A journalist for one of the top newspapers in Paris focuses on writing an exposé of a gang of notorious criminals known as Les Vampires. However, his investigations start to inconvenience the crooks, and they determine to eliminate him at all cost. An epic struggle of wills begins…
French director Louis Feuillade had hit the jackpot with ‘Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine’ (1913), an adaptation of the wildly popular novels written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. As well as pursuing other projects at the time, he had continued the series with another four films about the infamous master of disguise, eventually delivering a series of films with a length of over five hours. Not unreasonably, he decided to turn the trick again with this serial, only focusing more exclusively on the project, producing ten films of varying lengths with a combined running time of more than seven hours.
Investigative journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is dismayed when he finds that all his notes on his latest story have been lifted from his desk at The Globe where he works. Suspicion immediately falls on colleague Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who is acting oddly. The widower confesses almost at once, explaining that he needed money to keep his young son at boarding school. Mathé decides to take matters no further, and Lévesque swears to help him however he can, the two eventually linking up to take on the mysterious gang. An early clue takes them to dodgy cabaret ‘The Howling Cat’ where the headliner is femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidora). Sharp tack that he is, Mathé immediately realises that ‘Irma Vep’ is an anagram of ‘Vampire’ and battle is joined.
The early chapters of the serial focus heavily on Mathé and his investigation, mainly when the gang kill his fiancée, ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), on the orders of The Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé). This villain is another ‘master of disguise’, much in the manner of Fantômas, but, just when this is threatening to become repetitive, Feuillade introduces a rival villain in the form of Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). The action then switches to the battle for supremacy between these two criminal masterminds, and, surprisingly, it’s Herrmann who is victorious and assumes the mantle of Mathé’s primary opponent. The leadership of the gang then changes twice more before the end of the serial, which is highly unusual. This was probably caused by the unavailability of cast members, given France’s involvement in the First World War. Indeed, the only constant principals in front of the camera over the entire serial are Mathé, Lévesque and Musidora.
Feuillade scripted himself and, by all accounts, provided the cast with only rough outlines for each scene, encouraging them to improvise. He also favoured a stationary camera, apparently to promote a feeling of realism. Each scene begins with an establishing shot that rarely changes, all the developing action taking place within this initial framing. Although this can cause some scenes to drag a little, Feuillade compensates with pace. Apparent budgetary constraints did preclude a lot of action scenes, but there’s always plenty going on as Les Vampires pursue their agenda of robbery, kidnapping and murder. Feuillade was also careful to make each episode work as a ‘stand alone’ piece, so audience members unfamiliar with the overall story could still follow the tale and enjoy the experience.
Viewed overall, the circumstances of the production do necessarily give the serial a somewhat uneven feel. The passage of time is not well-established, but it is evident that the story is supposed to be taking place over a considerable period. This problem is highlighted by two developments that come entirely out of left-field. Firstly, after losing his job with The Globe and the initial team-up with Mathé, Lévesque emerges in the third chapter as a man ‘gone straight’, a fully-qualified undertaker with a bunch of authorised testimonials! Similarly, in the ninth chapter, we discover that Mathé is about to marry Jane Brémontier (Louise Lagrange) even though she has never appeared previously, and no-one has ever mentioned her existence.
Curiously enough, this haphazard story structure does make for one interesting development. Despite being the somewhat half-hearted comedy relief, the balding, moustache-wielding Lévesque gets the story’s only character arc. In the beginning, he’s a weak-willed tool of the criminal gang; then he teams up with Mathé, becomes a respectable working man, gives that up to be a more committed collaborator in the cause of law and order, gets filthy rich off the reward money after foiling one of the gang’s evil schemes, turns into a drunken playboy, is forced to assume responsibility for his young son when he is expelled from school and eventually finds true love with the widow of one of the gang’s victims!
It is worth questioning Lévesque’s parenting skills, though. It doesn’t seem all that appropriate to use his precocious 8-year old in a criminal investigation, especially when it involves the lad taking a potshot at the Grand Vampire with a loaded pistol! Another interesting aspect of the character is how Lévesque periodically stares straight into the camera as if inviting the audience to laugh at some of the more absurd moments in the story. It’s not a frequent device by any means, but it happens often enough that it’s clearly not a mistake. Perhaps it was intended as ironic commentary. Still, it’s unusual to see the fourth wall broken in a dramatic presentation of this vintage.
The impressive stunts in the film are also noteworthy, particularly the work on high buildings. These are carried out in real-life locations and without the use of rope or a safety harness. More than once, someone will ascend several storeys from street level by clambering up the exterior skeleton of the building. It looks pretty dangerous, and something that would invite serious Health and Safety concerns if attempted on a film set today. There is also an extraordinary moment when Musidora escapes from the seventh storey of a gang hideout. She exits with a spinning descent via a rope that uncoils quickly from around her waist. It’s a move that would now probably be described as an aspect of ‘Aerial Dance’, although this example looks a fair bit more extreme. There is a cut at the end of the brief sequence when Musidora reaches the pavement, but this can easily be forgiven when you appreciate that the actress was a trained acrobat and did all her own stunts in the film.
Despite receiving mixed notices at the time, the serial was popular with audiences and arguably influenced later filmmakers like Fritz Lang, whose exploits with Dr Mabuse would seem to owe a nod to Feuillade’s work. Les Vampires employ little in technological devices in their reign of terror, but certain elements foreshadow the more complex techniques of characters such as Lang’s mastermind. They employ coded messages, secret writing, hypnotic control and assassination by gas canister and portable cannon. The use of multiple chief villains may have also inspired the idea of Mabuse taking on different identities through the force of his diabolical will.
These serials, including the later ‘Judex’ (1916), remain Feuillade’s best known and celebrated works. Film director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to his influence with the well-received ‘Irma Vep’ (1996), a feature centred on a modern filmmaker trying to mount a remake of ‘Les Vampires’ (1915) and starring actress Maggie Cheung in the title role. The original serial helped to make a star of Musidora, who appeared for Feuillade again in ‘Judex’ (1916) and, after retirement, went onto a second career writing about film. Napierkowska, who appears only briefly here, went on to play Queen Antinea in Jacques Feyder’s ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921), the first adaptation of Pierre Benoit’s novel about members of the French Foreign Legion discovering the lost kingdom of Atlantis.
More interesting from a historical perspective than as entertainment, this is nevertheless an enjoyable enterprise, even though its conventions have become somewhat too familiar over subsequent years.