No actual vampirism is involved in this serial, it’s about a criminal gang called the Vampires and their attempts to… well, I’m not really sure what. Kill people and break things, I guess. We also follow the efforts of a heroic reporter to bring these ne’er-do-wells to justice or something.
Before I begin, a hearty thanks to the late David Shepard for helping me research this review. It is dedicated to his memory.
Most classic movie fans are familiar with the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s-1950s and even the most casual film buff knows about The Perils of Pauline, often cited as the quintessential silent serial (but it’s not actually very good). However, America was never the only game in town when it came to serialized entertainment. The French are no slouches in the serial department and the most famous French director of these entertainments is Louis Feuillade.
Readers of the site may recall that I am a huge fan of Judex, Feuillade’s 1916 caped crusader series. It’s one of my top five silent films of all time, in fact. After watching Judex, I decided to watch Les Vampires, Feuillade’s far more famous serial of 1915. It shares a significant number of cast members from Judex and boasts an anarchic plot with zaniness to spare.
I guess this is a bit of a spoiler but my reaction to Les Vampires thirteen years ago was a resounding “meh.” I liked parts of it but I was simply unimpressed. So now we’re going to see if over a decade of silent movie experience has changed my mind about the serial.
First, a quick word about the story: I won’t be covering every plot twist and turn because a) the serial is over 400 minutes long and b) Feuillade and co. kind of made everything up as they went along. There’s no real central story except for the idea of a criminal gang called the Vampires and a reporter’s attempts to bring them to justice. The two sides are locked in a battle of wits and it’s all fun and games until they haul out the poison. Both sides engage in multiple kidnappings, plus a spot of murder and the body count is pretty high.
Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) is a reporter with one goal in life: to bring down a criminal gang known as the Vampires, a band of powerful criminals who rob, murder and manipulate with impunity whilst wearing black silk long johns. They are led by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and his most trusted operative, Irma Vep (Musidora). Philippe, meanwhile, is assisted by Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), a silly little fellow with certain useful skills and a connection to the Vampires.
The first episode is not very promising with its slow pace and interminable shots of the Grand Vampire walking across rooftops but things quickly pick up with the introduction of Irma. Musidora (BFF of author Collette) is a natural on the screen and makes an immediate impression as the vicious Miss Vep. She hisses and spits through an introductory musical number. (Are you sure this is a silent film?) Feuillade clearly thought he had something special as well, he takes the time to show a poster advertising Irma’s stage show rearranging itself to spell VAMPIRE.
Musidora follows through on this promise with a reign of terror; burglary, kidnappings and other nefarious deeds. And, of course, she does it while stylishly clad in Vampire gear, as well as assorted posh frocks, maid uniforms and even in the garb of a young viscount.
Everyone talks about Musidora and that’s great but can we take a minute to discuss Philippe’s awesome mother? Feuillade did seem to love his powerful mothers and it’s a refreshing change from modern Hollywood, believe you me. Delphine Renot is marvelous as a woman who dotes on her son but also is perfectly capable of stabbing her kidnapper with a poisoned pen nub in order to escape. Go, mom, go!
Alas, Edouard Mathé is not a terribly compelling hero (he was demoted to tweedy brother of the titular hero in Judex) and as we spend most of our screen time with him, it’s a bit of a problem. The fact that his romantic interests are reduced to living plot devices does not help matters. Marcel Lévesque, on the other hand, is a droll figure as comedy sidekick Mazamette and the character becomes even more amusing with the introduction of child actor Bout-de-Zan as his young son. (You may recall that Bout-de-Zan played the Licorice Kid in Judex.)
Another major misstep in the serial is the introduction of Moreno (Fernand Herrmann). It starts promisingly enough with Moreno and his criminal gang starting a turf war with the Vampires but soon becomes unbalanced when the screenwriters decide to make this new villain a master hypnotist. It simply makes him too powerful and removes considerable suspense from the resulting picture, at least in my opinion. This strange new power was likely due to some personnel problems that we will discuss in the next paragraph.
To say that Les Vampires is chaotic is an understatement. In fact, its anarchic plotting and anything-goes madness are major contributors to its overall appeal. Some of the chaos was due to Feuillade’s drill sergeant manner on the set, which seems like an oxymoron but isn’t. For example, the rotating leader of the Vampires developed because the actor playing the original Grande Vampire, Jean Aymé, was habitually late and Feuillade responded by firing him. (Don’t worry, Aymé’s career lasted another three-and-a-half decades. No word as to whether he became more punctual.) SPOILER: The Grand Vampire neatly murdered by a hypnotized Irma Vep, Feuillade was free to open a revolving door and let in Satanas and Venomous. (One wonders why the Vampires did not simply promote Irma. Oh well.)
Other bits of chaos were due to the war and film shortages. At certain points, Feuillade spliced in scenes from an entirely different movie to complete an episode. “Let me read you a story about my ancestors, complete with flashbacks!” Um, okay.
I’m going to be honest here: I found Les Vampires to be a bit of a letdown after the more structured madness of Judex thirteen years ago and I feel the same way now. While I have rewatched Judex numerous times over the years, I have only dusted off Les Vampires once and it was for this review. While anarchy and madness and murder are all very fun in a serial, there’s only so much of it you can take. Les Vampires has a slow start, which further increases the difficulty for first-time viewers. I know some people just adore this serial and that for them, the anarchic tone and wild plotting are a feature, not a bug, which is why I’m not really going for a deep takedown of the series. That would be like watching a Garbo/Gilbert romance and complaining about overblown love scenes or going to a Star Wars movie and complaining about all that Jedi stuff.
My advice? If you don’t like Judex, try Les Vampires. If you don’t like Les Vampires, try Judex. If neither suits you, try Fantômas, Feuillade’s other famous serial. If you like all three, good for you! There seems to be a Feuillade series for everyone so do give them a try. I’m sure you will find something to delight you.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Les Vampires is available on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber and features a score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
I was corresponding with David Shepard in preparation for this review before he passed away. He produced the original English home video release of Les Vampires and while it is now out of print, he asked me especially to mention Robert Israel’s fine orchestral score. It really is wonderful and you can still get a used copy of the Image release that includes it.