Les Vampires Review
If for nothing else, Louis Feuillade’s contribution as an early pioneer of silent cinema would be notable for its sheer volume, the director making some 800 films for the Gaumont studio in the twenty years before his untimely death in 1925. Certainly much of that work was production-line fodder from "the factory", as the Gaumont studio was considered by its employees at that time, but the influence of Feuillade’s work – most notably in the development of the crime serial – should not be underestimated. If much of his films are somewhat crude, clearly improvised and lacking the flair and innovation of some of the more notable pioneers of early cinema, Feuillade’s popular entertainments were at least instrumental in showing the capabilities of a medium which up to then had been regarded as something of a novelty.
Although he worked in a wide range of genres – comedies, melodramas, exotic adventures, historical and biblical epics – it is his crime serials that are Louis Feuillade’s greatest legacy to the development of early cinema, most notably the five films in the classic Fantômas series made between 1913 and 1914. Fantômas wasn’t the first crime escapade to be brought to the screen in France – Victorin Jasset has already developed the adventures of American detective Nick Carter into a serial between 1908 and 1910, and Feuillade himself had created French detective Jean Dervieux, but Fantômas was different. Adopted from the 32 pulp novels of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, published once a month since 1911, Fantômas was daring in how it was related not from the perspective of an intrepid journalist or daring detective, but through siding with a ruthless criminal and master of disguise as he eludes the forces of justice, putting a chilling perspective on their nefarious criminal activities.
The serial was interrupted by the war in which Feuillade himself was called up to the front, but he returned to his employment at Gaumont after he suffered from a stroke while in military service. With the mood of the country at war perhaps not being best suited to the glorification of the adventures of a master criminal, Feuillade’s new series Les Vampires (1915) nominally takes the more conventional approach of being viewed from the perspective of an investigative reporter for “Le Mondial”, Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé). Feuillade’s masterstroke here however is in his creation of a dark, seductive and highly dangerous female villain in Irma Vep (an anagram of ‘Vampire’), played by Musidora, a role that would define the actress as the original screen ‘vamp’.
Despite the poor state of the nation at war and a consequent lack of resources at the film studios, Feuillade managed to build on the fabulous mood and nature of Fantômas and take the crime serial to a new level in Les Vampires, forging the series on a sense of mysterious forces and anarchy at work at the margins of society, with black-clad masked villains plotting cold-blooded crimes and murders from dark, subterranean caverns and in desolate outlying locations. With a vast network of criminals to carry out a series of crimes under the control of Vénénos, Satanas, the Grand Vampire and Irma Vep, Les Vampires is consequently much more dynamic and rapid moving than Fantômas, each episode packed with suspense, action and adventure. Over the ten films in the series, the villains in their many guises insinuate themselves into positions of power and influence, kidnap businessmen, assassinate leading members of the authorities and carry out daring robberies, making their escape through secret passages, off bridges onto moving trains and across the rooftops of Paris.
The investigative aspect to the series also contributes to the heightened tone, as journalist Philippe Guérande reports on the sensational exploits of the Vampires in his newspaper, following their trail of death and robbery, unravelling clues from coded cryptograms. There is also comic relief from his sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque). Initially caught up with the criminals in order to pay large debts and bills run up by his family, Mazamette repents and proves to be a invaluable ally to Guérande in his investigation into the activities of the Vampires, helping him escape from their clutches on more than one occasion, while also providing some welcome light relief, with many winks and nods to the camera. The series consequently maintains a fabulous balance of thrills, spills and entertainment consistently over all ten episodes, constantly upping the ante by introducing new and increasingly deadly adversaries.
1. The Severed Head/La Tête Coupée (30:48)
Philippe Guérande, dynamic and fearless young reporter for “Le Mondial” investigates the discovery of the headless corpse of Inspector Durtal of the Sûreté. He believes it is the work of the Vampires, a deadly criminal gang whose activities Guérande is investigating. His inquiries take him to Sologne where he stays with a friend of the family, Doctor Nox, who is also acting as host for a rich American guest who is interested in buying the château. That night however, the Vampires are on the prowl.
2. The Killer Ring/La Bague Qui Tue (13:05)
Learning that Marfa Koutiloff the famous Russian dancer and rumoured fiancée of “Mondial” journalist Philippe Guérande is to star in a performance of the ballet ‘Les Vampires’, the Count of Noirmonier (bearing a striking resemblance to Dr. Nox) presents her with a deadly ring, whose slightest scratch can be fatal. Still on the trail of the criminal gang, Guérande is caught by the Vampires and faces execution after interrogation by the Grand Inquisitor and the Black Committee.
3. The Red Cypher/Le Cryptogramme Rouge (37:51)
Aware that he is under the surveillance of the Vampires while he attempts to decode the messages in an important notebook that has fallen into his possession, Guérande places an announcement in the paper that he is ill and unable to continue his investigation. Meanwhile Irma Vep, seen performing in a seedy music hall, manages to gain employment as a maid in the Guérande household. With his mother abducted and out of the picture, the Vampires make their move to kill the reporter and recover the notebook.
4. The Ghost/Le Spectre (29:28)
A businessman looking for an apartment with a safe, makes the mistake of going to Mr Trap, an estate agent who is none other than the Grand Vampire himself in one of his many guises. Trap sets the man up with an elegant apartment with a safe that he has access to from an adjoining room. The businessman, Juan José Moreno, turns out however to be a rival criminal, one who gets in the way of a bank robbery the Vampires have been carefully planning for a long time.
5. The Escaping Dead Man/L’Evasion Du Mort (34:26)
The Grand Vampire and Irma Vep make their escape over the rooftops of Paris, leaving Moreno to take the fall for the killing of a bank manager. Moreno however also evades the police, faking suicide by a cyanide pill. Meanwhile Philippe Guérande again escapes abduction from the Vampires, only to be apprehended by Moreno. Fortunately, Mazamette has been keeping a close eye on the suspicious activities of his neighbours. The intrepid investigators are too late however to prevent the Vampires succeeding in their latest crime, gassing and robbing the wealthy guests at an exclusive party.
6. The Hypnotic Gaze/Les Yeux Qui Fascinent (52:25)
Posing as a Count and a Viscount, the Grand Vampire and Irma Vep plan to rob a couple who have fled from America after embezzling $200,000 – but Guérande and Mazamette beat them to their goal. Revealing himself to be a master of hypnotism, Juan José Moreno sets himself up against the terrible Vampires and manages to abduct and place the deadly Irma Vep under his power. One of the great episodes in the series, Les Yeux Qui Fascinent is notably referenced by Olivier Assayas in Irma Vep.
7. Satanas/Satanas (41:17)
A new level of the hierarchy of the Vampires is revealed – Satanas. The fearsome head of the Vampires warns Moreno from any further meddling in their affairs with a demonstration of his deadly powers. Moreno, with Irma Vep now by his side as his lover and accomplice, capitulates and agrees to work together with Satanas on a scheme to defraud money from an American millionaire. Unable to resist the charms of Irma Vep and Fleur-de-Lys, the success of the operation looks assured, but Mazamette and Guérande are not far behind.
8. The Thunder Lord/Le Maitre De La Foudre (48:47)
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Irma Vep faces deportation to a penitentiary in Algeria. Disguised as a missionary priest, Satanas warns the imprisoned Irma Vep of his plan to destroy the transportation ship, and does so in another awesome display of power – but whether Irma Vep has been able to escape is unknown. While the authorities are unaware of the existence of Satanas, Philippe Guérande has his suspicions when he discovers an important clue in the Vampires’ red notebook of cryptograms. Mazamette investigates and saves Guérande from a deadly encounter with Satanas, but the belief that the leadership of the Vampires has been broken is short-lived.
9. The Poison Man/L’Homme Des Poisons (47:40)
A new figure rises to prominence in the ranks of the Vampires –Venomos, a criminal chemist genius. His first piece of business is to dispose of their main adversary, reporter Philippe Guérande. Managing to obtain an apartment close to his fiancée Jane Brémontier, the Vampires spy on the activities being planned to celebrate their engagement. And where better for a master of poison to strike than an engagement dinner? Despite the precautions taken by the young reporter however, nowhere is beyond the reach of persistent and pervasive presence of the Vampires.
10. The Marriage of Blood/Les Noces Sanglantes (55:05)
Now married, Philippe and Jane know they can never know a moments peace and happiness as long as the Vampires remain active - and indeed, the Guérande household is under constant surveillance by the criminal gang. The couple have hired Augustine, the grieving widow of the Vampire’s latest victim, as a chambermaid. Taking advantage of her delicate state, the criminals set up a séance to fool the woman into giving them access to the Guérande’s apartment. Mazamette has taken a shine to the new maid however, and has noticed her strange behaviour, but is unable to prevent the all-out assault that takes place, one that leads to a spectacular confrontation ending in a bloody massacre.
Les Vampires is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The series is presented on three dual-layer discs, is in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
Presented in a glorious progressive transfer, Les Vampires has been restored to a remarkable level of clarity and stability. There are a few jumps and missing frames and evidently, considering the age of the films, some damage remains on occasional frames in the form of flecks, scratches, black spots and water damage. This is however far less common than you would imagine and there are no missing reels as there were with some of the Fantômas films. On progressive displays the image looks like it is interlaced, but this could just be down to the frame rate of the original reels. There is some jagged, broken lines, noticeable mainly on written documents. Each of the films shows a striking amount of clarity, detail and tone, with impressive black levels. Occasionally the contrast can appear a little strong in some scenes, but detail is still evident. For films that are over 90 years old however, the quality is really quite remarkable.
Éric le Guen has composed new scores for each of the films – piano-based with some string and woodwind arrangements and even some accordion pieces - which act as perfect accompaniments, supplying a variety of themes and tones, supporting the action well without over-imposing a presence of its own. The quality of the audio tracks, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is of course without any noticeable problems.
Optional English subtitles are included for the French intertitles (recreated), and for any text, letters and documents used in the films (also recreated).
The extra features contain a number of Feuillade short films. The short films are almost all entirely silent with no musical accompaniment. As well as being fabulously entertaining pieces in their own right, they help give a wider view of Feuillade’s work.
The Roman Orgy/L’Orgie Romaine (1911) (8:14)
Feuillade’s short film, The Roman Orgy on the downfall of the debauched (read “effeminate”) Roman Emperor Heliogabalus in 218 is perhaps lacking in historical accuracy with its female senate for ladies fashions and rampaging lions escaped from the circus, but it looks fabulous. This short has a music score and is colour tinted.
Awakening of the Artist/C’est Pour Les Orphelins (1916) (2:11)
A short curiosity, this features many of the main actors from Les Vampires in a kind of behind-the-scenes skit.
The Bous-Bous-Mie/La Bous-Bous-Mie (1907) (7:20)
Mme Ducordon discovers an infectious new dance at the music hall called the Bous-Bous-Mie and just can’t stop shakin’ her booty. Her dancing has a disruptive effect on the other tenants in her apartment block.
The Legend of the Spinner/La Légende de la Fileuse (1908) (7:58)
Renée Carl stars in this mythological story as the mortal Arachne, who falls foul of Athena when a Muse judges her weaving to be superior to the goddess, banishing her to Hades and the realm of Poseidon. The special effects are not the most sophisticated, but have a certain innocent charm, as do the Pre-Raphaelite tableaux.
A Very Fine Lady/Un Dame Vraiment Bien (1908) (4:05)
Renée Carl stars again in this lively slapstick silent short as a beautiful lady who causes distractions and accidents among the male population as she walks though the streets of Paris.
Louis Feuillade Biography
There is a very brief text piece on the director’s background and beginnings in filmmaking.
Comparison with French Gaumont Edition
In contrast to the three-disc Artificial Eye edition, the French Gaumont set is presented on four dual-layer discs. The discs are housed in individual cardboard sleeves and contained within a sturdy black slipcased box. A beautifully illustrated booklet contains synopses for all the films and the short films included as extra features, an appreciation of Les Vampires and Irma Vep by Louis Aragon, as well as biographical information on composers Eric Le Guen and Château Flight. The limited edition boxset also includes the pocket book, Louis Feuillade : Maître du cinéma populaire by Patrice Gauthier and Francis Lacassin, superficially covering the director’s whole career, but full of marvellous photographs and illustrations. All the content in the boxset is in French only. There are no English subtitles on the films.
The Artificial Eye set uses the same restored version of Les Vampires but, squeezing the content of four discs onto three, there are evidently differences in presentation.
Disc One - episodes 1-5
Disc Two - episodes 6-8
Disc Three - episodes 9-10 + all five short films
Disc One - episodes 1-4 + Un Dame Vraiment Bien (4:00)
Disc Two - episodes 5-6 + La Légende de la Fileuse (7:54) + Le Temps des Restuarations (6:37)
Disc Three - episodes 7-8 + La Bous-Bous-Mie (7:15) + C’est Pour Les Orphelins (2:06)
Disc Four - episodes 9-10 + L’Orgie Romaine (8:07) + Louis Feuillade au Travail (32:15)
One might expect that Artificial Eye have just made better use of the dual-layer disc capacity, but this is not the case. Disc One on the Gaumont set, with four episodes and a short 4 minute film takes up 7.4GB, while the five episodes of the Artificial Eye Disc 1 take up only 6.75GB. One other point to note with this disc however is that episode 3 on the Gaumont set has an alternative ambient score by the French DJ and production team Château Flight (which is interesting but won’t be to everyone’s taste), whereas the Artificial Eye edition does not. The episodes on the Artificial Eye release run about 20 seconds longer than the Gaumont discs, but this is only because each episode on the UK edition is preceded by the Gaumont logo.
It would appear therefore that there may some additional compression of the episodes on the Artificial Eye set, but in practice there is little evidence of this having any kind of an impact on the presentation. The image quality is practically identical to the French edition, though the Gaumont set might have a slight edge. A comparison is shown below, the Artificial Eye first, the Gaumont second.
While the Artificial Eye set has all the Feuillade short films, they appear to have dropped the short documentaries on Feuillade and on the restoration of Les Vampires (The feature Louis Feuillade at Work is advertised on the temporary artwork, but has since obviously been a victim of the compressing the set down from four discs to three). The documentary features on the Gaumont set shed some light on the restoration work done on the series, on the personality and working methods of Feuillade, and on the Gaumont studios.
Le Temps des Restaurations (6:37) shows how the intertitles and insert shots were recreated for the series. Since there are no original titles in existence for the series – the reels themselves were rescued from oblivion by Henri Langlois of the Cinémateque Française – they had to be invented, using original notebooks and novelisations where available. Close-ups of newspapers, calling cards etc. were also filmed specially as inserts.
Through interviews with many of the people who worked with the director in the early days of the Gaumont studio, the 1965 documentary Louis Feuillade au Travail (Louis Feuillade at Work) tries to get some idea of the appearance, character and temperament of Feuillade, as well as speaking about his approach and method to making films. There are many fascinating anecdotes which reveal that Feuillade had complete control of the content of his films – within restrictions of propriety – and was able to make them as he liked. Actors were not treated well, and since the stories were heavily improvised, Feuillade could kill off anyone who he got into a disagreement with, as Jean Aymé (Le Grande Vampire) found out in Episode 6 of Les Vampires. Neither of these Gaumont documentary features have English subtitles.
The fact that Feuillade’s 1915 classic series Les Vampires is still in existence is reason enough to celebrate – that it has been restored to such a fine condition is simply a marvel. The series however needs no justifications as a piece of cinema history or excuses for the sometimes primitive storytelling and cinematic techniques of early silent cinema – it’s simply timelessly brilliant filmmaking that still has the power to amaze and entertain. Artificial Eye’s UK edition uses the same restored masters as the excellent French Gaumont set, but has reduced the four disc set down to three discs. In practice, this makes very little difference, if any, to the quality of the transfers, and it retains the five marvellous Feuillade short films, but we lose a couple of interesting documentary features on the director, his work and the restoration of the film series. On the plus side for UK viewers however, the Artificial Eye set has English subtitles where the French does not.