Nearly a year ago, my friend Kristina told me about Les Vampires (1915-16), a silent French crime serial that clocks in at nearly 7 hours long. Last night, we finally started watching it. The film is broken into 10 episodes of varying length, and while it’s not truly a horror film, it’s definitely a thriller, even in silence. I realize that this is a terribly uncultured opinion to have but with the exception of Nosferatu, I have never been very into silent films and did not expect to be so engaged by Les Vampires. I have to say though, that I am seriously excited for next week’s session to see what happens to our ol’ pal Philipe, a reporter who is investigating the evil deeds of the crime syndicate known as Les Vampires.
First, I should also say that I have minimal experience with serials. The few bits that I have seen have been composed of relatively lighthearted hijinks—Les Vampires is not that, at all. In fact, it’s pretty grim in both subject matter and aesthetics. Last night we watched the first three chapters, “The Severed Head”, “The Ring That Kills” and “The Red Cryptogram.” Guys, “The Severed Head” involved the severed head (shocking, I know, you did not see that coming) of a cop shoved into a box which appeared in a secret passageway behind a trick painting from which we had earlier seen a member of Les Vampires—who are not actual bloodsuckers but just super bad guys who wear all black clothing and scary hood-masks— appearing in the dark (with a blue filter) over our sleeping protagonist, Philipe.
Further, Les Vampires was shot in Paris during the heart of World War I and it looks eerily deserted in a lot of the shots. I regret to inform my readership that my WWI knowledge is shaky at best and I am not sure if a lot of the population fled when German troops marched on Paris in 1914 and Wikipedia is not giving me a quick answer, but I am going to go ahead and assume that is the reason. I hope you enjoyed this questionable European history lesson.
The second episode, “The Ring That Kills” is the shortest at only 15 minutes and depicts, um, a ring that can kill, administered by THE GRAND VAMPIRE. The victim is Philipe’s fiancé, a ballerina named Marfa. At first we laughed at her ballet outfit but then after watching the haunting ballet death scene, decided it would be a killer Halloween costume for Kristina.
I’ve tried to talk to her about the inappropriateness of trick-or-treating at age 29 but she just gets mad and is like CANDY IS FOR EVERYONE! so there isn’t really much I can do.
Below is the ballet scene; I can’t decide if it could be described as ‘haunting’ without the context of the rest of the episode, but I really like it and this is my blog so sorry boutcha.
The third episode, "The Red Cryptogram" involves Philipe protecting a notebook containing a cypher that describes the evil deeds of the Vampires, which he stole from the corpse of the Grand Inquisitor Vampire after tricking the other Vampires into shooting him. Shyeah. They kidnap Philipe’s poor old mother, for christ’s sake, they will stop at nothing! This episode is also the first appearance of our female villainous lead, Irma Vep (an anagram for Vampire, obvs), played by the mononymous actress Musidora, who is beautiful and evil and I don’t want to discuss her here just yet because she is clearly going to have a larger role in Les Vampires. I’ll get to her next week.
Silent French cinema of the 1910's...who knew??