Into the Hands of Satanus
A look at Les Vampires, Feuillade’s second masterpiece
by Erik Morse
Art direction by Mark Frohman and Molly Frances
Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March, 2008)
With Fantômas, Louis Feuillade announced himself as Paris’ most celebrated director. But it was his 1916 ten-part serial Les Vampires—a silent ‘documentary’ of the notorious Vampire crime gang—that would cement his legend.
With episodes entitled “The Severed Head” and “The Poison Ring,” Les Vampires mimics many of the violent plot devices and suspenseful ornamentations of Fantômas. But rather than the solitary villain of Fantômas, Les Vampires features a murderous criminal syndicate led by Le Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and his black-clad femme fatale, Irma Vep (played by the famous cabaret singer Musidora). Hot on the Vampires’ heels are reporters Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathé) and Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) as well as rival crime boss Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), all determined to find the Vampires before they loot and kill again. Murder, robbery, capture and escape follow as the cat-and-mouse game leads Guerande deeper into the Vampires’ dastardly web and into the hands of the underworld demigod known as Satanus.
Much has been made of Feuillade’s improvisational style of direction and seemingly arbitrary use of settings in Montmartre and Fontainebleau. The truth is that Les Vampires was shot at the height of the World War I when many of Paris’ streets were abandoned. Surely Feuillade was aware that filming where he did would add to the strange tension and sense of dread that permeates these films; after all, he utilizes many more exterior tableaux than before. Whether purposeful or accidental, there is a feeling of miasma that infuses Les Vampires as it teeters from one violent sequence to the next, from desolate alleys to secret passageways, from hand-mirror reflections to living paintings.
So intent was Feuillade in fabricating a ‘natural’ exaggeration of the criminal world—where every corner and crevice promised dangerous secrets—that it would not be hyperbole to call Les Vampires an opera of hermeneutics; or, to borrow a term usually reserved for literature, an opus of magical realism. It makes sense that the serial is a favorite of Spanish Surrealist director Luis Bunuel and nouveau vague auteur Alain Resnais, who interpolated the malleable concept of reality with fantasy in much of their works. The French government temporarily banned Les Vampires for fear of it inciting copycat crimes and violent unrest throughout Paris. Rumors persisted that gangs of anarchists calling themselves the Vampires were looting and killing in the city’s poorer quarters. Much like the aftermath of Fantômas, the royalist director would suffer the regrettable success of these characters spilling from his own fantasies onto the very real and very violent corridors of Eastern Paris.
Feuillade would answer his moralist critics with the 1916 release of Judex, a serial that celebrated a master detective rather than criminal. But having found his most successful formula in the crime epic, he returned in 1918 with a Les Vampires sequel entitled Tih Minh, where the remaining Vampires have fled to Nice and are setting about avenging the deaths of their comrades. Though it was another financial success for Gaumont Studios and featured Feuillade’s brilliant visual efforts, Tih Minh could hardly recapture the anarchic magic of the original. By the mid-1920s, the cinema of Feuillade was all but forgotten by the general public, and most of his 700-plus films have since been lost.
Following its increased popularity with academic and countercultural cineastes in the late 1960s, Les Vampires eventually insinuated itself into pop culture legend, straddling the lines of haute art and midnight horror camp. Called “one of the supreme delights of film” by noted American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and named one of the Village Voice’s “100 Best Films of the Century,” Feuillade’s greatest achievement continues to hypnotize horror and crime enthusiasts with its magical realism. It has also inspired any number of remakes and tributes, including Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep and a series of porno films by smut director James Avalon. A collection of the ten serials was made available on VHS with English subtitles in the mid-1990s but it was only with the 2005 Image Pictures 2 DVD set, which includes new tintings, intertitles and score, that Les Vampires has received the treatment it deserves. (Les Vampires is also available to view in its entirety on Google Video—thank you, Internet!)
Les Vampires remains a bellwether of early French cinema, elevated beyond mere spectacle to art—a concept Surrealist/provocateur André Breton recognized when he called Feuillade’s second and last masterpiece, “the reality of this century. Beyond fashion. Beyond taste.”