In the misty depths of cinema history, when the very idea of a "multi-reel", "feature-length" movie was still in its infancy, we come across a bizarre chimera: neither fish nor fowl, neither feature nor short. I refer to the serial, a form born and popularised in the early 1910s, and still alive and kicking in America during World War II, though now lost and mostly forgotten in the English-language world. Such a queer beast is the serial, at least in its Hollywood guise: a predetermined number of episodes, each running a predetermined length, each ending with an easily-resolved cliffhanger, plopped in front of the main feature week after week, produced on the smallest of budgets. But let us not be too harsh on the serial; it survives into the modern age in the form of arc-based television series such as Lost and The Wire, reviving an aesthetically dead medium and featuring in some of the finest narrative art to be created in the new century.
Of course, we don't have to catapult to the present to find examples of the serial form being used to create great cinema. In the Teens, the French director Louis Feuillade was crafting serials that, since their rediscovery in the '40s by Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque, have come to be regarded as among the finest entertainments of the silent era: chief among them the five Fantômas films, and the ten-episode, almost seven-hour Les Vampires from 1915 and 1916, our current subject.
Nowadays, when we talk about an important films from the years 1900-1920, we tend to mean those that significantly revolutionised cinematic language, which was something you could do a whole lot of back in the first couple decades of the art form. But Les Vampires is hardly a revolutionary project: frankly, it's a bit hidebound and simple. Feuillade openly spoke against the "art film" impulse, which apparently referred to those movies like the contemporaneous The Birth of a Nation, which addressed serious themes in experimental ways. None of that fancy "cross-cutting" for Louis Feuillade, no sir! Les Vampires is a film of static shots, all the action happening from one perspective like a filmed stage play; sometimes he moves the camera, and it's pretty damn exciting, and sometimes (more often later on in the serial), he'll cut to close-up shots to make sure we notice an important detail. Twice, he actually uses that damned cross-cutting, moving between two scenes occurring at the same time. But in the main, this is exactly the kind of movie that impatient youngsters like to dismiss as boring or old-fashioned. Yet here we are, 93 years later, still talking about it - because even if it's not very adventurous formally, the one thing that Les Vampires has that so many movies lack, then and now, is a cracking good story.
The Vampires, you will perhaps be sad to learn, are not a group of the blood-drinking undead. They are a gang of supercriminals operating in Paris, their leadership hidden in shadow and their actions untraceable. Leading the fight against their reign of terror, we meet Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), ace reporter for La Revue Mondiale, and his silly sidekick Oscar-Claude Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who bucks tradition by being one of the very few comic relief figures in the whole history of film to fail at being completely and hideously annoying. Whether he is genuinely comic, now that I cannot quite argue with a straight face. But he is appealing, and this is not something that most of his successors will be able to claim.
As fast-paced entertainments go, there's only one real problem with Les Vampires, and unfortunately it's a doozy: Philippe Guérande is a bit of a pill, through no fault of Mathé's. It's always a hazard with movies pitting a noble hero against a band of outré baddies, that the baddies are far more entertaining. Guérande is supremely competent, blandly moral, and no damn fun at all. Which seems like it's going to be a huge problem at the outside: Episode 1, "The Severed Head", spends most of its 30 minutes following the reporter as he looks for clues in the death of the chief inspector of the Vampire case, found in the country as a decapitated body. There's some gaudy melodrama to be savored as he stumbles across trap doors, hidden passages, and shifty locals, but for about the first 25 minutes, all I could keep thinking was how much I was not looking forward to spending seven hours with this dude. Then, the crazy shit starts to go down: a mysterious package for the reporter turns out to contain the inspector's head, the kindly Dr. Nox who was renting a room to Guérande turns out to be the villainous Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in disguise, and the last shot of the episode follows a black-clad figure creeping out of a window, sliding down a pipe and slinking off into the night. "Ah," I think to myself, "the movie just started."
And lo and behold, from that moment on Les Vampires will swing between two poles: either we're watching Guérande and Mazamette, and it's vaguely interesting and diverting, or we're watching the incredibly evil plotting of the Vampires, and it's amazingly super-awesome. And the super-awesomest part of all is just about to come onboard: after a second episode so brief as to barely deserve mention - having never seen a French serial, I'm not sure if it was characteristic of them to enjoy such variation in the running time of individual episodes (from 13 to 55 minutes), but all evidence I've found seems to indicate that it was a peculiarity of Feuillade's, and one that serves him well - we come to the third episode, "The Red Codebook", and barely has that episode begun than we meet the intoxicating supervillainess Irma Vep (Musidora, born Jeanne Roques).
Oh, Irma Vep! Perhaps the first iconic villain and fully-rendered independent woman in the cinema (and a shame it is that those two milestones should be the same figure), it's virtually impossible not to love her: whether she's vamping onstage, or creeping around the good guys' homes in a variety of disguises, she is always the center of attention, sexy and dangerous before it was common to see sexy and dangerous rolled up in one. Small wonder that 81 years after her debut, Olivier Assayas would title his metaphorical study of the history of French cinema Irma Vep, centering the plot of the film around the attempt of an aging director to turn Maggie Cheung into the most seductive faux-Musidora possible. Irma Vep - do note that her name is an anagram of "vampire", something the film makes clear in a nifty animated effect that is almost as iconic as the character herself - is the Platonic ideal of a femme fatale: though she will destroy any man who takes her, no man would dream of resisting her.
She's the most prominent Vampire, but that's not to say that there aren't plenty more to delight in watching: for example, the dread Grander Grand Vampire Satanas (Louis Leubas), who has a cannon that comes out of his study wall with the flip of a switch, that can blow up buildings and boats. Then there's the Vampires' arch-rival Juan José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), a hypnotist of such craft and skill that even Irma Vep herself falls for his trickery. Like many a TV show to follow, Les Vampires peaks in the middle, from episodes 4-8 (and especially 5 and 6), which uncoincidentally happen to be the same episodes where Moréno appears. He's the proper antagonist for the marvelously baroque Vampires, not the wimpy Guérande, and in the final two episodes, where the Vampires are just trying to kill the reporter, all of their gigantic schemes to steal fortunes and kill innocents forgotten, the air begins sagging out of the series at an alarming rate.
Seven hours is, I suppose, a long time to support as slender an idea as "gang of awesome criminals fight a newspaperman", and even before the diminished ending, Les Vampires is clearly running low on invention: more than half of the episodes end because Mazamette just so happens to be in the exact right place to stop the crime and tell Guérande everything. But when it's clicking, and it clicks much more often than not, Les Vampires is a proper masterpiece, with plenty of giddy ideas and lovely compositions - hey, just because Feuillade didn't want to move the camera, doesn't mean he didn't think about how to put imagery together - and so what if it's not Terribly Important? It's Terribly Fun, which is all the director ever wanted, and in those wonderful moments where Musidora's kohl-marked face stares right out of the screen and into your soul, it's Terribly Perfect, too.