Depending on your perspective, Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires is either one of the longest films ever made, or the greatest television series to not air on television. Released in “episodes” between 1915 and 1916, it’s a ten-part serialized account of crusading journalist Philipe Guérande’s efforts to bring down the vast criminal enterprise known as The Vampires (there, you just learned a little French). While not the supernatural beings their name implies, they are equally dangerous, stopping at nothing to pillage and plunder, and especially ruthless with those who try to bring an end to their activities. And while this isn’t exactly an operatic procedural in the manner of The Wire or Zodiac, it is, thanks to Feuillade’s still-groundbreaing talent, quite an exciting piece of cinema.
As it was designed to be viewed sporadically, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend sitting down and watching this all in one six-and-a-half-hour go, not only for the benefit of replicating the “theatrical experience,” but more because one can quickly lose the immense pleasures replete in this film. And thanks to Kino’s new Blu-ray release of Les Vampires, you can do just that. While the plot is plenty engaging on its own, so full of kidnappings (several in which the Vampires lasso their prey from a second-story window and pull them down to the ground!), races against clocks, explosions, subterfuge, facades, disguises, betrayals, and a canon that emerges suddenly from a wall. This was blockbuster filmmaking before such a term could even be conceived, and audiences responded in kind, turning out in droves even with a war on.
Disparaged by critics at the time, it has somehow, insistently lived on, turning into a genuine classic, widely regarded as Feuillade’s best film. While still not widely hailed in casual cinephile circles, Feuillade was a big deal back in his day for his knack for drawing audiences, and now for developing suspense techniques that would influence Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. But Les Vampires reveals him far more than a simple crowd-pleaser, but also a man with a singular eye for striking imagery, much of which feels somewhat surreal even within the film’s context.
Beyond that, he uses with tremendous relish an element of the cinema too often left unexplored – depth. His sets seem to go forever into the distance, predating by nearly thirty years Gregg Toland’s celebrated “deep focus” photography in Citizan Kane. And while even those rare films that acknowledge multiple visual planes are stuck rigidly with a series of two-dimensional surfaces, Feuillade’s landscapes are totally free. Characters will enter from the far distance and move gradually towards the center with ease, background action will inform or contradict that of the foreground, and all around he creates a visual environment far more dynamic than many films even of this day, never mind his. It’s not an overly “busy” frame, but a dynamic one, and that distinction is everything.
Nowhere may one better appreciate such achievements than through Kino’s excellent new Blu-ray release. Packing all six-and-a-half hours onto two Blu-ray discs, one rarely gets the feeling than any visual information was compressed beyond its means, and one is so often elated by the perfection of its rendering that one need not dwell too long on a few minor missteps that could, in all honesty, be attributed to the source print. Derived from a 1996 restoration by Cinémathèque Française, which itself has no doubt seen its share of life over the past sixteen years, Les Vampires still sports all the issues one would expect from a film nearing 100 years old. Nevertheless, Kino’s transfer is a delight, presenting a very film-like appearance, full of grain and texture and contrast and, yes Virginia, depth. Additionally, the tinted sections of the film – to denote nighttime or other variations in light – carry a strong color template that doesn’t negate the integrity of the picture. Intertitles have been translated to English, but English subtitles are available for signs, headlines, etc.
Though obviously a silent film and thus not needing a soundtrack restoration, Les Vampires is presented with a stunning – and I mean stunning – score by the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra. They’ve crafted a very definite, iconic theme to accompany the film that recurs often, though not so much as to feel this was merely put on a loop. Scene-specific scoring, as with a rousing party or a particular moment of suspense, feels perfectly attuned to the film. They do throw in a few instrumental sound effects, like a clock ticking or a doorbell buzzing, but anyone who’s seen a silent film with orchestral accompaniment can attest this is a fairly common practice, one almost inherent to the form. Anyway, it is wonderful, and I’ve been humming the theme for days.
Sadly, there are no extras in this set, but six-and-a-half hours of entertainment is nothing to sneeze at either. The purpose for owning a set like this (also available in a DVD edition) is twofold – first, because it’s always nice to have great cinema in the house, and second, so you can watch this at your own pace. It’s a lot to take in, daunting from the outside, but compelling from within.