Welcome back! It’s Saturday morning again which means it’s time for the next chapter of our ongoing serial The Crimson Ghost and more movie serial history. (Previous Chapters: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about Louis Feuillade‘s Fantomas. (You can find that post here.) Today I want to take a look at his next, and probably most famous and best renowned serial, Les Vampires, which debuted in 1915.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I’ll just go ahead and let the cat out of the bag. There are no actual vampires in this serial. Instead, The Vampires are a rather bizarre French criminal organization. They are an offshoot of an extremely violent type of French gangster known as Apaches, apparently so named because they were well known for their extremely violent methods (there is, for instance, a beheading in the first episode), which was said to resemble the violent tendencies of the Native American tribe for which they are named.
The Vampires are led by a mysterious figure known as The Grand Vampire, and his second in command is actually a woman who goes by the anagrammatic name of Irma Vep. They are being investigated and perused by a reporter for the newspaper The French Chronicle, Philipe Guérande.
As I’ve noted before, many of these early serials were not really the formulaic episodic cliffhanger type of serial that we normally associate with the label today, and this is especially true of Les Vampires. Though it was released as 10 separate episodes of varying length (the shortest, episode 2, runs only about 15 minutes, while others run anywhere from 30 minutes to a full hour), when taken together, they actually form a quite cohesive seven hour long movie, and in fact, Les Vampires is often listed not as much as a serial, but as one of the longest movies ever made.
Another interesting thing to note is that the early advertising for the serial actually was done with more than a touch of mystery and ballyhoo. Before the first episode’s release, Paris was plastered with the poster above (the questions translate as “Who? What? When? Where…?”), and many of the morning newspapers throughout France ran the following poem:
Des nuits sans lune ils sont les Rois, les ténèbres sont leur empire. Portant la mort, semant l’effroi. Voici le vol noir des Vampires. Gorgés de sang, visqueux et lourds. Ils vont, les sinistres Vampires aux grandes ailes de velours non pas vers le Mal… Vers le Pire!
which translates as
Of the moonless nights they are kings, darkness is their kingdom. Carrying death and sowing terror, the dark Vampires fly with great suede wings, ready not only to do evil… but to do even worse!
Finally, before we move on, I should note that French actress Musidora, who portrays the character of Irma Vep casts an incredibly striking and quite sexy figure throughout the serial, especially when she is clad in the black bodysuit which became the character’s trademark. There is even a 1996 film directed by Olivier Assayas entitled Irma Vep which portrays an attempt to remake Les Vampires and stars Maggie Cheung.
Les Vampires has been released on home video a number of times, most recently as a two disk Blu-ray set from Kino International. You can also find all ten episodes on YouTube, and I highly recommend seeking it out.
Okay, time for us to move on. We’re up to Chapter 10 of The Crimson Ghost, which means after this there’s only two more chapters to go, and things are quickly heating up toward the climax.
Next time: Chapter 11 of The Crimson Ghost: “Double Murder” and more movie serial history.