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.
• 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.