If youre not interested in silent film, you should probably move on. Those who enjoy such material, however, are in for a treat.
First, a warning. Les Vampires isnt about vampires. Instead, its a collection of ten short films dealing with The Vampires, a criminal gang terrorizing Paris circa 1915. Each episode, ranging generally from around thirty minutes to an hour, follows heroic reporter Philippe Guérande as he works to defeat the nefarious evildoers. Along the way he picks up a comic sidekick, ex-gang member Mazamette, who proves of invaluable assistance. Other characters include Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire), the femme fatale of the group, and Juan-José Moréno, a rival gangster who often works in opposition to both Guérande and The Vampires.
Les Vampires foreshadows the American serials of the 30s and 40s, although there are differences. Here each chapter works as a story unto itself, albeit ultimately joining together to form a coherent story arc. The first chapter introduces Guérande and we move on from there. The criminals often prove triumphant at the end of any given segment, although justice does inevitably prevail. Meanwhile, the European flavor of the films calls to mind Fritz Langs silent Dr. Mabuse films, still a decade or more off in the future.
Wild plot contrivances abound, including innumerable disguises, traps, hairbreadth escapes, insidious plots, hypnotic glances, women in sexy black leotards, gruesome murders, and instruments of doom ranging from your convenient living room field cannon to literally poison pens. Half the time the incognito heroes are right under the noses of the villains, or vice versa. An inordinate amount of raw coincidence also plays a part.
Meanwhile, I have a suggestion, although its one that could get my cinephile card revoked. If you find things bogging down you can always watch the film on fast forward, especially if you have a moderate 2x speed on your DVD remote. Without dialog to follow and with often longish reaction shots regularly on display, you can easily follow things in this manner while clipping along at a faster pace. Since the accumulated material lasts almost seven hours, this is especially handy when youre renting the disc and face time constraints on how long youll have to watch it.
Considering that the film was produced in 1915, it generally looks pretty darn good. Those not conversant with silent film might find the visual quality lacking. Veterans of such fare, however, will in the main find the presentation ranging from more than adequate to better than expected. (Unfortunately, its the final chapter thats most seriously degraded. The negative is so washed-out at times that peoples faces end up as white blobs.) The scenes are tinted as well, with brown used for interiors, green for exteriors and blue indicating nighttime sequences. The English language title cards are easy to read and the accompanying piano score is crisp.
The disc includes a few short comedic subjects made by the same production company. Theyre amusing, but nothing special. Before balking at the $70 MSRP (the disc can be purchased from various Web dealers for around $50), however, remember that the nearly seven hours of material here represents roughly four regular movies. From that standpoint, its a pretty good deal.
Ken Begg, 3/7/2001