The film serial was an early cinema format that is, honestly, more familiar today than ever, though in a different mechanism: Long, continuous stories broken down into episodes of varying length? And while episodes were initially screened separately, today they are packaged such that you can watch one at a time or in a binge? That, in a nutshell, is the format of streaming TV shows in 2021.
Les Vampires, the silent French crime serial from 1915, is a lot more palatable as a 10-episode miniseries than as a 7-hour film — but is a compelling spectacle either way. Created by Louis Feuillade, master of the serial, it was conceived and marketed as pulpy, trashy fun, as opposed to the “art films” of the day e.g. DW Griffith. Critics panned it at the time. But there’s no question that this has aged better than Birth of a Nation in many ways, even aside from the abhorrent racial content of the latter. (My review of Birth of a Nation)
The story follows an investigative reporter and his bumbling sidekick who are tracing down the criminal conspiracies of a gang known as “The Vampires” (sadly non-supernatural; just a cool name). The Vampires are led by various disposable criminal overlords; their real star is Irma Vep, the dangerous and sexy antiheroine (with a signature outfit of black tights).
Crime stories have a way of mirroring cultural values and concerns of the day. On that front, Les Vampires is a tour de force: The bourgeois is frequently infiltrated by the Vampires, and nobody thinks much of it. Many up-and-up characters have double identities or dark secrets. It adds to a portrait of a culture with a corrupt, amoral upper class, something that’s certainly evocative in 2021.
The story is driven by crackerjack set pieces built around phenomenal indoor sets: Secret compartments, trap doors, hidden peepholes, and other insidious physical spaces are used frequently and creatively. There are a few outdoor chase scenes, but the fun is typically centered around stealth and double-crosses.
The plot itself is very twisty and expansive, with an ever-growing cast. New gangs enter the picture; familiar faces pop up unexpected. By the third episode, I needed a crib sheet to keep up with the characters and their various relationships (Wikipedia has a thorough plot summary, and this one is good too).
Despite its low-art aspirations, there’s something very postmodern about Les Vampires. Feuillade uses film and entertainment as central plot points, and they almost always lead to danger or disaster: A dancer dies mid-performance; a large ballroom party is drugged by tainted perfume. It reads as a reckoning of the precariousness of mass entertainment, particularly ephemera that regards itself as realist or virtuous.
Formally, the film is fairly safe: The large majority of shots are unmoving medium shots, as if filming a stage play, with minimal cross-cutting. There are small snippets of experimentation, though: Background action sometimes steals the eye from foreground action, hinting at the use of deep focus by other directors in the years to come. Some of the compositions are truly marvelous given the limitations, too: The aforementioned ballroom party looks like a Renaissance painting.
But even if it wasn’t a major innovator in film language, there’s lots of boundary pushing in story and character content. It’s easy to see this serial’s influence on (or at least prediction of) future crime film subgenres: gangster movies, film noir, heist movies, etc.
Other than the length and the stylistic limitations of the era, the main thing that prevents me from giving this a recommendation to anyone other than curious film historians is that the heroes are so damn bland and corny compared to the crafty Vampires. I was always rooting for Irma Vep. On screen, at least, it’s good to be bad.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 4. Up next is another DW Griffith epic, Intolerance.)
Nearly Good (4/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.