Newly released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-1916), one of the greatest and most influential works of the early narrative cinema. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is made from a new HD transfer of a photochemical restoration that was overseen by Jacques Champreux, the director’s grandson, in 1996. This release is massively significant because, unlike most Kino releases of silent French movies, which usually port over the intact (or in some cases truncated) contents of pre-existing region-locked French discs, this is the true world premiere of Les Vampires, or any Feuillade for that matter, in 1080p. It is, as one might expect, a marvel to behold and should be considered a must-own for cinephiles. For those unfamiliar with it, Les Vampires was the result of Feuillade provocatively combining contemporary French pulp fiction with the Balzac-ian notion of secret societies, and then refracting it through his own unique and highly moral sensibility. The finished product is an insanely entertaining mystery serial that went on to exert an explicit influence on everyone from Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel to George Franju and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas in the present day (and this is to say nothing of the hundreds of directors who were influenced by it indirectly). In short, Les Vampires is the very essence of cinema. To paraphrase something Martin Scorsese said about Sam Fuller, if you don’t love it, then you just don’t love movies.
The most significant directors in the development of cinema prior to 1920 were D.W. Griffith in the United States and Louis Feuillade in France. Like Griffith, the brilliant Feuillade was incredibly prolific; he directed over 600 films, many of them multi-part serials, before his premature death at 52. Unlike Griffith, Feuillade may not have been a pioneer in terms of the specific techniques he employed in lighting, shooting or cutting his movies. (One can find instances of tracking, panning and tilt shots, as well as close-ups of actors’ faces, in Les Vampires but they are used far more sparingly than in Griffith. More often than not, Feuillade preferred to let his scenes unfold in long shots and long takes, a style that used to invite accusations of “theatricality” in some quarters; but, in light of certain European art film trends beginning in the 1960s, his use of depth staging now arguably looks stunning in its modernity.) Feuillade was unquestionably, however, an innovator in terms of his approach to narrative structure. His 1913 release Fantomas, for instance, is credited with being the first “cliffhanger” serial. While the serial format already existed before Feuillade came along, he is believed to be the first filmmaker to wed that particular form with the high concept of suspenseful, “open” endings in an attempt to lure viewers back to the theater week after week to see future serial installments.
Les Vampires, which originally ran in France from November of 1915 through June of 1916 in ten episodes of varying length, has always been Feuillade’s most popular work. It was first famously revived by Henri Langlois at the French Cinematheque in the mid-1940s. Jacques Rivette paid homage to it in his two best films, Out 1 (1971) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). And it again piqued international interest in the mid-1990s after Olivier Assayas used it as a major reference point in Irma Vep (where he drew intriguing parallels between Feuillade’s serial and contemporary Hong Kong action films). The perennial popularity of Les Vampires probably stems from its subject: not literal vampires as the title has led many to believe but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires.” The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace investigative newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). The bad guys, unsurprisingly, have long been the biggest appeal factor; the serial was much beloved by the Surrealists in the 1920s for its evocation of what seemed like an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society, as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood cinema. These are qualities that come through amazingly loud and clear on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, which proves that Les Vampires has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.
The plot of Les Vampires is virtually impossible to summarize because the story of each episode is crammed with plentiful twists and turns and the sprawling, overarching master narrative was not worked out in advance but improvised by the filmmakers as they went along instead. Andre Bazin, in a typically lovely and incisive piece of writing, noted that “(Feuillade) had no idea what would happen next and filmed step by step as the morning’s inspiration came. Both the author and the spectator were in the same situation, namely, that of the King and Scheherazade; the repeated intervals of darkness in the cinema paralleled the separating off of the Thousand and One Nights.” Suffice to say, the narrative ingredients of Les Vampires are quintessential Feuillade: murders, hypnotism, cryptograms, disguises, kidnaps, rescues and escapes. A character known as the “Grand Vampire” murders a wealthy doctor and then assumes his place, entertaining a guest by day but infiltrating his room by night through a secret passageway hidden behind a painting. Similarly, Irma Vep dons many disguises including that of a maid and an office clerk, and even dresses up in drag as a “Viscount” (Musidora was fittingly rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970s) in order to gain access to different levels of society so that the Vampires can execute their various dastardly schemes. The Vampires ultimately find themselves pitted against not only Guérande and Mazamette but also a rival gang headed by a Spaniard named Juan-José Moréno (who is himself a master of disguise). As the serial progresses, more and more characters are piled on, including wealthy American victims (two of whom, I’m happy to point out, hail from Chicago), as well as love interests for our journalist-heroes.
What is probably the most outrageous narrative contrivance, however, involves a character who (while in disguise, of course) regales a roomful of people by reading aloud from the memoirs of his grandfather, an adventurer who had spent time in Spain a hundred years ago. This allows Feuillade to insert a flashback scene, one that notoriously consisted of bullfight footage from an abandoned movie project that the director had shot in Spain not long before. Adding to all of this nuttiness is the fact that Les Vampires has probably the highest sex and violence quotient of any Feuillade serial; a typical episode contains at least two murders. The first episode is titled “The Severed Head” and includes the grisly discovery of the title body part inside of a hatbox. Another episode contains a scene where a man is killed by being stabbed in the neck with a hairpin before his body is tossed off of a moving train. As for the sex, Irma Vep’s frequent nighttime prowls see her donning a skin-tight black body stocking that, in addition to being fetish-worthy in itself, leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination concerning what’s underneath in certain lighting conditions. Unsurprisingly, Feuillade was severely criticized for romanticizing his criminal characters by both the wartime French government and the press. Consequently, many commentators feel that he intentionally toned down the explicit content and ratcheted up the moralism for Judex (1916) and other subsequent serials.
I think my personal favorite aspect of Les Vampires may be the performance of Marcel Levesque as Mazamette, which is saying a lot given my boundless enthusiasm for Musidora. Alone among the performers of the film’s ensemble cast, Levesque repeatedly and hilariously breaks the fourth wall by playing directly to the camera (and, by extension, the viewer). Levesque continually winks, nods and smiles in the direction of the camera, as if to say “get a load of this!,” all more than forty years before the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague were credited with introducing similar self-reflexive techniques with their direction of actors. What I find particularly endearing about Levesque’s mugging though is the way that it increases in frequency as the series unfolds. It’s probably the best example of how Feuillade tailored later episodes of his serial to what audiences had responded to positively in the earliest episodes. It’s also a good example of how the joyous nature of cinematic storytelling itself can be seen as Feuillade’s true subject. (Other examples would include scenes where the film’s characters go to the movies: once to a “Gaumont Palace,” a theater owned by the studio that produced Les Vampires, and once to see a documentary that the film’s heroes are stunned to find features their nemeses, the Vampires.) In the end, it is hard not to find infectious one character’s exclamation of “I am a movie fanatic!,” surely one of the most charming intertitles of the entire silent cinema.
What I’ve come to expect from, and love about, Kino Lorber is their resistance to manipulating the image quality of their silent movie releases. While many of their DVDs were problematic in the pre-HD era, the label has really come into its own on Blu-ray. Nothing they do is “over-restored,” a charge that can definitely be leveled against rival labels. Instead, Kino Lorber presents high-quality hi-def transfers of the best surviving silent film elements with flaws intact, just the way they would look if seen projected in 35mm. Fortunately, Les Vampires is in exceptionally good shape for a movie from 1915-1916. This is the third time I’ve seen it in full (following its releases on VHS and DVD from Image Entertainment) and I’ve been increasingly impressed by each upgrade in presentation. Two areas in which the Kino Blu-ray trumps the Image DVD in particular are in its more restrained use of color tinting (the entire film is seen in true black and white with only a sparing use of blue for night sequences) and in a vastly improved English subtitle translation. To be fully candid, the score on the Image DVD by the esteemed Robert Israel is probably superior to the serviceable job by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra included on the Kino, but this is not a big deal. All of the composers, musicians and engineers responsible for writing, compiling, performing and recording these scores have been tasked with the unenviable job of producing 7 hours worth of music for what is probably little to no pay, and so I feel grateful for even serviceable work. My fondest hope is that this Kino Lorber Blu-ray will sell like gangbusters and encourage the label to acquire and release my favorite Feuillade serial: 1919’s Tih-Minh, which I’ve only seen on a bootleg DVD-R taken from fuzzy French VHS tapes with fan-created English subtitles. Even under those less than optimum conditions though, Tih-Minh just might be the only film I’ve seen that I can say is more entertaining than Les Vapmires. Are you listening Kino?
The Blu-ray set of Les Vampires, 6 hours and fifty seven minutes (or the equivalent of at least three feature-length films) spread over two platters, can be purchased for a very reasonable price on amazon here.
Bazin, André. “In Defense of Mixed Cinema.” What Is Cinema?. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. pg. 32.