Despite the name, Louis Feuillade’s (written and directed) Les vampires is a crime saga and is more of a precursor to the Dr. Mabuse films from Lang or Zodiac from Fincher than Nosferatu from Murnau or Vampyr from Dreyer.
It is split into ten chapters. The chapter titles are brilliant: “The Severed Head”, “The Deadly Ring” and so on. It is fascinating from the outset. Édouard Mathé plays Philippe Guérande- a reporter for the Globe and he is investigating a ring of criminals/secret society called The Vampires.
Blue shading at the 16-minute mark as the characters turn off the light in the room. When they turn it back on the coloring goes back to black and white- a clever choice and an early example of blue day for night.
The said head in the title of chapter one is the missing inspector, and the magnificent narrative is off and running with great intrigue. Again, this is long form (a whopping 421 minutes) complex crime epic. However, Feuillade also weaves in some comedy. Early in the film a member of the Vampires shows Philippe a tuition bill and a picture of his three sons. Marcel Lévesque as Oscar Mazamette (who is Phillipe’s sidekick) is a comic character.
The characterizations are masterful- the “Grand inquisitor” who dresses in capes. Irma Vep may be the most memorable (actor Musidora) wearing an all-black body suit and her name itself is an anagram for “vampire” (Feuillade has animated letters changing on a title). They hang at The Howling Cat which is a cabaret. Many characters use aliases.
Chapter three is “The Red Cryptogram” and surrounds deciphering the code book. This story rolls.
There are smoke signals up a chimney, spies posing as maids, kidnapping, poisonous pens, secret lairs in underground wells—enough good ideas here for ten films- almost exhaustingly clever.
A shot off the mirror as Philippe sees Irma Vep posing as the maid.
Chapter four- “The Spectre”- four minutes in the camera swings back behind the wall to reveal Irma Vep stealing from the back of a safe (the safe is connecting the two adjoining rooms). There is action on both sides of the split.
At the 31-minute mark on the phone Feuillade splits the screen into thirds (the third section is the river between the two on the phone).
Chapter five is “The Corpse’s Escape” (how could you not keep watching with that title?). Cyanide pills. At the 30-minute mark a room full of people pass out at a party as figures wearing black robes open the doors and rob them all.
Chapter six “The Eyes that Mesmerize”- this is a page-turner of a pulp novel- plenty of momentum for these seven hours. The story can even be sustained without Phillipe- for plenty of time Feuillade focuses on Moreno and the vampires. There are five great characters in all: Phillipe, Irma Vep, Mazamette, Moreno and Le Grand Vampire.
Chapter seven turns into a bit of an espionage thriller with elaborate schemes, identify stealing. There is some formal ingenuity in how Mazamette often looks at the camera – here with the “something looks fishy”.
Chapter eight is “The Lord of Thunder”. This chapter includes firing canon shells from room windows and an evil genius chemist known as Venomous. Irma Vep is the constant through the many leaders of the Vampires. Chapter nine has poisons and wiretapping.
Chapter ten features hypnotism and the epic battle of good versus evil comes to its conclusion. There is a climatic, big wedding feast. There are plenty of extras in the siege of police scene to give this an epic scope.
Feuillade used real back Paris locations (very different the set work from Griffith in the same period).
A Must-See film – an important film to mention when talking about narrative potency.
@Drake- great review, really worth waiting, also happy to see that you agree on a MS grade and that The Red Codebook is probably the episode- the film, and especially The Red Codebook feel so much more modern than they actually are. I hope that somebody releases Fantomas one YouTube or somewhere that I can see it. Feuillade is really a narrative innovator/master.
I have been looking for some good films from before the 20s (besides griffith), so ill have to check this out. Thankyou drake
@Big chungus- Thumbs up. If you find anything else out there I’ve missed let me know as well please.