Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Director: Louis Feuillade
France 1915
399 min
Starring: Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé and Fernand Herrmann, among others.

The film, or serial if you like, is divided into ten chapters. Watch them on The Internet Archive:

  1. The Severed Head (La tête coupée, 32 min)
  2. The Killer Ring (La bague qui tue, 14 min)
  3. The Red Cypher (Le cryptogramme rouge, 40 min)
  4. The Ghost (Le spectre, 30 min)
  5. The Escaping Dead Man (L'évassion du mort, 36 min)
  6. The Hypnotic Gaze (Les yeux qui fascinent, 54 min)
  7. Satanas (Satanas, 43 min)
  8. The Thunder Lord (Le maître de la foundre, 50 min)
  9. The Poisoner (L'homme des poisons, 49 min)
  10. Bloody Wedding (Les Noces Sanglantes, 58 min)

Although the film title may lead your thought elsewhere, this film series does not take up the issue of blood sucking creatures of the night. "The Vampires" is the name of a criminal gang that makes the lives miserable for the inhabitants of France's capital city. The Vampires are a criminal organization with a Great Vampire as the leader (when the Great Vampire evaporates, another one simply takes his place), and a leading lady called Irma Vep (Musidora) who is impeccably faithful to the Great Vampire, whoever he is for the moment.

Our leading man is a handsome newspaper reporter by the name of Phillipe Guérande (Mathé) who investigates the crimes of The Vampires. For comic relief we have his slightly bald companion Oscar Mazamette (Lévesque), who seems to have a hard time deciding which side he's on: in the film's forst scene Guérande accuses Mazamette of stealing the reports on The Vampires investigation, which he has. He is in other words a quite interesting character in this series. He also has the tendency to look straight into the camera, for a reason I haven't yet been able to figure out. Is it simply for comical effect, or is Mazamette a reflection of the audience's thoughts and reactions? Strangely enough, his son (who appears in the 8th chapter) also looks into the camera.

The Vampires is in a way a masterpiece. It's nearly 100 years old, and still attracts the modern viewer. A lot of the film techniques are timeless. Even thought there hardly is any camera movement, the shots are so carefully planned that it doesn't feel staged. Take for example the scene where The Vampires turn a ballroom into a gas chamber, in order to steal the guests' jewelry - there is action going on in the background and the foreground simultaneously. This at a time where even dramatic close-ups (often used here) were a relatively new invention.

Musidora became a huge success with her impersonation of Irma Vep in The Vampires, and she's concidered to be the first film vamp. Shortly after he success, Theda Bara (born Theodosia Goodnman) took America with storm with a similar image. Makes me wonder: "Irma Vep" is an anagram for "Vampire", and Theda Bara is an anagram for "Arab Death"... Could there be any connection? I believe there is.
Some interesting trivia about Musidora is that she was a trained acrobat, and performed all her stunts herself in The Vampires!

What feels very modern about this series is the action: Criminals sneaking around on roof tops, murders, identity stealing, hidden doors and carefully planned robberies. It's simply fascinating to watch. What's really enjoyable is the skintight, black "Vampire costumes" the criminals use during action - that must have been really daring in 1915! Not a single curve of the body is concealed.

Being a 1920's freak, I couldn't help but noticing the female actors in The Vampires. The French women already start to look like full-blown flappers! You can really tell that Paris was the metropolitan of fashion. There's a lot of dancing, women showing off their legs and knees, lots of makeup and a 1920's hairstyle, though obviously not bobbed yet.

The Vampires left me yearning for more, and to my delight I noticed that Louis Feuillade has made more serials (for example Fantômas and Judex), even though they are not supposed to be as good as The Vampires. Anyway, I think I have to investigate Feuillade some more after this wonderful experience.


Keith said...

Hey there. Great post. Hope you've enjoyed the weekend. Cheers!

Lolita said...

Hello, and thank you! Everything's good over here, hope you're alright too! :)

Elizabeth said...

Wonderful post! I'm glad you liked it!

Lolita said...

I absolutely loved it! Thanks for pushing me to see it ;)

Bill Stankus said...

Very nice ... very interesting how you compared and contrasted to modern films. The anagram angle is cool too.
Now I have to add even more to me ever expanding list of "films to see".
Great posting!

Sarah said...

I cannot wait to watch this now!

Lolita said...

Bill Stankus:
Thank you so much! Isn't it funny how that too-see-list never ends, or even stop expanding? :)

Do it!

Christopher said...

this is one of those examples of experiancing something new and revolutionary,even tho its 1915..Criminal Empires were really big in the witnessed in the Lon Chaney films and short stories of Dashiel Hammett...Some of these old images are so clear and supernatural,that you can almost place yourself inside the times you are witnessing..ala Buster Keaton! NOT! ;o)

Amanda said...

Fabulous post!

Anonymous said...

Nice to see this film in your page.I like it too much like Nosferatu, like the first Dracoula, like the Freaks
Have yoy ever seen Eyes without a face (1959)? A dream.
It have the same poetic vision of The Vampires which is a film that make the history of cinema with few others, its also from my favorite theme.
I read a lot about these themes, in Greece we have many years before all the others, the myth of the undead.
I like yor post too much.
You Know I dont have this change so eazy, cos the Greek internet its trash
Have a nice day.

Matthew Coniam said...

Now, while this is all still fresh in your mind, you MUST watch the Olivier Assayas film Irma Vep (1996). Trust me, you'll love it.

Lolita said...

I guess you mean The Penalty (1920) with Lon Chaney! I wrote about it on my 100th post on this blog, wonderful film.


Don Corleone:
All films you mentioned are favorites of mine, so magical! I haven't yet seen Eyes Without a Face, but I have it and planned on watching it really soon! Thanks for reminding me :)
Greek internet is trash? Weird, you would think that things like the Internet would be the same in all countries, except for those with terrorizing governments who censor theirs!

Matthew Coniam:
Oh, really? I have just heard the title, and imagined it to be crap ;) I'll look it up!

Christopher said...

..and The Shock and Ace of Hearts

Lolita said...

I haven't seen The Shock yet!

James said...

I've seen all three Feuillade serials you mention, and I thought Judex was actually the best.

I don't think there's much influence from "Irma Vep" on Theda Bara's name. Vampires apparently never showed in the US until the 1960s or something.

Lorenzo Carrera said...

Im shocked with those designs!