Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Honourable Mentions: Les Vampires

This was a silent serial from 1915 that was directed by Louis Feuillade and, in the first instance, I have to say do not let the title fool you, it is not a horror nor does it feature the undead. Les Vampires of the title are a ruthless gang of criminals who are terrorising Paris. The episodes themselves ranged in length between 13 minutes and 57 minutes. With all that said, why then would I give this an honourable mention?

Really for three reasons and the first is tenuous. The Vampires do prey on the rich of Paris and are completely amoral. The serial itself is much more hardcore than a modern viewer might think to give it credit for, severed heads in boxes, murder and mayhem are the order of the day.

A rival thief, Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), not only apparently returns from the dead – he takes what is thought to be a cyanide suicide pill but it transpires it only places him into a death-like trance – he also has hypnotic eyes, which he uses to his advantage. Okay not a great reason for an honourable mention but there are others.

The second reason is for the main female star of the show, Irma Vep (Musidora). Irma Vep is an anagram of vampire and she was a surprisingly strong role for a female star, especially given the date the serial was shot. Vep performed at the Howling Cat Club and was a key member of the vampires. As for Musidora, herself, she was an acrobat who did all her own stunts for the film. Musidora is classed as the first ‘Vamp’ of European cinema – in the dictionary definition of the word.

Finally, and most importantly, we turn to episode 2 – The Ring that Kills – in which the vampires target the ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska) as they believe she is engaged to Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) – who is the reporter getting too close to their operations. Marfa is scratched by a poisoned ring just before she is to perform a part in the ballet “The Vampire”.

Marfa actually dies on stage, part way through her performance, but the costume she wears and the performance itself is an excellent portrayal of a supernatural vampire in bat form. Highly surreal and yet beautifully done, this act brings a touch of the undead into the proceedings and, I hazard an educated guess that, the actual performance was selected as a tie in to the name of the serial.

Still accessible to modern sensibilities, Les Vampires is now classed as a highlight of European mute cinema and gives a stark image of (just about) turn of the Century Paris (the streets seem rather empty, due to the fact the country was at war at the time of production, adding to that stark feeling).

The imdb page is here.

No comments: