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Image Entertainment presents
Les Vampires (1915)

"It's Irma Vep!"
- Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Levesque)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: August 27, 2000

Stars: Musidora, Edouard Mathe, Marcel Levesque
Other Stars: Jean Ayme, Louis Leubas, Moriss, Fernand Hermann, Bout-de-Zan
Director: Louis Feuillade

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, partial nudity)
Run Time: 06h:39m:35s
Release Date: May 16, 2000
UPC: 014381596021
Genre: gangster

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B+A- C+

DVD Review

The term "serial" usually evokes mental pictures of Flash Gordon or Gene Autry or some other hero in a multi-part adventure ending with the traditional cliffhanger. But few Americans know that in Europe the motion picture serial was a close relative to today's television series; the basic setup and characters would remain consistent from chapter to chapter, but each episode was relatively complete in itself.

One of the pioneers of this kind of serial was French auteuer Louis Feuillade. Largely forgotten for many years, Feuillade's reputation, and that of this film in particular, were rehabilitated by the intervention of director Henri Langlois. We owe a serious debt to Langlois, for otherwise this massive influential and epochal work would surely have been lost forever.

Les Vampires was a hugely influential picture. At a time when feature films were really just beginning (Birth of a Nation came out the same year), here we have a massive, sprawling storytelling epic on film. It was hugely popular, although the French government banned parts of it for fear that the movie unduly glamorized crime.

As all good epics do, Les Vampires begins in media res. Crack reporter Phillipe Guerande has been publishing a series of stories exposing the criminal gang, Les Vampires. Yet he has not been successful in putting an end to their nefarious activities. Instead, Guerande has merely attracted the gang's attention to him, and they make a number of attempts to avenge themselves upon him.

Phillipe is aided in his quest to expose and capture the gang by his somewhat treacherous, often bungling but ultimately lucky assistant, Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). Indeed, at several points Mazamette is on the verge of selling Phillipe out to the Vampires, making one question Phillipe's judgment in continuing to trust him. Mazamette is a good comic foil, however and the two of them struggle against the gang where the police seem helpless.

Where this serial really shines is in its depiction of the villains. They conduct a series of bizarre and elaborate schemes to rob the public (in the first episode, swindling a wealthy woman who seeks to buy a castle, and then murdering her). Like the mythical hydra, when a head is cut off, more grow to take its place. A series of Grand Vampires with such names as Satanas and Venemous (the latter operating primarily through poisons) and criminals seeking to take the post, such as the odious Moreno (Fernand Hermann) take center stage, but always operating behind the scenes, controlling things is the mistress of disguise, Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire). Irma (Musidora) takes on a variety of posts of trust in the outside world, such as stenographer, bank clerk, etc., in order to gain information for the gang to operate. Not exactly pretty, she is nevertheless charismatic and fascinating.

Technically, the film is astonishing for its time. There is an enormous amount of camera movement, and a good deal of editing and use of medium shots. While the closeup still was not a regular part of motion picture vocabulary, Les Vampires brings the camera far closer than even Griffith had dared to do up to that time.

Les Vampires is by no means a perfect film; in 19th-century literary tradition it relies far too heavily on coincidence to be satisfying to the modern viewer. However, its importance in film history is undeniable and it's a distinct pleasure to see this vital moment preserved on DVD. And, thanks to the marvel of DVD-18, the entire serial in its full 6+hour duration is presented on a single disc. What a wonderful time we live in!

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Yes, at times the image is too high contrast; faces occasionally white out, paper which is written upon is unreadable. There are speckles and random frame damage throughout. These are unavoidable ravages of time and faults of the source material. However, when one considers this film is eighty-five years old, it's really in incredibly good shape. David Shepard and Film Preservation Associates have done a wonderful job of transferring this massive work to disc, at the correct speed and with color tinting that is evocative but not overpowering. In particular, the minimal amount of nitrate deterioration is quite striking. Langlois' preservation efforts apparently were early enough to preclude much of the devastation which this chemical reaction has wrought upon most early films.

One suggestion, though: keep your remote handy. Sometimes lengthy intertitles are only on the screen briefly. I found myself going back and pausing on the intertitles in order to read them properly.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is a nicely-varied score by Robert Israel, who has produced many excellent silent film scores in recent years. The orchestration is varied, helping keep the interest up; sometimes a solo piano, other times piano and violin, and at others full orchestra. The principal theme is derived from Beethoven's creepy Coriolan overture, and other composers such as Debussy are borrowed from liberally in finest silent film tradition.

The sound is an excellent DD 2.0 stereo. The result is a nice open soundstage, without distracting directionality. No hiss or noise was audible at any time.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu
Scene Access with 78 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Production Notes
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: DVD-18

Extra Extras:
  1. "For the Children" (1916) short comedy sketch benefit film
  2. Bout de Zan and the Shirker (1916) one-reel comedy
Extras Review: There's not a lot of room, even on a DVD-18, for too much in the way of extras, but Image does a nice job of giving us additional material.

Most important is the 8-page booklet with a lengthy essay on Feuillade and Les Vampires. This essay by Fabrice Zagury is highly informative and full of interesting content.

On the disc itself we find two short films related to the cast and Feuillade. The first is a short charity benefit film starring the entire cast and directed by Feuillade. The second is one of a series of some seventy one-reel comedies directed by Feuillade and featuring charismatic child star Bout-de-Zon (who appears in episode 8 of Les Vampires as the mischievous Eustache Mazamette). This rather slapstick film, which is in eye-popping condition for its age, is quite amusing.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

A highly important and influential piece of silent film history, preserved in an excellent presentation, at the correct speed and with a very good musical score. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in silent films. Such folks would be well advised to buy the disc; although it's pricey, I can't imagine Image having pressed many of them, or being likely to make a second run. The length and serial nature makes a rental (except over about 2 weeks) inadvisable.


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