Fates Worse Than Death: Les Vampires

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Philippe Guérande, investigative reporter for the Globe, arrives at his office one morning to begin another day of battling with his pen against the dangerous criminal organization known only as the Vampires. Discovering the documents of his investigation missing from his locked drawer, Guérande quickly zeroes in on a hapless coworker named Mazamette: Mazamette still has the papers on him and throws himself on Guérande’s mercy. The expense of raising his children as a single parent has driven him to seek money by illicit means. Guérande, moved by Mazamette’s plea, forgives him and decides not to call the police, to which Mazamette responds that he owes Guérande his life. (Remember that.)

Summoned by the editor in chief, Guérande is dispatched to cover his next big story: the body of Inspector Durtal, in charge of the Vampire case, has been found decapitated in a countryside marsh, his head nowhere to be found. Before he leaves Paris, Guérande’s mother tells him of an old family friend, Doctor Nox, who lives near the crime scene; Guérande pays Nox a call at the same time that a wealthy American woman, Margaret Simpson, has come to stay at Nox’s house in Chesnaye with an interest in buying his château.

While visiting with her, Guérande admires Mrs. Simpson’s fine jeweled cigarette case. Later that night, sleepless in his bed, Guérande finds a note in his pajama pocket: “Give up the search or something bad will befall you!” Curious as to where the note could have come from, Guérande searches his room and finds a sliding panel hidden in the painting over his bed, opening into a secret crawlspace. During the same night, a hooded figure enters Mrs. Simpson’s room and steals her jewelry while she is fast asleep. The next morning, Doctor Nox asks Guérande for a cigarette and expresses surprise when Guérande finds Mrs. Simpson’s cigarette case in his pocket. Almost immediately, Mrs. Simpson reports that her jewels and money have been stolen! “By fleeing the scene,” Nox says, “the thief has betrayed himself.”

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But Guérande, sensing a frame-up, has not fled: he heads straight to the district’s examining magistrate to relay his experiences and his suspicions. The magistrate has Guérande conceal himself when Doctor Nox and Mrs. Simpson arrive to report Guérande’s crime and asks them to wait in a room which he locks and places under guard so he can investigate the scene himself. When Guérande shows the magistrate the secret crawlspace behind the painting in his room, they find a small chest hidden there. However, it contains not the incriminating jewelry stolen from Mrs. Simpson, but the missing head of Inspector Durtal! Convinced of Guérande’s innocence, the magistrate returns to his office to confront Doctor Nox: but even guarded by policemen on all side, somehow Nox has disappeared, and left behind Mrs. Simpson–dead!

The only evidence left of Nox is a cast-off suit of clothes and a note: “The real Doctor Nox, whose identity I have stolen, is dead, assassinated by me. You’ll never find me. I am the Grand Vampire!” While Guérande and the magistrate marvel at the criminal’s audacity, a hooded, black-clad figure is seen clambering across the roof of the police station, having climbed up the chimney. Guérande escaped with his life and his reputation intact this time, but he will face much greater dangers as he seeks the truth in Louis Feuillade’s follow-up to his successful Fantômas series, the ten-chapter serial Les Vampires!

In this first chapter, “The Severed Head,” the influence of Fantômas is still quite clear, both in the story of an intrepid reporter battling a nefarious underworld gang and in the character of the Grand Vampire himself: a master of disguise, ruthlessly eliminating his enemies and liabilities and disappearing without a trace (not to mention that hooded costume he wears). However, there are signs of the greater freedom Feuillade would take with this story, free of the constraints of adapting a pre-existing property: in contrast to the single-minded struggle between Juve and Fantômas, Les Vampires gives Guérande (played by Édouard Mathé) a family and friends, and there are many elements of the humor and domestic drama that Feuillade incorporated into his many popular film series in other genres. Furthermore, rather than the connected features of the Fantômas saga, Les Vampires is a true serial in ten chapters, each leading to the next, and with a definite ending. Each chapter is between thirty and forty-five minutes, making the total film six and a half hours in length, by far the longest serial I have reviewed for this series.

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NOT Irma Vep

As Les Vampires proceeds in the second chapter, the gang strikes at a dancer, Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), “believed to be Guérande’s fiancée,” killing her with a poisoned ring presented to her by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in one of his many disguises. Was she killed to strike at Guérande, or was it because she dared to portray a vampire in her ballet, symbolically invading the Vampire gang’s turf? In this chapter, Guérande himself is abducted by the Vampires and left to face the torments of the Vampire Grand Inquisitor, but he is rescued at the last minute by an unlikely savior: Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who in the first chapter swore his loyalty to Guérande and is now moonlighting as a Vampire henchman. Again, Mazamette swears that only the expense of providing for his numerous children would drive him to such employment, and he frees Guérande, allowing him to turn the tables on the Grand Inquisitor and steal a Vampire codebook before his escape.

It is in the third chapter, “The Red Cryptogram,” that Les Vampires really comes into its own with a playful combination of suspense, humor, and eroticism. First, Guérande begs off coming into the office, fatigued as he is by his experience as a captive of the Vampires. Doted upon by his mother, with whom he lives, he stays tucked in bed; but the moment she closes his bedroom door, like all kids playing hooky, he jumps up and reveals himself to be in the pink of health, even lifting some dumbbells to show how fit he is. Then he sets to work deciphering the codebook he recovered in the previous episode.

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It is also in the third chapter that Feuillade introduces his most famous creation, the muse and mistress of the Grand Vampire and the star of the floor show at the underworld nightclub The Howling Cat: Irma Vep, whose name is an anagram for–guess what?

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Played by Jeanne Roques, known by her stage name Musidora, Irma Vep essentially takes over the serial as a co-lead, appearing in every chapter after the third and even outliving the Grand Vampire, to whom she is at first a right-hand woman but whose importance increases as she moves to the center of the action. She has true star power, leaning on the double meaning of the word “vamp,” both dangerous and enticing. Interestingly, she only wears the black catsuit that is her most iconic look in one chapter (in retrospect, Marfa Koutiloff and her Vampire act seems like a dry run for Irma): the rest of the time she wears a variety of dresses, pajamas, and men’s suits depending on the role she is playing. Unlike the Grand Vampire, Irma rarely disappears into the different disguises she wears, instead playing the role of a diva showing off her various costume changes.

Most of all, Irma Vep looks modern in a way few of the other characters do and reminds the contemporary viewer that Paris was at the vanguard of both the arts and new forms of self-expression. Like all of the actors in this style of silent cinema, in which close-ups are rare, Musidora makes asides to the camera to show reactions, but unlike the others she frequently appears to be looking through the camera, directly to the audience. With her frizzy hair, dark lined eyes, and mannish clothes, Musidora presents a chic androgyny that transcends the period trappings of the story. Leaving aside such direct sartorial descendants as Catwoman or homages by later filmmakers like Georges Franju, Irma Vep lives on in the personae of such stars as Siouxsie Sioux and Helena Bonham Carter, and is the true distaff version of the iconic Fantômas.

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The fourth chapter, “The Spectre,” introduces the last new major character, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). Moréno rents a flat from the Grand Vampire in another of his identities, this time a real estate agent named Treps, and specifies that he requires a safe. While “Treps” shows him a suitable apartment, Irma Vep listens from the other side of the wall. After Moréno puts a bag in the safe and leaves, Irma and the Grand Vampire open the safe from the other side of the wall by removing the back, a ploy that has obviously yielded results in the past. Does the bag contain cash, or jewels, or perhaps sensitive documents? As the pair examine the black clothing, mask, and lock-picking tools in the bag, Irma wryly concludes, “Seems to be a colleague!”

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Yes, the Vampires have some competition: Moréno, aka the Spectre, is both a fellow burglar and head of his own rival gang, and his intrusion into Vampire territory marks both an escalation of the Vampires’ reign of terror and yet another complication in Guérande’s campaign against the gang. Later, Moréno captures Guérande, and the journalist is saved only by inside knowledge of the Vampires’ next big heist, allowing Moréno to steal their loot from under the Grand Vampire’s nose. After being freed, Guérande receives a note reading “We are done . . . for now.”

Like its American contemporaries such as The Perils of Pauline, the chapters of Les Vampires are self-contained episodes, without cliffhangers. Although there are storylines that run through the entire serial, each chapter presents and resolves a situation. Largely this takes the form of a new plot or scheme on the part of the Vampires or the Spectre and Guérande’s reaction to it. The question each chapter asks is less “How is the hero going to get out of this one?” than “What will the villains do next?” Film historian David Kalat states in his commentary on the Fantômas series that Feuillade tended to improvise on the set, filming sequences based on a loose outline rather than a rigid script. (Having made hundreds of films in his career, and working quickly, he certainly would have had an idea of what would work in the moment.) If this continued to hold true during the making of Les Vampires, it comes through in the flow from one chapter to another, with a new plot or setting coming up in each one; in the gradual additions to the cast of characters; and in the escalating mayhem as Feuillade strives to top himself with increasingly apocalyptic disasters. (The sense of improvisation also comes through in one sequence where Feuillade reuses some unused footage of a Spanish bullfight, an economy that many later serials would display!)

However, the plotting within each chapter is quite clear and obviously shows some forethought, with each threat the Vampires pose having a solution that is set up within the episode. For example, when Mazamette presents Guérande with a fountain pen containing poison ink, a gadget “borrowed” from the Vampires, Guérande gives it to his mother to defend herself; when she is kidnapped and forced to write her own ransom note, the literal “poison pen” helps her escape her captors.

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From these examples, it is clear that the tone of Les Vampires is much more whimsical than that of the Fantômas features, with witty plots and comic relief characters, especially Mazamette. In one chapter, Mazamette’s son Eustache comes to stay with him and ends up helping to solve a case: the mischievous boy is played by René Poyen, alias “Bout de Zan,” star of one of Feuillade’s long-running series. It probably goes too far to say that Les Vampires is a spoof of the Fantômas films, but the injection of humor and self-awareness is a welcome change from the more claustrophobic Fantômas series. Moréno, Irma Vep, and the other Vampires are convincingly motivated by greed, pride, lust, and other recognizably human motivations, as opposed to being dedicated to crime in the abstract. Some of the nightmarish qualities of Fantômas–of characters being trapped, of secrets spilling out in torrents of Freudian symbolism–are still present, but are grounded in details of everyday life rather than suspended in a surrealistic void. The almost supernatural all-knowingness of Fantômas is replaced by a more realistic dependence on cleverness and the occasional lucky break. Instead of the sensation of being trapped within a struggle against unknown forces, there is a sense of the main characters, heroes and villains alike, playing a game–a game with life or death stakes, to be sure, but one they willingly signed up for. If the morbid terrors of Fantômas suggest Kafka at times, Les Vampires is more like Antionio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoons, playful and ironic. It is in this sense, and with its delight in inventions such as the poisoned pen or the Grand Vampire’s portable cannon, that it foreshadows the superheroics of many of the later sound serials, as well as the often fanciful exploits of James Bond and other super spies.

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What I Watched: Les Vampires (Gaumont, 1915-1916)

Where I Watched It: Kino Classic’s two-disc Blu-Ray set containing the 1996 restoration

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: In “The Eyes That Mesmerize” or “Hypnotic Eyes” (Chapter Six), Moréno traps Irma Vep and, using the power of his hypnotic gaze, bends her to his will, making her his lover and setting her up to kill the Grand Vampire (the serial ultimately goes through three “Grand Vampires”). This incident, and a later one in which she escapes the sinking of the ship that was to take her to an Algerian prison colony, goes a long way toward making Irma Vep more sympathetic. Ultimately, however, her experiences cause her to reaffirm her loyalty to the Vampires and she goes down fighting. The straight and narrow is not for her.

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Best Peril: As noted, the dangers into which Philippe Guérande and his friends are placed are not quite the centerpieces that they would be in later cliffhanger serials, but there are still many dangerous incidents, and a great deal of suspense is wrung out of timed explosives and poisoned wine that Guérande barely avoids. An incident that would be echoed in many later serials is typical: in Chapter Eight (“The Lord of Thunder”), Satanas (the second Grand Vampire, played by Louis Leubas) visits Guérande at his home, a time bomb hidden in his hat. Upon shaking hands with the visiting stranger, Guérande is paralyzed by a poison on a pin hidden in Satanas’ glove. While Guérande cannot move a muscle, Satanas reveals his identity to him and leaves him, the hidden explosive left behind. In a cliffhanger serial, we would have to wait for the next chapter to see the resolution, but in this case it all works out within a single episode: Mazamette arrives just in time to learn the truth and throw the hat out the window, where it explodes harmlessly.

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Sample Dialogue: “Although vice is seldom punished, virtue is always rewarded.” –Mazamette, newly wealthy after collecting the reward for the arrest of an American criminal, presenting his philosophy to a group of rapt journalists (Chapter Six)

What’s Next: This brings us to the end of the summer, but I have a few more serials I intend to get to, so stay tuned for some fall updates. I still plan on covering Feuillade’s Judex; also, Turner Classic Movies has been running Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery on Saturdays, and I’ll have a review of that once it’s finished. In the mean time, thanks for spending another summer with me!

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