INTO THE HANDS OF SATANUS: A Look at Les Vampires, Feuillade’s second masterpiece, by Erik Morse (Arthur, 2008)

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)

(See main article: REIGN IN BLOOD: The secret mark that French pulp villain Fantômas left on the Twentieth Century)

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.”

REIGN IN BLOOD: The secret mark that French pulp villain FANTOMAS left on the Twentieth Century, by Erik Morse (Arthur, 2008)


The secret mark that French pulp villain Fantômas left on the Twentieth Century

By Erik Morse

Art direction by Mark Frohman and Molly Frances

Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March, 2008)

Early in 1911 popular French publishing house Fayard released the first of 32 monthly serial novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas. Subtitled ‘A Shadow on the Guillotine,’ this ultra-violent pulp tale recounted the exploits of the eponymous master villain as he reined blood and magick upon the boulevards of Paris. Pursued by police inspector, Juve, and his journalist sidekick, Jerome Fandor, Fantômas slaughters members of French high-society indiscriminately before stealing away with their wealth and, often, their very identities—in his travels between the Dordogne and Paris, Fantômas dispatches the Marquise de Langrune, her steward Dollon, Lord Beltham, Princess Sonia Danidoff, the famed actor Valgrand and a passenger liner full of travelers en route to South America. When Fantômas, alias Etienne Rambert, alias Gurn, is apprehended by Juve at Lady Beltham’s villa, he is brought to trial at the Palais de Justice, found guilty of murder and condemned to the guillotine. However with the aid of his mistress, Fantômas steals away from his Santé prison cell and fills the vacancy with an unsuspecting look-a-like who is left to the blade. When Juve discovers the ruse, he proclaims, “Curses! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas is free! He had an innocent man executed in his place! Fantômas! I tell you, Fantômas is alive.” 

Within months of its February debut, the Fantômas serial became a pop smash with the reading public, profiting no doubt from the French public’s unquenchable thirst for violence, mayhem and pulp. At 65 centimes a copy, sales for each volume reached easily into the hundreds of thousands. American poet and Fantômas enthusiast John Ashbery contends that the real success of the serial was its transcendence of class, education and sex, from “Countesses and concierges: poets and proletarians; cubists, nascent Dadaists, soon-to-surrealists. Everyone who could read, and even those who could not, shivered at posters of a masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver, contemplating hideous misdeeds from which no citizen was safe.” Such was the popular reaction to the Fayard publication, Marcel Allain would later recall, with some hyperbole, “The adventures of Fantômas have surpassed those of the Bible.”

Nearly a hundred years later, we can see the frightening metastasis of the master of crime’s “brand”—from his beginnings amongst the Right Bank sophisticates who released him upon the world, to the marauding gangs plundering and murdering in his name, to the sacrificial cults who would congregate at the witching hour to reenact his sins. His trangressions—bold, fiendish and inexplicable—were the narratives of nightmares. Fantômas captured the imagination of his admirers and extended his influence through the artistic genealogies of Europe, leaving a catechism of excess, debauchery and violence to a brood as varied as Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Joyce, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, Jean Marais, Alain Resnais, René Magritte, Francois Truffaut; and the Mike Patton-Buzz Osbourne-Trevor Dunn-Dave Lombardo art-rock superband of the same name. In their major contributions to the century, the words and deeds of France’s supreme villain pullulate still more revolutionary achievements and still darker crimes.

Here, in this extended fait-diver, is the unedited, uncensored and untold history of the criminal of the century.

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Today's Autonomedia Jubilee Saint – YI SANG

Vanguard Korean surrealist poet, street rebel.


That porcelain cup resembles my skull. I am holding the cup tight with my hand when out of my arm another absurd arm sprouts like a grafted branch and the hand pending from that arm grabs the cup in a flash and hurls it over my shoulder to the floor. Since my arm is defending the cup to the death, the shattered pieces of course are my skull which resembles the porcelain cup. If my arm had budged before the branching arm crept like a snake back into it the white paper holding back the flood water would have torn. But just as before my arm defends the porcelain cup to the death.

Kisar Island, Indonesia: FEAST OF URU-WADU, the Primal Couple.

1321 — Italian vernacular poet Dante Alighieri dies, Ravenna.
1883 — Reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger born, Corning, New York.
1910 — Korean surrealist poet and social rebel Yi Sang born, Seoul, Korea.
1927 — Isadora Duncan strangled by scarf caught in sports car, Nice, France.
1930 — Over 100 Mexican and Filipino farm workers arrested
for union activities, Imperial Valley, California.
1966 — French surrealist André Breton dies, Paris, France.
1978 — Pope John Paul I dies suspiciously after only 34 days in office.