors for decades to follow. In 1996, Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung starred as a semi-fictionalized version of herself cast by a French director (played by Jean Pierre Léaud) to star as Irma Vep in a remake of Les Vampires. The film, aptly titled Irma Vep and directed by Oliver Assayas, further cements Musidora and Les Vampires as pillars of early cinema.
From a distance, and based on its promoted images, one might expect this series to in fact revolve around a group of blood-sucking, immortal children of the night. In fact, there are no actual vampires to be found in the series. And yet, the film’s atmosphere is so mysterious and chilling in its presentation that this world, this particular glimpse at 1915 Paris, feels like a landscape of never-ending horror and suspense. With its ornate, gothic style, dramatic and dark makeup, and tense storyline, it chills the modern viewer like a shock of cold water.
While a popular success, contemporary critics let their morals get the best of them when reviewing Feuillade’s directorial effort, with one reviewer referring to the very concept of the crime film as a “unhealthy genre”, while others compared it unfavorably to another epic of 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In response to such accusations, Feuillade firmly declared his stance, proclaiming: “A film is not a sermon nor a conference…but a means to entertain the eyes and the spirit”. Modern critics have come around to Les Vampires, praising its dedication to production, sensuality, fun spirit, and undercurrent of criticism towards the teetering upper classes. Whether a silent film expert or looking for somewhere to get started, this is a film that should be in every film lover’s vocabulary.