Louis Feuillade’s silent French serial series Les Vampires (1915-1916) is primarily remembered today for inspiring filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Christopher Nolan, and Olivier Assayas (who paid homage to the series with his film Irma Vep, which is also the name of one of the serial’s lead characters). It is a seven hour convoluted crime epic that, due to the nature of the serial, was fragmented into shorter pieces – ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour – and played on a bill rounded out by other films. Basically, in terms of format, it was The Wire or The Sopranos of the 1910s.
Unfortunately, despite its influence on the aforementioned filmmakers, Les Vampires now plays rather flat. The series, which was restored by Cinémathèque Française and newly released onto a two-disc Blu-Ray set by Kino Classics, feels as dated today as it did in 1915. Granted, the film has a crackerjack pulp plot about a journalist (Édouard Mathé) investigating the many crimes committed by an organized ring led by the “Grand Vampire” and Irma Vep (Musidora). Throughout its epic run time, there are beheadings, murders, robberies, chases, kidnappings, and numerous attempts to poison people (some successful, some not). Content-wise, there is action a plenty inside of this thriller. Unfortunately, what makes Les Vampires sink is Feuillade’s formal rendering of the content.
Essentially, Feuillade stages his action in largely static tableaus with incredibly long shot durations. Now, the objection may be made that “Well, it’s a silent film! That’s how it was done then!” Not so fast, hot shot. Les Vampires wasn’t made when the Lumière brothers were filming their workers leaving a factory. After twenty years of filmmaking (the beloved brothers were filming in 1896, not 1916), the craft had advanced and few filmmakers work shows that evolution better than that of D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s infamous contribution to film history, The Birth of a Nation (1915), was released the same year that Les Vampires hit the screens. While I can pick apart Birth of a Nation for a barrage of other reasons (we all know what they are by this point), one issue I can hardly fault it for is Griffith’s staging of action. His compositions are dynamic and his editing is relatively fast, heightening the action. I’d guess that average shot length for Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is around six seconds. Feuillade, on the other hand, rarely cracks the fifteen second mark (many of his shots last for more than thirty seconds!).
Now, I may encounter some objections here based on the fact that D.W. Griffith was basically making the first blockbuster film while Feuillade was making a television show. There were no doubt differences in budget and perhaps that dictated and limited some of the options the filmmaker had. Well, let’s compare a French apple to an American apple: Les Vampires and the American serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), release one year earlier. In Pauline, the camera moves, the editing hovers between the six to twenty second mark. Filmed one year earlier than Feuillade’s film, it still thrills. Perhaps once every two or three installments, Les Vampires gave me the same sensation that Pauline does. Les Vampires plays like a film from 1905 made in 1915; it was thought as being old fashioned back when it originally played in theaters. (Perhaps the greatest gift Les Vampires gives us today is an understanding of how different film style was across the globe at this time, before the norms established by Hollywood became internationally established… That’s something to ponder. Oh, by the way, here’s a formalist’s dream: a database of film shot lengths.)
What magnifies the serial’s formal problems is Feuillade’s emphasis on narrative. As I mentioned earlier, this series has an incredibly convoluted plot. Unfortunately, convoluted plots and silent cinema aren’t a perfect match for one another. That’s not a slight on silent cinema; I’m just acknowledging that it worked for certain stories better than others (was there ever a silent film musical?). Often times, we’ll watch characters silently banter for minutes on end to be given one tiny nugget of narrative material (“The Doctor leaves his jewels in a safe!” or “The ring has poison on it!”). The occasional interjection of an intertitle and the tableau frame gives us little to grab onto. Moreover, and this is Kino’s fault – not Feuillade’s – the subtitles on the Blu-Ray are often problematic. While the intertitles are easy to read, Kino has decided to subtitle other pieces of information (like a letter or a newspaper clipping) in white subtitles. When these subtitles, without a black stroked line around the letters, are superimposed over a white newspaper or letter, we can hardly make them out.
While I’m on the subject of Kino’s Blu-Ray treatment, let me end by talking a bit about the presentation. This set is completely devoid of extras. The restoration – I would assume – is the best that can be done (it isn’t perfect; there are a lot of sprocket holes and damage still visible) and the soundtrack by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra are the main features here. I would have appreciated a little bit of information on the film’s historical context because I want to understand what Hitchcock, Lang, and Nolan saw in this series in the first place. If you’re a fan of those filmmakers and find yourself drawn to Les Vampires, be forewarned. In this case, you don’t need to eat Campbell’s Soup to understand what Andy Warhol was painting.