Thankful for World Cinema: Les Vampires
Louis Feuillade’s classic six hour plus serial Les Vampires had disappeared from DVD for a while, before it recently resurfaced. I was lucky to have purchased this title at Christmas when it was still readily available – it’s now back in full force.
Unfortunately, Feuillade’s films seem to have disappeared from public consciousness long ago and hence the demand for his titles is less, which is why a company like Criterion would be ideal to shed light upon his lost gems. However, in discussing Les Vampires I would like to illustrate his greatness. First, I do not tout the greatness of this film simply because it is aged enough to be a classic. I like neither old things because they’re old nor new things because they’re new.
The timelessness of this tale of Feuillade’s storytelling is in how captivating his plots tend to be. In both Les Vampires and Fantomas you will see some effects that for the time are very impressive but always keep in mind the era in which he worked. Narrative cinema was still in its infancy and audiences were not yet fluent in the language of film so things are overshot: shots are very wide and there are few close-ups. Very few menial movements are cut. For example, if someone enters a building today we would cut right to them arriving at the location in the building where they needed to be, without giving it a second thought. In the oughts and teens, however, audiences needed to see the protagonist in the lobby, getting on the elevator, and reaching his floor or they would be confused. Today such moments are only shot to build tension if needed.
Having said all that, Les Vampires has everything you could possibly want in a narrative sense. The aim is to always leaving you wanting more at the end of each episode and I always did. What was a little unusual in this one is that the cliffhanger wasn’t the end as it was in Fantomas but there was usually a little denouement just before the chapter closed.
However, the elements that kept me riveted and watching two and three installments at a time and the whole thing in less than two days were all there. The story concerns a journalist Philippe Guérande and his sidekick Oscar Mazamette. They are engaged in an epic battle against an organized crime unit of Vampires known simply as Les Vampires.
This story is full of twists, mistaken identity, seemingly unbeatable villains, chases, hiding places, surprises (seriously I was taken aback by the ingenuity of some), it will always leave you guessing; after a while as it seems the kingpin on Les Vampires is a mist that can never be caught.
The acting is superb and seldom, if ever, are you left wondering what a conversation is about for lack of a title. Few things if any are ever introduced solely by titles. The film tells its tale visually. Musidora, who plays Irma Vep, which is now an immortal anagram because she became a worldwide star after this serial, and you can easily see why.
This serial is the definition of classic storytelling, good versus evil battling it out with drama, suspense and excitement building throughout each episode. Each episode does have its own arc, and its own characters on occasion. You can watch them separately and it almost becomes a TV show you just need back-story and you’re good to go to the next episode, except this is so much better. On the version I watched I don’t believe the score is original, packaging usually isn’t good about removing those doubts, but the score does fit most of the time and it’s very good. If you have a chance check out this excellent film. If you haven’t seen Feuilllade’s work be sure to suggest it to Criterion. There is too little of this filmmaking legend’s work available to modern audiences.