Thursday, 6 September 2012

The further adventures of… Les Vampires (1915)

Irma Vep stows away...
When last I left Les Vampires it was roughly at the half way point, with a further twist in the already meandering plotline seeing a rival emerging to the criminal gang. Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) is the Vampires’ equal in cunning but is perhaps less anarchistic and more purely driven by criminal greed.

Sometimes it feels as if Louis Feuillade’s ground-breaking series is being made up as he goes along  but that would hardly be unique. As the episodes pile up and the stories get longer, he succeeds in maintaining interest and in fleshing out the characters.

Satanus, Moréno and Irma plot...
The enemy keeps on  shifting as the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé ) is despatched by Moréno only for the real head Vampire to be revealed as the aptly-named Satanus (Louis Leubas). He in turn is replaced by the chemical mastermind, Venomous (Frederik Moriss) as the Vampires prove able to re-generate themselves and the narrative.

The one constant is the presence of Irma Vep (Musidora) who is with us until the bitter end. Feuillade knew when he was on to a good thing and this prototypical femme fatale is the real heart of the criminal gang. She falls for Moreno and the two threaten a new off-shoot gang before they are captured and executed. But Irma just won’t lie down and with Satanus’ audatious help escapes from the ship taking her to confinement in Algiers and fights her way back to Paris.

I’m not sure if she was the first such “baddy” in film but she certainly was one of the earliest. She’s full of evil energy and seems totally ruthless in the pursuit of her aims, even fooling some railway staff into making a collection for her after spinning them a yarn of love betrayed.

The journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé ) remains relentless in his own pursuit and as the story develops he and his family come under increasing threat. The Vampires are resourceful and very much the equal of the forces of good, every defeat brings another victory nearer for them.

Philippe becomes engaged to Jane (Louise Lagrange) and the Vampires plot to finish off his fiancé and poison his whole family. It’s only through good fortune that the guests are saved, albeit at the expense of the concierge’s life.

Augustine crosses Avenue Junot...
There are more superb exterior shots as the Vampires are chased across rooftops, in cars, on trains and on bikes! It remains a superb document of Paris a century past and mere miles away from the front line in the Great War.

Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) continues to provide much light relief and his character is really fleshed out after he acquires a fortune in reward money following the arrest of an incidental fraudster. We meet his young son who is soon enlisted in helping to track down the Vampires (and armed with his own gun!). It’s quite a leap for the character who had been so easily blackmailed in the early episodes but the story is stronger for it – he’s a more engaging character than straight-ahead hero Philippe.

Augustine (Germaine Rouer) and Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque)
In the final episode, Jane, now Philppe’s wife, is kidnapped by the Vampires who also ensnare Augustine (Germaine Rouer), the concierge’s widow and Mazamette’s fancy (I lost track of where his wife had gone!). Philippe traces their car thanks to a hole Mazamette had blown in the petrol tank. He cases the joint and lowers his gun to Jane imprisoned in the cellar.

The pace really picks up as he prepares the ground for their rescue and, as the Vampires engage in an orgiastic celebration assured of their ultimate victory, the police arrive and slowly get into position…

To find out what happens I recommend you buy the box set. It’s pretty easy-going stuff and reminded me a lot of 1960’s ITC serials such as The Avengers and Department S. The criminals use gadgets – gas, portable mortar guns – they have hide-outs, diguises and are nearly always ahead of their opponents.

Mazamette thinks!
They’re also pretty good dancers and have an amoral spirit which almost makes you root for them: anti heroes don’t come much more charmingly camp than Irma Vep!

The acting is good and any over the top moments are redeemed by the tongues firmly in their cheeks: it’s not just Mazamette who has his knowing gaze to camera. This is meant to be escapist fun... it wasn't necessarily the time for serious drama.

The Vampires celebrate victory, but are they being premature...
These are the ideal films to use on the undercard before your main features and watched over time as a "series" rather than swallowed whole. I thoroughly enjoyed Les Vampires and as with all good box sets, wished there’d been one more story arc.

I watched the Artificial Eye DVD but the whole shebang is now available on Blu-Ray... tempting!


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