French director Louis Feuillade became infamous in his time for producing exciting detective serials such as Judex and Fantomas. Today, Feulliade is celebrated for his avant-garde ten part film serial (or series, in this case it is undefined) titled Les Vampires. The story concerns a Journalist and his sidekick battling through Paris against the shady criminal organisation called The Vampires. The task of bringing down the syndicate is fraught with mistrust, murder and mayhem.
Despite the title suggesting the supernatural, no such vampire bat or blood sucking demon is present throughout. However, Les Vampires is infused with an ominous dread and surrealism. The budgetary constraints and the director’s stylistic choice of ‘realism’ forms an odd world. Long takes allow an undercurrent of dread to surge and the flimsy set construction conjures the atmosphere that all is a surface disguising a disturbing reality. It is either an atmospheric accident or an intentional affirmation of the theme – Do not trust what you see. From opening to conclusion, strange and evil sights skulk on screen, from a plethora of secret passage ways and trap doors, to toxic gas subduing the elite, even the dead seemingly rise. The Vampires themselves are the strangest sight. Totally clad in black, they appear less an Bonnot gang inspired organisation and more a deadly cult of the underworld. Even their schemes to obtain riches and defeat the prying journalist are bizarre and terrifying. In this universe, to mess with the Vampires is to expect discovering decapitated heads in secret compartments and being yanked out of a window via a noose as a means of kidnap.
However strange these moments, each second is squeezed dry for every ounce of excitement possible. Feuillade is the archetypal Hitchcock with an eye for thrilling espionage and intrigue. In several scenes, Feuillade allows us to enter the minds of detective and criminal alike with clever visual camerawork. Words rearrange on screen as secret messages are decoded or the web of intrigue unravels a little further as colour tinted flashbacks reveal secrets. However, this labyrinth spirals without an exit, each step forward is an endless progress of skullduggery towards another criminal, another scheme, another dead end and another dead body.
It is within the villains that Feuillade creates the most fun. The crime fighting duo is simply a device to explore the ever more absorbing Grand Vampire or Santanas or evil scientists whom bring the seedy underworld to vivid life. However, Feuillade saves the centre of the silver screen for a real, villainous sex symbol – Irma Vep. Musidora plays the iconic femme fatale with the grace of a ballerina (as she was trained) and the ferocious eyes of a wild animal. The role of Irma Vep deservedly launched Musidora to super stardom and remains captivating a century later.
The seven hour run time of Les Vampires is undoubtedly a feat of endurance which requires a very comfortable seat and plenty of caffeine, but the story evolves so quickly and to such extremes it is hard to stop watching. Kidnappings, torture and a violent climax make for an unforgettable experience. Whether or not a silent crime thriller seven hours long will be widely appealing, one aspect of the series is worth the endurance. Feuillade does away with the nicer-than-nice good guys busting chops with A-List villains prominent in usual summer blockbusters. The inhabitants of The Vampire’s world are amoral and devious in their pursuits. Both the police and the Vampires disguise themselves, kidnap one another and gun down foes in cold blood. The climax alone is enough to bewilder viewers as to whom is the villainous group with Paris in a vice. It is a refreshing point of view.
Feuillade’s exploration into the dark underworld of the city of lights is brooding, bloody and utterly fascinating. Enter the labyrinth…
Ballerina, Marfa, begins a performance of a stunning ballet titled The Vampires to publicise against the evil anarchist group. Dressed as a giant bat, Marfa twirls with grace and passion. Suddenly, Marfa becomes less energetic, less graceful and eventually collapses. The audience rush to the stage to help, all except one onlooker – The Grand Vampire in disguise. With a simple poisoned ring, the assassin has dispatched his target, and calmly walks away. Feuillade effortlessly juxtaposes the passionate heat of the ballet with the terrifying shiver up your spine. An enduring sequence of a unique saga.