Les Vampires (1915)
Considering that the most famous images of "Les Vampires" consist of vampire-like costumes and Musidora's heavily makeup-ed face, leering at the camera, it comes as a surprise to know that this is no fancy horror movie, or a tale about the bat-man. Instead, this is a crime movie about a vicious gang who call themselves "The Vampires" and are virtually indestructible. In that way, "Les Vampires", for all its heavy vampire imagery, is playing coy with the viewer, and it's highly enjoyable that way.
It becomes almost irresponsible and a little ugly to condense Louis Feuillade's almost seven hour movie into a review of probably less than a thousand words. How can you possibly study and explain the nuances of every single scene, every plot twist, and the characters that come and go. For 1915, the body count is pretty high in "Les Vampires". Still, it seems unfair to do the film justice on paper...but I shall try.
It all begins with a reporter, a hack journalist of sorts, working on The Vampires. He wants to be the one who breaks the story of the gang; and fortune smiles on him. A man named Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) tries to steal the files on The Vampires and gets caught because...well, he's really not that clever. Our hero, Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) then gets caught up in the ring of crime as he is preyed upon by mysterious figures clad in black.
Shot in ten episodes, "Les Vampires" is something that could be redone today if wanted. It makes my mouth water thinking about how Brian Fuller might re-imagine this in a miniseries.
Anyways, as Philippe continues down the rabbit hole after the criminals, usually catching or dispatching one per episode, one of major importance, we are introduced to the notorious Irma Vep (Musidora). This woman—whose name is an anagram of "vampire"—is the shining star of the picture. Always brooding, always resourceful, and always filling her character to the brim, it's no wonder that Feuillade's movie made this woman into a star.
"Les Vampires" is the original "Goodfellas". It is one of the first crime movies that expands to give the violence its due and intrigue. In this way, there can be no other comparison than to Scorsese. "Les Vampires" is exhaustive in its recounting the crime and often can feel repetitive.
There is the oddest sense of humor randomly stirred into the movie. Particularly with Mazamette, who changes from a bad guy to an essential good guy. He likes to look at the camera and make Chaplin-esque mannerisms. It's not great for the way the movie treats death, because the levity isn't appreciated...but we move on and so does the film.
Seven hours. Let that sink in. Seven hours! There are really not that many movies that can suspend a narrative for that long and shooting in an episodic fashion allow Feuillade to get away with this. The narrative sometimes feels a little weak, but it never feels forced...which is certainly an accomplishment.
"Les Vampires" is not essential viewing, because I feel like it can be gleaned from a collection of other movies; but it does stand by itself in length alone. What other movie dared to be as violent (nothing in today's standards) or as edgy?
Banned in France for years after its release for "glorifying violence", the movie is now revered as a classic and it's not terribly surprising. It has all the makings for a good ol' crime opera.
You know, minus the opera.
Posted by Micah Jones