Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Vampires (Les Vampires) (1915)

When I received ”Les Vampires” I was surprised to find that I had ordered a box set. But the explanation was simple enough. ”Les Vampires” is not a feature but a serial. It is like ordering a season of “Friends” or “Game of Thrones” except that this is long long before you ordered a season of something so you could watch the episodes in rapid succession and not have to wait till next week’s episode. Back then you went to the cinema and watched maybe a bundle of shorts and to make sure people came back you made serials with a cliffhanger that would bring in the audience next week or so to see how their hero got out of that predicament. Effectively the same technique which is used in many tv series still today.

That is ”Les Vampires” in a nut shell.

”Les Vampires” is very old, from 1915, at a time when WWI is raging and has all but killed the French film industry, once the world hot spot for cinema. “Les Vampires” provide escapism for the masses at a low cost and can in that sense be compared with the musicals of the thirties. Or maybe rather the gangster movies, for the plot in ”Les Vampires” is a gang of criminals bend on taking control of the Paris underworld and a significant part of the world above. To prevent this we have the valiant reporter Philippe Guerande and his sidekick Mazamette, who like Tintin and Captain Haddock is equally bend on unraveling the crime syndicate.

The progress of the story is a repetition of almost-there-but-something-new-shows-up. A format we should in our day and time be intimately familiar with from countless tv-series. The difference is that here it is quite imaginative and entertaining. Paris apparently is crisscrossed by secret passages and people with foul intentions abound. Some of the escapes or breaks are silly or stupid, but with my mind set on light, amateurish entertainment I do not mind and having a laugh at the silliness just adds to the movie. I am not sure the series intends to be funny, but it certainly aims at entertaining and that I am.

While the protagonists are a somewhat dull and colorless the antagonists are a joy to watch. With Irma Vep (change the order of letters and see what you get…) the serial has a real star and I find that for me she is the real protagonist, no matter what cause she is fighting for and interesting enough the serial also do have a lot of sympathy for her. She is far from the passive female lead of so many other early films. She has real drive.

I watched “The Vampires” in 15 minute increments and it took me the better part of a month and maybe that is what saved it for me. I do not think I could have handled more than an hour or so at a time, but as it is it is one of those entries I will be taking down again to see and enjoy.

Was it primitive: yes, technically a mess
Did I care: nope
Who’s cool: Irma Vep!


  1. For me, the most interesting character was Irma Vep. I kind of wanted her to be the lead, not the police detective.

    While this is important because it's an early serial, I don't think it belongs in the book as a "movie". I also feel the same about other serials like Decalogue and Berlin Alexanderplatz.

    1. I think they took a broad view on what makes a movie. I do appreciate that decision because it gives us some different experiences from regular movies, but where is the limit? Should tv-series have been included as well? "Dynasty" on the list, episode 1 through 50?

    2. I positive the reason those two are included is because of their directors. This book was compiled by a bunch of "director groupies", thus we get long lists of movies from certain directors and exclusions of other, more deserving films.

      If there was any TV miniseries that should be included because of its place in history and its impact on society it should be 1977's Roots. That wasn't directed by a famous director, though, so it didn't make it in the book.

  2. I remember getting this and thinking OMG--this is going to be another Berlin Alexanderplatz. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as long or boring. You and Chip are right, Irma Vep is the best thing about this serial.

    1. My thoughts exactly. I thought this would be a drag, but I got through the episodes really quick and quite enjoyed myself.