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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

LES VAMPIRES (1915-16)

Violent underworld crime syndicates & masked urban avengers found their filmic form in FANTÔMAS/’13-‘14, LES VAMPIRES, and JUDEX/’16-‘17, the three best known serials from French pioneer Louis Feuillade. Remarkably, all are now available in largely complete DVD editions that turn what had been once-in-a-lifetime viewing experiences into something you can pull off your shelf. This ease of delivery, with its attendant loss of preciosity, inevitably dims our response, but the films’ inventive charm & quixotic reversal-of-fortune plotting (over the course of their 5 to 7 hours running times!), gain plenty of traction on sheer entertainment value. Feuillade’s trick was to put some of the wildest plotting (murders, suicides, ships blown out of the waters, gassings) into the most natural of settings, making evil a part of our basic habitat. (He hadn’t been injured out of WWI for nothing.) Technically, the films don’t really equal some of the work being done elsewhere at the time (though you won’t hear this mentioned much), it’s Feuillade’s attitudes that raise the sophistication bar. And never more so than in the second series’ great femme fatale, the memorably named Irma Vep (an anagram for ‘vampire’,) who steals the show (and our hearts) changing costumes & loyalties with immodest, immoral speed.

DOUBLE-BILL: A direct line courses from VAMPIRES to Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22, augmented by a century’s worth of film technique vaulted in a mere six years.

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