This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.
Long before there were "comic book movies," and indeed, some time before comic books really became what they are today, French filmmaker Louis Feuillade was making silent film serials that predicted the best of true comic book storytelling. His films Fantomas and Judex [the 1916 version, not to be confused with this] told stories of masked figures getting involved in impossible adventures; silver-screen epics broken into episodes, released over a period of time, with each new chapter escalating the peril. These lengthy soap operas were pulp fiction for the cinema set.
In addition to those films, Feuillade also made Les Vampires, a ten-part movie released over the course of 1915 and 1916. Now considered one of the crowning achievements of early moviemaking, Les Vampires is a salacious crime picture, full of twists and turns and a deliciously freeform sense of storytelling. It can be rickety at times--there is definitely a downside to the "anything can happen" ethos--but it's also addictive, each segment ending on a note that makes us want to know what will happen next. Feuillade is anything if not a master of cliffhangers.
The hero of Les Vampires is Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), a reporter for Paris' leading newspaper. Guérande has been working a long-term assignment, trying to expose the inner workings of an underground criminal organization that goes by the name "Les Vampires." These are ordinary hoodlums who use masks and secret identities to pull all manner of crimes. They are not the supernatural bloodsuckers the name implies--sorry, no Draculas here--but they do employ extraordinary techniques and deadly gadgets to get their work done. Feuillade also flirts with Stoker-like imagery. For instance, one segment involves a ballet dancer to whom Guérande is engaged. She is dancing in a production that dramatizes the sordid lives of the Vampires, and thus puts her in their cross-hairs. Her costume, based on one of the actual villains of the piece, looks every bit like a bat-winged succubus, and her murder is carried out in a particularly macabre fashion. Feuillade was giving the horror fans a knowing wink. These evildoers have taken on this name for a reason.
Of all the varied elements of Les Vampires, the facet that has found a permanent place in pop culture is Irma Vep. The name is an anagram for "vampire," and she is both a cabaret performer and the top lady crook in the Vampires organization. Played by one-named actress Musidora, Irma Vep came to embody the image of the vamp, a particular kind of femme fatale--though vamping also means to play up certain seductive traits, to exaggerate one's own sense of desirability, much as Musidora does in the film. Her black body suit, the one mimicked by the ballerina, would inspire many larger-than-life ladies that followed, fictional and otherwise, and the character would be paid homage in other movies, on album covers, and, of course, comic books. (Most notable, Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep with Maggie Cheung [review].)
Despite the revered critical status that Les Vampires has acquired over the last century, it's necessary to note that it is an imperfect effort. The lengthiness of the film, which on one hand makes it such a fascinating cinematic endeavor, can also be its downfall. Individual sequences feel drawn out, with the acting in particular overemphasizing things that the audience is likely to grasp much quicker than Feuillade apparently anticipated. The performance style in Les Vampires often veers very close to the cliché that comes to mind when many think of silent film. Édouard Mathé in particular is exceedingly demonstrative and seems to be mugging for the camera, displaying the kind of exaggerated pantomime that his better contemporaries learned to avoid.
That said, there is still so much to like about Les Vampires, it's easy to ignore its faults and just go with it. The ridiculous scrapes that Guérande finds himself in pile on one after the other. Each new chapter brings more colorful characters, as well as regular visits from the comic relief, the silly but charmed Mazamette (Marvel Lévesque), with his seemingly endless string of children and the equally endless string of jobs to pay for them. He is like the Wimpy to Guérande's Popeye. And, of course, the true appeal of Les Vampires is the cliffhanger stylings, the way Feuillade teases out the suspense, leading the viewer through the pretzel-like plot with both confidence and, despite the aforementioned laboriousness, an invigorating spontaneity. There is always a sense of discovery at work in this tale, and the fun is in sticking around to see how it all pans out. Will the rival gang ever get the upper hand and take out the Vampires? Will Guérande ever expose the full story? And what of Irma Vep...? Hit the next button, go to the next chapter, it's the only way to get your answers!