Thoughts About Les Vampires (1915)

A few weeks ago while discussing insanely long movies, I mentioned Les Vampires (1915). Over the last week and a half, I’ve successfully managed to wrap it up. I’ll leave the deeper analysis and reviews to film critics and historians. But I did have a handful of observations to share about the ten-episode silent film serial that gobbled up nearly seven hours of my time:

•  First and foremost, this is NOT a film about vampires, at least not in the traditional sense. I’d been sufficiently prepped beforehand that it isn’t a film about vampires, and it wasn’t an issue for me in the least. I can see a lot of people going into it having that expectation and becoming greatly disappointed after an hour or so. It’s about a crime syndicate in early 20th century Paris, known by the name Les Vampires/The Vampires. The film details a reporter and his friend attempting to destroy this syndicate.

• It’s nearly seven hours, but the film is broken down into 10 bite-sized portions that make it much more palatable. I’d recommend watching as much of it as you can in as few sittings as possible, but it’s no obligation nor does it detract from the enjoyment of the film if you do otherwise.

 

How to get ahead in life: join organized crime.

• Something I love about silent cinema is that the lower resolution and high amount of grain on the film gives the images a creepier feel. Les Vampires excels in this arena; it features severed heads, cloaked assassins, and rising corpses.

 

• One of the syndicate’s top officials is Irma Vep (get it? it’s an anagram for vampire). Vep is the woman in the photo at the top of this entry. And it didn’t take long for me to realize that she’s one of film history’s best villainesses. Vep is played by Musidora, who pairs beauty and seduction with evil to create a cinematic icon, a femme fatale for the ages.

• Lest you think it’s all creepy imagery and crime, there’s a little bit of comic relief provided by the pair of protagonists, Guérande and Mazamette,  who are trying to destroy the syndicate. It’s something of a keystone cops angle, albeit very, very, very toned down.

• As near as I can tell, it’s notable from a technical standpoint for the way it uses color filters to shift mood or denote night, day, fire and explosions, etc… Lots of other silent films employed the same technique. But since it was made in 1915, Les Vampires was quite possibly the first. There are also a handful of subtle techniques used- a keyhole view and a camera attached to a moving car jumped out at me. Additionally, there was a chase scene atop a train that I thought was quite impressive for 1915.

• In the bigger picture, I sometimes have an issue with films like this. The silent films available to us now, eight decades after the demise of the medium, are only the top-shelf items. You can (somewhat) readily find Metropolis (1927); Nosferatu (1922); Battleship Potemkin (1925); the full catalogues of both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; and so on and so forth. There is a lot of great silent cinema that you can access. But what you can’t find are the crappy silent films of the era, the silent equivalents of Gigli or Armageddon, whatever they were. So I find myself grading on a curve, comparing Les Vampires to, say, The General or Napoléon. This, of course, is completely unfair. Only a teeny, tiny percentage of films can live up to that standard.

I guess this is all a long, apologetic way of saying that I liked Les Vampires a lot, but it fell short for me compared to other titans of silent cinema. Regardless, if you’re a true fan of film and film history, it’s a must-see.

Fun fact: Apparently, on the dawn of the film’s release in Paris in November 1915, the studio unleashed a viral marketing campaign by putting posters up all over the city. The text in French means “Who? What? When? Where?”, and the question mark is intended as a noose.

12 Comments

Filed under Foreign Film, French Film, Movies, Silent Movies

12 responses to “Thoughts About Les Vampires (1915)

  1. Don

    I would loose my mind sitting in silence for 7 hours.

  2. Vladdy

    I’ve been watching a lot of early silents (pre-1920s) lately and, I must say, they are nearly all pretty terrible, aside from the Griffiths (which have their own issues). The stories tend to be pretty incoherent, especially when there are pieces missing, as is often the case. Anyway, if you can even mention Les Vampires in the same paragraph with The General, et al, it must be pretty amazing.

    Also, check out Assayas’s “Irma Vep.” Very cool and entertaining movie.

    • I guess when you get right down to it, the only pre-1920 silents I’ve seen (off the top of my head) are The Phantom Carriage, Birth of a Nation, and a bunch of Keaton and Arbuckle.

  3. Kristal

    A lot of the Griffith shorts from the 1910’s are actually pretty terrible themselves. I watched one that is available in the public domain called ‘The House With Closed Shutters’ and it was laughable. Lots of overacting which you can pretty much expect with most silents but this one was even over-the-top by silent standards! Luckily they are only about 10 minutes a piece.

    Les Vampires was an endurance test for sure. In retrospect I probably should have watched it like an hour at a time rather than marathon the entire series.

    • That’s great info about the Griffith shorts.

      I suppose my question would be- if I’m going to tackle silent films from that 1910 to 1919 era, what would I check out? I’m not even sure where I’d begin. I suppose I really should give “Birth of a Nation” another shot- when I saw it, I was 21 and it was for a Civil Rights course. So the scope of what I learned was obviously focused away from the quality of the film, and more pointed at the message.

      • Kristal

        I haven’t watched much from the 1910s as I am much more a 1920s girl but some of the Demille movies I have seen were good. Give ‘Male and Female’ or ‘Why Change Your Wife?’ a shot. Griffith’s ‘True Heart Susie’ is probably worth a watch too as is Lubitsch’s ‘The Doll’, ‘Oyster Princess’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Man.

        • Wow, that’s a great list. Thanks. I just added a bunch of them to my Netflix queue. “Male and Female” especially sounds great from the description.

  4. Dan

    Surely Friedkin used the image seen above from Les Vampires as inspiration for that single frame hallucination Father Karras keeps seeing after his mother dies in The Exorcist. It’s a terrifying image, not easily forgotten.

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  6. john b

    just noticed this the other day, in Inglourious Basterds the poster for les vampires is on the wall when Colonel Landa kills the actress at the movie theatre

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