While the idea of serialized feature length films may seem like a novel, mostly modern ideal, what with the recent onslaught of not only sequels, but films tying into one another and an entire universe as well (looking at you, Marvel), serials have very much been a part of cinema’s history from the very outset. Dating back to the very beginning of cinema, ‘movie serials’ (or what is basically short film stories in the vein of what TV series later became) were often times shown in conjunction with a feature film, and have since become regarded as some of the most influential pieces of filmmaking from the era.
Among the biggest names behind these series was the one and only Louis Feuillade. With his iconic Fantomas still being considered a watershed moment of the silent era, yet another of the director’s iconic ‘franchises’ has finally hit Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, and it may very well be one of 2012’s ten best home video releases.
Titled under the banner Les Vampires, the series ran for ten shorts, released off and on during the span of November 1915-June 1916. Following the twisted tales of a gang known as The Vampires, the serial was set in Paris, and told the story of a investigative journalist Philipe Guerande and his best buddy Mazamette, who attempt to take the gang down any way possible. Clocking in at nearly seven hours in length, the series is a hefty slog, but with influences seen on the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (it is considered a forefather of both modern gangster pictures as well as thrillers) the film was not only considered one of the greatest films of all time (more on that in a moment) but is to this day one of the most important franchises in film history.
While most reviews must discuss a film and all of its cinematic parts, this film serial is a tad different. Absolutely one of the most thrilling bits of filmmaking you’ll see on home video this year, it’s the impact of what is on screen that is easily the film’s best aspect. Taking surreal tinges like a man arising from death after consuming a cyanide capsule, to even having their very early version of the faithful sidekick (Mazamette is, after all, Robin to Philipe’s Batman), this film is not only genuinely awe-inspiring, but has since become one of the most influential films ever made.
The film stars Edouard Mathe as Philipe and Marcel Levesque as Mazamette, as well as the iconic Musidora as the era-defining Irma Vep. All three of them give fantastic performances, particularly the latter two, who truly take over the entire series. Levesque’s comedic insomniac of a sidekick is really entertaining, adding a bit of levity to an otherwise tense and taut bit of thriller filmmaking, and Vep’s entire aesthetic fits this serial, and the genre it would later help spawn, like a well worn glove.
The story itself, conceptually, is as old as time. Take a man and his friend, looking to uncover a gang, only to find themselves in the middle of a gang war, and far more, and you’ve got the makings of a truly classic style thriller. Also penned by director Feuillade, the film is vibrantly written, using relatively few title cards, allowing for the actors and his directing to speak far more than any actor. However, Feuillade’s writing is quite superb when it’s allowed to breath. Adding both dread and levity to the piece, Feuillade’s use of tonal shifts and breaks really adds to the intense level of anxiety each short features, taking a classical narrative and giving us what is truly a classic spin on it, but in a way that still feels so breathtaking and fresh to this day.
Feuillade’s filmmaking may however, be what everyone who sees this will be talking about. Seemingly taking the technology and style of the day, and pushing it to its absolute max, there are aesthetic touches within this series that feel as vibrant as anything today. From a tracking shot of a car driving recklessly down a dirt road, directly following a sequence of partygoers being gassed by Vampire members, or even something as simple as a man being killed on a train, and you have sequences that to this day have very few, if any, equals. Particularly the latter sequence, a extremely brief but thrilling sequence of a man being killed on a train, that seems almost ripped right out of a Bourne film, in how claustrophobic and vital the camera work is and how fast paced the action on screen is. It’s quick and interspersed with a title card, but it’s as thrilling as anything you’ll see in a blockbuster this year. With haunting black and white (sometimes blue tinted) cinematography, the films may be, collected, a tad long in the tooth, but they are just as gorgeous, or just as full of life and vitality, as anything that Hollywood has given us today.
Kino has just put out a brand new Blu-ray of the film, collecting all ten shorts, and it’s rather immaculate. The film’s transfer is drawn from a 1996 restoration of the film, so it’s arguable that the film doesn’t look quite as good as it could if given a once over today, but it’s still a gorgeous transfer. The score, while a tad out of place tonally; it seems slightly whimsical and upbeat when the film, frankly, deserves something akin to KTL’s score for The Phantom Carriage on Criterion’s release of that, similarly influential, horror masterpiece, but it’s lush enough to make the film completely watchable. Supplement-free, the release could have stood with some sort of visual essay or something giving context to the importance of this film, but with this great of a transfer and this important a film, it’s still one of 2012’s most imperative releases.
Take Bunuel surrealism, silent era performances and photography, and a Hitchcockian blend of comedy and terror, toss them into a blender with a pinch of gangster and thriller tropes, and set to puree, and you’ll get out of that mixture something resembling Les Vampires. A tense bit of silent era filmmaking, the roughly 100 year old film serial may sound like a relic of a film, but when one lays his or her eyes upon this masterpiece, you’ll see why until a recent rule change breaking up collected films, the much talked about Sight And Sound magazine had it upon its greatest films of all time list (it was last listed in 2002, before a new rule change). As influential a silent film as there is, it’s not only a grandfather to thrillers and gangster films everywhere, it stands on its own as something more than an important antique. It’s one of the greatest film serials of all time, and just as fresh today as it was in late 1915 and early 1916.
Les Vampires Arrives On Blu-ray On Tuesday