Studio:Kino Year: 1915-1916 Cast: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann, Louis Leubas, Frederik Moriss, Suzanne Delvé, Émile Keppens, René Poyen, Germaine Rouer
Director: Louis Feuillade Release Date: August 14, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable) Run Time: 07h:00m:02s Genre(s): silent, serial
"It is several months since we have heard about the Vampires. But can't we see their crafty hands behind those recent sinister and mysterious headlines?" - Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé)
Louis Feuillade's ten-part crime thriller serial from 1915/1916 remains a hellzapoppin' funhouse ride nearly 100 years later, but one character in particular steals the 7-hour show.
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B+
French silent era director Louis Feuillade was nothing if not prolific, with a staggering catalog of over 630 films made between between 1906 and 1924. His legacy rests on three cliffhanger-type serials - Fantomas, Les Vampires and Judex. Kino Classics has issued this two-disc Blu-Ray set of Feuillade's ten-part crime thriller Les Vampires (1915-1916), and spread over a sprawling seven hours is a cumulative experience that is still inventive and exciting, showcasing a filmmaker who was clearly far ahead of his contemporaries.
Set in Paris, Les Vampires isn't about the fanged undead, but instead centers on a titular group of ruthless international criminals with a fondness for black hoods and elaborate disguises. We know right out of the box that The Vampires are bad news because in episode one a character remarks that "I know nothing of The Vampires, except that the entire world fears them!" Intrepid reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) sets out to take down this "sinister band", and with the help of his comic sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) the rest of the serial is a series of cliffhangers, escapes, romance and a bit of sexual tension, with each episode crammed with things like a severed head, a poison pen, a chemical gas attack, a nightclub bombing, an exploding ship, as well as the somewhat mundane array of stabbings, shootings and even tossing a dead body from a moving train.
That's a whole lot of action, and Feuillade is not shy about painting The Vampires as undeniably evil and nasty. Over the long runtime Feuillade reshuffles the narrative deck a few times to keep things fresh, presenting a triumvirate of Vampire leaders (the so-called Grand Vampire), each more diabolical than the last. Guérande and Mazamette do the predictable one-step-forward-two-steps-back typical of serials in their attempts to bring down The Vampires, and even as the machinations get more convoluted the filmmaking rarely suffers. Feuillade stages some exciting chases and it seems the story is never more than a few minutes away from some Vampire attack on someone. Naturally there are some storytelling dead spots over the seven hours (and the wrap up in final episode seems rushed), so I would advise not watching too many of these back-to-back in one sitting. It's best enjoyed as it was originally intended, as individual chapters of a larger story presented over time.
While Feuillade dresses up the ten-part serial with bursts of daring stuntwork and endless cliffhangers the component that truly makes Les Vampires so watchable is the presence of deadly Vampire femme fatale Irma Vep, played by the wide-eyed Musidora. Irma Vep - the letters spell "vampire" - may not be introduced until episode three where we see her dancing at The Howling Cat nightclub, but she is the lynchpin of Feuillade's saga, and whenever she is onscreen it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. Musidora is a sultry dynamo - her eyes encircled by thick black eyeliner - conveying pure menace and mayhem with her movements and posturing. I'm telling you: nobody furrows a brow or moves her eyes left to right quite like Musidora does here. I am now a fan.
Episode 1: The Severed Head (33m:43s)
Episode 2: The Deadly Ring (14m:58s)
Episode 3: The Red Cryptogram (40m:49s)
Episode 4: The Spectre (32m:35s)
Episode 5: The Corpse's Escape (38m:55s)
Episode 6: The Eyes That Mesmerize (58m:50s)
Episode 7: Satanas (43m:37s)
Episode 8: The Lord Of Thunder (51m:53s)
Episode 9: The Poison Man (49m:43s)
Episode 10: The Bloody Wedding (54m:59s)
The 1080p transfers were authorized by the Gaumont Studios - the first and oldest continuously operating film company in the world - mastered in HD from the 35mm restoration produced in 1996 by the Cinémathèque Française and Feuillade's grandson Jacques Champreux. That's a rather heady street cred for this, and what is more impressive is that the restoration dramatically improves image detail/clothing textures without any evidence of excessive cleaning of the prints that could force unnatural compression or artifacting; the nearly 100-year-old prints retain nicks, scratches, lines, etc. I wouldn't have expected anything less for a set of films this old, and while the age-related imperfections are certainly there the sense of overall clarity that the restoration brings to this is marvelous.
Audio is presented in an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 stereo track, with a new score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. There is never a sense that the modern score is too "big" or "large" for the source material, and the sound quality is robust without coming off overly beefy. A few non-musical elements are employed as well - things such as doorbells buzzing, telephones ringing, ticking time bombs. As a sidenote, Kino has replaced the original French intertitles with new English translations.
It's unfortunate that for this 2-disc set Kino didn't include any background info on Louis Feuillade - it would have been a nice history lesson - with the only supplement here being a trailer (01m:15s) for their 2010 DVD release of the director's Fantomas five film serial.