Friday, 28 October 2016

I've Just Seen: Les Vampires (1915)

Director: Louis Feuillade

Each month I try to watch at least one silent film, something easily done thanks to YouTube and the public domain. The last few silent films I saw were not on the 1001+ list, and I noticed one of those unseen ones, Les Vampires, is one of the longest on the list. Finding a nice sharp version on YouTube, I settled down to make my way through the story's ten episodes (of varying lengths).

The film's title somewhat misled me; I thought I was in for a horror film of some kind. It wasn't until the second episode that I realised that 'the Vampires' is just a name for a gang who like to murder and steal from the wealthy. So that disappointment didn't help my patience with the film.

The story is very simple; a journalist called Philippe Guerande, assisted by a colleague called Mazamette, is trying to uncover the secret organisation/ gang known as "Les Vampires". It is headed by various Grand Vampires, each one supported by Irma Vep (gee, what could that be an anagram of?), a woman with a perchant for danger and murder. Over six-and-a-half hours we watch people get poisoned by pens, severed heads turn up in boxes, people getting captured from windows through the most hilarious means possible, and secret cannons used to launch surprise attacks.

This all sounds fun, and would be if it were packed into two hours. But everthing takes far too long. Cinema was still very much in its infancy, barely twenty years old, and the idea of compressing time had yet to catch on. Instead of a short few-second shot of someone escaping on a roof, we get the whole minute of them making their way across the roof, then down the drainpipe.

If you are trying to convince someone of the virtues of silent cinema, do not show them this film. Only watch if you want to see how far we've come in terms of editing speeds, or have a spare 6+ hours of time you need to fill. At best, it will certainly make you appreciate the craft of Fritz Lang and Buster Keaton all the more. 


  1. Oh, but I hated this one. As you say, trimmed down to about a third of its current length, this could be really engaging, but this is ponderous and dull and never seems to end. By the time I got to the last few episodes, I was watching it in five-minute chunks, unable to take any more at a sitting.

    1. Weirdly enough, I had planned to do that with the last episode, but managed to find some patience; perhaps knowing it would be over soon gave me strength! This is definitely an endurance test.

  2. I agree that if you sit down to watch this for six hours you would be bored silly. But that was not how these episodes were intended. They were serials, and part of a larger cinema program. You would return to the cinema to see what the Vampires were up to and if they would get caught. In the context of that decade I found the serial very intersting even if the story itself is moving too slow. Together with Fantomas and Judex they are defining a period in movie history.
    In terms of endurance I had a much harder time with Intolerance, which was, well, intolerable.

    1. Very true, and I did watch these over a week. If anything, I found the basicness of the film technique the most frustrating part; it felt rather stagey. There is definitely a fun story there, and Irma Vep's character is the most interesting person. And you are right about its place in film history, even if it largely shows how quickly we moved on.

      With Intolerance, the spectacle of it all kept me engaged, though it doesn't have a patch on the thrills of The Thief of Bagdad (one of my favourite silents).

  3. I watched it on AMC (I think) back in the 1990s. They would show one episode every Sunday night and I would tape them and watch them later. I rather liked it at first. I think I kind of lost interest at the end and didn't watch the last two or three episodes until weeks later.

    As for silent films in general, I hope you don't mind if I recommend a few that I love even if they aren't as famous as The Gold Rush or Nosferatu.

    Judith of Bethuliah - It's barely a feature film because it's only an hour. It was made before Birth of a Nation. I saw it two or three years ago on a Web site (I forget the name) that tries to make sure a variety of silent films are available free online. I loved it! I was quite fascinated and I've been meaning to see it again ever since.

    It's the Old Army Game - A silent W.C. Fields film. It has a lot of the same scenes from It's a Gift. Also, Louise Brooks is in it. You know that hilarious scene in It's a Gift where Fields is trying to sleep on the porch? The version in It's the Old Army Game is funnier. I saw it with a crowd at a special showing in L.A. and I have never seen so many people laughing so hard at anything.

    Beggars of Life - Louise Brooks dresses as a boy and runs around the Southwest like a hobo with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. There's a lot of stunt work involving trains and bridges and Louise supposedly did a few of her own stunts.

    1. Thank you for the recommendations! There aren't enough silent films on the 1001+ films list, or any lists for that matter, so learning which ones are worth the time is great!

      Louise Brooks is so darn watchable. I shall definitely check these out. Thank goodness so many silent films are out of copyright, one can watch them on YouTube.