A year after the outbreak of the First World War, director Louis Feuillade, who had been serving as artistic director of the French studio Gaumont since 1907, launched the 10-part serial Les Vampires. In keeping with Feuillade’s previous serial, the five-part Fantômas, Les Vampires was embraced at the time of its release by the mass audience for the sheer diversion of its rapid-fire plot twists and high-stakes criminal escapades, and by intellectuals for its seamless blending of real locations and dream-like story elements. However, for decades following the advent of sound, the serial existed only in a fractured form, missing all of its intertitles. That sorry state of affairs remained until 1996, when the Cinémathèque Française undertook a 35mm restoration of the serial under the supervision of Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux. Returning to the materials produced from the 1996 restoration (which reinserted the original intertitles), Kino Classics has released the complete Les Vampires on both high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD.
The 10 episodes of Les Vampires — La tête coupée (The Severed Head), La bague qui tue (The Deadly Ring), Le cryptogramme rouge (The Red Cryptogram), Le spectre (The Spectre), L’évasion du mort (The Corpse’s Escape), Les yeux qui fascinent (The Eyes That Mesmerize), Satanas, Le maître de la foudre (The Lord of Thunder), L’homme des poisons (The Poison Man) and Les noces sanglantes (The Bloody Wedding) — range in length from the breezy 14 minutes of the second installment to the feverish 58 minutes of the sixth. The overarching plot finds newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) in hot pursuit of the criminal organization known as the Vampires; at his side in the hunt is Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), a reformed member of the criminal gang.
Most famous among the cast of Les Vampires, though, was the actress Musidora, who played Irma Vep, muse to the Vampires’ various Grand Masters. (That the character’s name is an anagram is made explicit immediately upon her introduction in The Red Cryptogram when — as though taking a cue from Gaumont’s animation pioneer, director Émile Cohl — Feuillade animates the letters on a poster advertising her dance-hall routine, making them realign to spell “vampire.”) Playing the enigmatic Vep, Musidora projects a steely aloofness as she slinks through hotel corridors in a tight-fitting black catsuit and steals the dark hearts of the criminals all around her.
As had been evident in Fantômas, Feuillade was again fascinated with the motif of disguises and assumed identities, and in the dreamscape of the director’s serials, it is, perhaps, no surprise that identities once assumed can become the real McCoy. For example, after Mazamette disguises himself as an undertaker in order to, believe it or not, climb down Guérande’s chimney without drawing attention to himself in The Red Cryptogram, intertitles in subsequent episodes refer to him as a “former undertaker.” (Additionally, Marcel Leubas, before taking on the role of Vampire Grand Master Satanas, appeared in The Spectre as a character known as “Father Silence” — perhaps the greatest name imaginable for a villain in a silent movie.)
Such changes underscore the fact Feuillade primarily made the story up as he was shooting, which, in turn, explains the episodes’ varying lengths and abrupt twists. The director’s imagination seems to have been an endless wellspring of fantastical plot devices, such as a ring that can kill with one scratch (The Deadly Ring); a pen conveniently filled with poison ink (The Spectre); a time bomb inside a top hat (The Lord of Thunder) and a noose fitted to the end of a pole and capable of pulling unsuspecting victims from their second-story windows (The Corpse’s Escape and The Bloody Wedding). Perhaps the greatest twist of all comes at the end of Satanas, when Vep and the criminal Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) step into an apartment building’s entryway only to fall through the floor and land in a giant sack held in place by a group of waiting police officers. The story of Les Vampires is beholden to nothing if not a dream-like logic, but the consistency of the surprises makes each impossibly convoluted scheme, twist and coincidence feel perfectly, giddily natural.
Feuillade primarily tells these incredible tales with wide, static frames in which the action is deftly staged in depth, incorporating foreground, mid-ground and background elements. Editing and camera movement tend to be motivated more by practical framing concerns than by any attempt at eliciting an emotional reaction although tracking shots that either lead or follow characters either inside or on top of moving cars are certainly stunning to behold. (Unfortunately, no cinematographer is credited on the films, but whoever was behind the lens was certainly up to the task.) Most notable, editing-wise, is a heavy use of insert shots that propel the plot forward via calling cards, newspaper clippings, photographs, hand-written letters, telegrams, maps and more.
Perhaps most celebrated is Feuillade’s use of location photography, which places the city upon which the Vampires prey front and center. Although location work had been a hallmark of Gaumont’s output dating back to the early films of the studio’s first artistic director, Alice Guy, Feuillade literally took location photography to new heights, placing his camera on rooftops to showcase members of the Vampires making daring getaways in The Severed Head, The Red Cryptogram and The Poison Man. Still, the director’s dreamscape pervades even these practical locations; for example, in The Eyes That Mesmerize, Moréno and his maid run across an open field in one shot only to appear on a balcony in the next. (And from that balcony, they lower a rope ladder that was, of course, inside of Moréno’s handbag.)
The 1996 restoration Kino used for this release remains an impressive one. All 10 episodes of Les Vampires appear in remarkably good condition given their age, with very few frames missing; dirt, dust, scratches and density shifts do appear throughout, but never to the point of distraction. Kino’s release also preserves the occasional use of blue tinting to denote night exteriors and dark interiors. Considering the high-contrast, low-dynamic-range film stock the serial was shot on, a tremendous amount of detail is evident onscreen although, perhaps, not enough to call for a Blu-ray release; to this viewer’s eye, the DVD appeared on par with the Blu-ray edition.
What would be welcome is more information regarding the specific source materials Kino scanned from the Cinémathèque’s restoration, and whether Kino then performed any additional digital cleanup. Furthermore, one is left to wonder just what musical elements the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra — a five-piece chamber ensemble that specializes in period-authentic silent-film accompaniment — utilized in its score compilation. (Despite not knowing, the music, which comprises in toto the 2.0 stereo soundtrack, proves a fitting companion to the images.)
Where Kino’s release is truly wanting is in its total absence of any supplemental material (save for a promotional trailer for Kino’s Fantômas DVD set). With the vocal following Feuillade’s work generally and Les Vampires specifically has garnered over the years, one wonders why neither a commentary track nor any essays are included to shed more light on the serial and its enduring significance. (Particularly deserving of explication is the abrupt stylistic shift in The Poison Man and The Bloody Wedding, which incorporate significantly more editing, coverage and camera movement than Feuillade had previously evinced.)
Despite these qualifications, Kino’s release remains a cause for celebration. The home audience here in the United States can once more echo Mazamette’s proclamation at the finale of The Spectre: “In the end, we shall have the Vampires!”