Blu-ray Review: LES VAMPIRES Still Knocks 'Em Dead

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
No company in the world, with the possible exception of Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema, has taken as active a role is preserving the silent film era as Kino Lorber. This week sees the release of their latest magnificent addition to their collection, Louis Feuillade's immortal Les Vampires. Feuillade was among the most successful filmmakers to take advantage of the serial format in a way that shaped the filmgoing experience for a couple of decades, and Les Vampires was a big part of that success. Kino's release of Les Vampires may be barebones when it comes to bonus material, but the content and restoration can't be beat, this is a must own collection!

For those who haven't yet seen Les Vampires, and I will count myself among that number prior to receiving this set, it probably isn't exactly what you're thinking. There are no literal vampires, and the film is not a horror film. Les Vampires instead refers to a nefarious gang of thieves and murderers terrorizing Paris whose exploits frequently land them on the front page. Only one man, reporter Philipe Guérande, has managed to get anywhere with the case, and even though he collaborates freely with the police, they can't seem to bring the gang to justice, or they don't want to.

Les Vampires is a ten episode, six and a half hour joyride of thrilling cinema. The episodes vary in length, starting out short (one as little as fifteen minutes), and expanding into hour long mini-features as Feuillade's series hits its stride with the last few stories. Each story, no matter what its length, manages to pack in every dramatic genre whenever possible.  While the overall through-line is very much that of a thriller, Feuillade fills the quieter moments with comedy as often as possible.

Attempting a plot synopsis for the individual episodes of Les Vampires is a rather intimidating thought, but suffice it to say that the stories are supremely gripping. Feuillade was a master filmmaker in those early days, and Les Vampires came hot on the heels of his previous popular series, Fantomas. Between the two, much of that era's love of the serial can be directly or indirectly traced back to the successes of Feuillade. It wasn't until DW Griffith's 1915 production of The Birth of a Nation, not released in France until 1920, that the feature length film became the new standard, but in many ways the serial is a much more rewarding experience. Drawing out tension over weeks and months, much like television does today, can be just as effective as doing the same over the course of a few hours.

The leads in Les Vampires are played mainly by Feuillade's stock company, however, one performer made a career beyond Les Vampires that made her one of the silent era's biggest names, Musidora. Musidora, as Irma Vep, is the most compelling on screen figure by a mile. Her performance is by turns alluring and repulsive, but never anything less than completely enveloping. It is no surprise that the most enduring images from Les Vampires are those which feature here, either in her guise as a vaudevillian performer, or more likely in the iconic black bodysuit. The film is worth watching for her performance alone, though that is certainly not its only asset.

For those viewers for whom a longer attention span is not a personal asset, Les Vampires may feel like a bit of a slog. After all, six and a half hours is quite a commitment. However, those with an active interest in silent features and the origins of the modern crime thriller will find a lot to grab onto in Les Vampires, and hopefully you'll enjoy it as much as I have. For cinephiles, this is essential.

The disc:

Kino's two disc Blu-ray presentation of Les Vampires is its first high definition release, as far as I'm aware. The transfer here comes from the Cinematheque Francaise's 1996 35mm restoration, and looks pretty good for having source materials that old. Certainly, there are some rough spots, and a newer restoration would have ironed out the wrinkles, but I can imagine that remastering and restoring a film this long would be an immensely costly project. That being said, the image is solid, though not overwhelming. There is significant damage to the print in spots, though not enough to dampen my enjoyment. My guess is that this is the best Les Vampires we'll have for a while to come. The score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is quite good, and helps to fill in some of the narrative gaps by adding clues to the context of what's occurring on screen.

While there are no extras, apart from a trailer for Feuillade's Fantomas, to speak of, there are a few items worth noting. Most obvious among them is the newly created English intertitles in place of the original French ones. Some people get all up in a tizzy about intertitle translations and the importance of leaving the original language in tact, I'm not one of those people, however if you are, it's best that you're aware.  The other item worth noting is that while this is the best A/V we've seen of Les Vampires to date, the older DVD editions did carry some bonus material that is absent from this release. The US Image Entertainment release had a couple of short films as well as a booklet with an essay, and the more recent UK DVD from Artificial Eye had several other Feuillade shorts as well. My guess is that there were licensing issues, but whatever the reason, I'm a bit bummed that those extras don't exist here.

In spite of the lack of bonus material, this is still clearly the best release of Les Vampires to have been released so far, and definitely essential material for any serious film buff. Buy it!
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