Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).
A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.
A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.
When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).
Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.
Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.
It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.
Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.