Louis Feuillade's 6.5-hour, 10 chapter serial delightfully chronicles the sometimes lethal tug-of-war between crusading Mondial reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and the diabolic band of masked criminals (a secret society, really) collectively known as The Vampires. What the stoic Guérande may lack in personality is more than compensated by the winning ways of his irresistible, fourth-wall-breaking, comedy relief sidekick Oscar-Claude Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who starts out as a misguided member of the crime ring who wants only to provide for his three motherless sons but is redeemed and later liberated from all responsibility by a cash reward, which allows him to become a full-time, crime-fighting philanthropist and ladies' man. One of his kids, Eustache (played by the irrepressible child star Bout-de-Zan), also later joins the fight. Lending character to The Vampires are the Grand Vampire (a master of disguise and numerous established identities), the evil chemist Vénénos, and of course, the original femme fatale Irma Vep (the magnificent Musidora), a hatpin-wielding stage entertainer who proves herself resourceful enough to be running The Vampires herself, but instead clings companionably to whomever so happens to ascend to its throne, whenever its vacated.
This and other Feuillade serials, including FANTOMAS and JUDEX, are often cited as providing the blueprints from which the contemporary action cinema was spawned, and the films do continue to feel timely if not quite contemporary, and their sense of humor has as much to do with it as their sense of adventure. It's also remarkable to be reminded of how much of today's entertainment, and the classics we most often call to mind, sprang from a fertile germ thriving here. Fritz Lang would never have found his way to Dr. Mabuse or SPIES without this example; the anagrammatic "Irma Vep" (rearrange the letters, it spells "vampire") inspired Universal's Count Alucard in SON OF DRACULA (1943); the scene of ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska) fainting while standing on point during a stage performance of "Les Vampires" is not only an early instance of metafiction but inspired a key moment in Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977); Olivier Assayas made an interesting film titled IRMA VEP in 1996, starring Maggie Cheung, and chronicling an ill-fated attempt to direct a contemporary remake of LES VAMPIRES, which it wrongly describes as "a museum piece"; and The Vampires boast a Grand Inquisitor, a figure later summoned back into vampire mythology by HBO's TRUE BLOOD.
Previously available on DVD from Image Entertainment here in the States, this silent gem is now available from Kino Classics in its Cinémathèque Française restoration, supervised by Feuillade's grandson (also JUDEX screenwriter and SHADOWMAN star) Jacques Champreux. The new presentation does away with some of the fussier, showier, needlessly aging sepia tinting of the previous issue and refreshes the clarity of the images with straightforward monochrome. This is the first time I've seen the freckles on some actors' faces and, once or twice, a wobbling struck wall that reveals it as stretched canvas. The climax of the penultimate, ninth chapter "The Poison Man" -- which includes all manner of dazzling rope-trick escapes, automobile chases and train jumps -- still makes the heart leap nearly a century later.
Viewed via Kino Classics' Blu-ray disc, which will street August 14, 2012. Also available on DVD.