Louis Feuillade was not simply one of the giants of cinema in the formative years of the 1910s. His distinctive approach to filmmaking followed a different path than that trailblazed by D.W. Griffith. Feuillade emphasized tableaux scenes played out in single takes over the editing grammar that Griffith was exploring, yet packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. American audiences have only been able to appreciate his legacy fairly recently, beginning with a video release of his second great serial, Les Vampires (1915-1916), in 1999. Since then Fantomas (1913) and Judex (1916) have been released on DVD, but for many silent movie fans and lovers of the cinema le fantastique, Les Vampires was their introduction to the glories of Feuillade and still their favorite work from the silent movie master. Kino now releases a new edition of Les Vampires on DVD and Blu-ray, making it the first Feuillade production released stateside on the high definition format.
The Vampires of the title are bloodsuckers only in the metaphorical sense; this Masonic master criminal organization, as vast as anything Fritz Lang would concoct on the 1920s, robs, kidnaps, and murders their way through Parisian society while our ostensible hero, the intrepid reporter Philip Gueraude (Édouard Mathé), chases leads to expose the conspiracy. He outlives a succession of Vampire Grand Masters but the grand dame of all femmes fatales, the slinky, sinister Irma Vep (French icon Musidora in a body stocking and black mask), eludes him. The name Irma Vep, of course, is an anagram for Vampire, fitting for the organization’s muse. (The character later became the inspiration for director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 love letter to filmmaking, Irma Vep.)
It’s easy to see why the surrealists embraced Feuillade’s mad serialized tale. Les Vampires is a strange and wonderful masterpiece of elegant beauty and cinematic surprises. Spiced with sudden revelations and unexpected humor, the pulp plots of his episodic adventure are less mystery than chaotic thriller where nothing is as it seems and anything goes. When Philip discover and opens the hidden compartment above his bed, his pride turns to shock when he finds a severed head inside. And that’s just the beginning of this heady mix of secret passages, poison pen letters (with real poison pens!), disappearing bodies, and disguises galore. Major characters die suddenly and capriciously, victims are lassoed from windows and yanked into waiting sacks, society patrons find themselves suddenly walled in their mansion banquet hall and gassed by thieves so brazen they rob the place during a party!