Director: Louis Feuillade
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:
- The Severed Head (La tête coupée, 32 min)
- The Killer Ring (La bague qui tue, 14 min)
- The Red Cypher (Le cryptogramme rouge, 40 min)
- The Ghost (Le spectre, 30 min)
- The Escaping Dead Man (L'évassion du mort, 36 min)
- The Hypnotic Gaze (Les yeux qui fascinent, 54 min)
- Satanas (Satanas, 43 min)
- The Thunder Lord (Le maître de la foundre, 50 min)
- The Poisoner (L'homme des poisons, 49 min)
- 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.