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Vampires, Les

Vampires, Les(1915)

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Louis Feuillade was not simply one of the giants of cinema in the formative years of the 1910s. His distinctive approach to filmmaking followed a different path than that trailblazed by D.W. Griffith. Feuillade emphasized tableaux scenes played out in single takes over the editing grammar that Griffith was exploring, yet packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. American audiences have only been able to appreciate his legacy fairly recently, beginning with a video release of his second great serial, Les Vampires (1915-1916), in 1999. Since then Fantomas (1913) and Judex (1916) have been released on DVD, but for many silent movie fans and lovers of the cinema le fantastique, Les Vampires was their introduction to the glories of Feuillade and still their favorite work from the silent movie master. Kino now releases a new edition of Les Vampires on DVD and Blu-ray, making it the first Feuillade production released stateside on the high definition format.

The Vampires of the title are bloodsuckers only in the metaphorical sense; this Masonic master criminal organization, as vast as anything Fritz Lang would concoct on the 1920s, robs, kidnaps, and murders their way through Parisian society while our ostensible hero, the intrepid reporter Philip Gueraude (Édouard Mathé), chases leads to expose the conspiracy. He outlives a succession of Vampire Grand Masters but the grand dame of all femmes fatales, the slinky, sinister Irma Vep (French icon Musidora in a body stocking and black mask), eludes him. The name Irma Vep, of course, is an anagram for Vampire, fitting for the organization's muse. (The character later became the inspiration for director Olivier Assayas' 1996 love letter to filmmaking, Irma Vep.)

It's easy to see why the surrealists embraced Feuillade's mad serialized tale. Les Vampires is a strange and wonderful masterpiece of elegant beauty and cinematic surprises. Spiced with sudden revelations and unexpected humor, the pulp plots of his episodic adventure are less mystery than chaotic thriller where nothing is as it seems and anything goes. When Philip discover and opens the hidden compartment above his bed, his pride turns to shock when he finds a severed head inside. And that's just the beginning of this heady mix of secret passages, poison pen letters (with real poison pens!), disappearing bodies, and disguises galore. Major characters die suddenly and capriciously, victims are lassoed from windows and yanked into waiting sacks, society patrons find themselves suddenly walled in their mansion banquet hall and gassed by thieves so brazen they rob the place during a party!

Shot on the run and often improvised in the volatile conditions of World War I France, this is less like a traditional American serial than a loose series of short films defined by the sheer unpredictability of its storyline. Feuillade wasn't necessarily making it all up as he went along, but clearly he responded to conditions and rewrote on the fly as necessary. As a result, the episodes change style and tone as often as they swap out characters. When Fernand Herrmann, the actor playing original gangland leader Moreno, was called up for service in the war, Feuillade simply had the character killed offscreen and replaced with a new Grand Vampire. And when a minor character named Mazamette (Marcel Levesque), who opens the film as Philip's assistant and reappears in episode two as a sad sack Vampire underling who repays Philip for a kindness, proved to be a hit, Feuillade brought him back as a sidekick. Then he gave him a son (Rene Poyen, a star in his own right as Bout de Zan in a series of popular comedy shorts) and a small fortune and sent them off on their own adventures as a private detective team. Because, I assume, they were more fun to watch than Philip.

Feuillade rarely moves his camera (apart from mounting it in cars during escapes and chase scenes) or edits within scenes -- there are few close-ups and almost no crosscutting here -- yet he gives the film a dynamic energy with his compositions and choreography and inventive imagery. Where Griffith built tension or drove action through editing and turned to cutting as a defining element of his pacing, Feuillade does so through staging, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience's attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. His editing is largely (though certainly not completely) a form of stitching together his narrative. The flow is largely within the image. This sophisticated staging and use of depth within the frame points to an alternative path not taken in the development of cinematic storytelling, at once archaic in style and strangely modern in pace and imagery and narrative eruptions of the unexpected.

Les Vampires, more than any other Feuillade production I've seen, follows a dream logic that creates its own crazy, magnificent fantasy world. The lethal Vampires seem all the more deadly for their unpredictable killings and obscure intentions. It's no coincidence that Feuillade names the series after the villains. Édouard Mathé is quite the stiff next to Musidora and Marcel Levesque (who all but takes over the lead in the final chapters as Mazamette, fun-loving private detective) and Philip's real claim to heroism is that he survives it all. Given the body count of this production, that's no small feat.

The complete ten-episode serial runs almost seven hours in this edition, newly mastered in high definition from the 1996 Cinémateque Français restoration supervised by Feuillade's grandson, Jacques Champreux. While the image shows its age in wear, scratches, and minor chemical damage along the edges of the frame in some sequences, this edition is sharper and cleaner than the version released on DVD by Image a decade ago. Tints are used sparingly over the predominantly black and white presentation. It features new English intertitles and a very good score compiled and performed by the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. There are no supplements beyond a trailer.

For more information about Les Vampires, visit Kino Lorber.

by Sean Axmaker