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Les Vampires (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

September 3, 2012 by  



“Les Vampires” is simply a Blu-ray release that silent film fans will want to own for their collection.  You’ll be entertained by its storyline and characters but you also know that you are owning one of the longest films made for its time but also a collection of serials that can be seen as one of the early gangster and thriller films before the genre was created and defined.   A classic masterpiece by Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires” on Blu-ray is highly recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2012 Kino Lorber, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Les Vampires

FILM RELEASE: 1915-1916

DURATION: Les Vampires Episode 1: The Severed Head (33 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 2: The Deadly Ring (15 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 3: The Red Cryptogram (42 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 4: The Spectre (32 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 5: The Corpse’s Escape (37 Minutes),  Les Vampires Episode 6: The Eyes that Mesmerize (58 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 7: Satanas (46 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 8: The Lord of Thunder (55 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 9: The Poison Man (53 Minutes), Les Vampires Episode 10: The Bloody Wedding (60 Minutes)

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Color-tinted, B&W, 1:33:1, 2.0 Stereo

COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber

RATED: Not Rated

Release Date: August 14, 2012

Directed and Written by Louis Feuillade

Music by Robert Israel

Cinematography by Manichoux

Starring:

Musidora as Irma Vep

Edouard Mathe as Philippe Guerande

Marcel Levesque as Oscar Mazamette

Jean Ayme as Le Grand Vampire

Fernand Herrmann as Juan-Jose Moreno/Brichonnet

Stacia Napierkowska as Marfa Koutiloff

Renee Carl as L’Andalouse

Suzanne Delve as Fleur-de-Lys

Georgette Faraboni as Danseuse vampire

Rita Herlor as Mrs. Simpson

Emile Keppens as Geo Baldwin

Louise Lagrange as Jeanne Guerande

Suzanne Le Bret as Hortense – servante d’Irma

Louis Leubas as Satanas/Pere Silence

Maurice Luguet as De Villemant

JEanne Marie-Laurent as Madame Bremontier

Mademoiselle Maxa as Laure

Gaston Michel as Benjamin

Federik Moriss as Venenos

Laurent Morleas as Officer De la Grande Armee

Rene Poyen as Eustache Mazamette

Delphine Renot as Mere de Guerande

Francoise Rosay as Une invite chez Mortesaigues

Germaine Rouer as Augustine

Theles as Juge d’instruction

Miss Edith as  Comtesse de Kerlor

RESTORED BY THE CINÉMATHÉQUE FRANÇAISE

The undisputed master of the espionage serial, Louis Feuillade (Fantômas) crafted films with labyrinthine plots and unforgettable characters that influenced multiple generations of filmmakers. Comprised of ten episodes, and clocking in at nearly seven hours in duration, LES VAMPIRES is an unqualified masterpiece. It follows journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) in his efforts to expose a vast criminal organization known as the Vampires. Joined by a comical sidekick, Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), and often competing against a rival gang lord (Fernand Herrmann), Guérande dethrones a succession of the Vampires’ Grand Masters. But most evasive of all is the Vampires’ muse, a seductive assassin who performs her job with deadly grace: Irma Vep (Musidora).

Authorized by the Gaumont Studios, this edition was mastered in HD from the 35mm restoration produced in 1996 by the Cinémathèque Française, under the supervision of Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux.

During the silent era, a popular way for writers to showcase a long storyline was through movie serials.  Known as “Chapter Plays”, these serials were often screened at theaters weekly or monthly.   And in the United States, viewers followed the adventures of Pearl White in serials such as “The Perils of Pauline” or adventurer Elaine in “The Exploits of Elaine”.

Meanwhile in Europe, A french filmmaker would be known for his serial work.  Back in 1905, Louis Feuillade would work as a screenwriter for Gaumont and worked under artistic director Alice Guy-Blache.  Impressed by his work, Alice would give Louis the chance to learn to direct films by himself.  When Guy-Blache and her husband moved to America to start their own film studio, The Solax Studio, in New Jersey, she recommended Feuillade as her replacement at Gaumont.

Sure enough, this would lead to him to create his first five-episode serial in 1913-1914 titled “Fantomas”.  Now considered as a masterpiece, Feuillade would go on to work on another serial titled “Les Vampires” (The Vampires” in 1915-1916) followed by “Judex” in 1916 and many more.

But with “Les Vampires”, the serial was his most revered.  Looked at as an early thriller which would inspire the crime thriller genre and would be one of the earliest examples of a gangster film.  A serial which inspired Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel, Frits Lang and many others, despite the fact that the serial was not popular because it was done in pulp fashion and criticized for not being stylish and not high quality (the serial was written quickly, inexpensively with very little written script), Luis Feuillade stayed true to himself and would not let critics deter him.

And now, the 10-episode serial is considered a masterpiece.

For a film that was criticized for lack of style, as many historians look back at this film, not only was the  French marketing intriguing, it also would be known for making actress Musidora one of the most popular vamp actresses since Theda Bara for her role as Irma Vep.  And its legacy has led “Les Vampires” of being listed as one of the top films of all time.  The film was voted #30 in Sight and Sound magazine’s “Critics Top 10 Poll” at #30, #78 in The Village voice’s “50 Best Films of the 20th Century”.

And now “Les Vampires” was released in the U.S. on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber featuring  a new restoration by the Cinémathèque Française and musical score compiled and performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Before I begin my review, “Les Vampires” (The Vampires) is not a horror film about vampires but the name of a gang.  In France, gangs known as Apaches (which was attributed by Europeans to the Native American Tribes) for their savagery.  The gangs would pursue prospects from the bourgeois middle class and with a specialized weapon (which was a gun, knife and brass knuckle all-in-one), kill and also rob people.  While these gangs were seen as ruffians, in “Les Vampires”, the gang is more of a criminal organization with a leader that manages to infiltrate areas where the wealthy may be socializing or living.

The serial would focus on a man named Philipe Guerande (portrayed by Edouard Mathe), a reporter working for a newspaper known as “The Paris Chronicle” and has been investigating a criminal organization known as the Vampires.  Often, he gets into conflicts with a co-worker named Mazamette (portrayed by Marcel Levesque) who is trying to derail Philipe’s investigation.  But he is caught by Philipe and the investigator learns that Mazamette has been threatened to lose his family, so feeling bad for Mazamette, Philippe gives him a second chance.  And because of that, Mazamette becomes not of an assistant, but a character that gets involved in situations but yet manages to help Philipe during his time of need.

“Les Vampires Episode 1 – The Severed Head” is an introduction to our primary characters.  Philipe is investigating the Vampires and receives a telegram that a decapitated body of a national security agent in charge of the Vampire Organization, Inspector Durtal has been found.  His head is missing.  Meanwhile, Philipe who goes to investigate this, stays with his father’s old friend Dr. Nox (portrayed by Jean Ayme).  Visiting Dr. Nox is Mrs. Simpson (portrayed by Rita Herlor), an American multimillionaire who loves her jewels.   But what happens when Mrs. Simpson’s money and jewels are stolen and Philipe has been framed for the crime?

“Les Vampires Episodes 2 – The Deadly Ring” features Philipe attending a ballet featuring, ballerina Marfa Koutilof (portrayed by Stacia Napierkowska).  With the gang wanting to deter Philipe from working on his investigation, the Grand Vampire has slipped poison in the ring of Marfa and when she puts it on, she dies on stage.    Philipe meanwhile recognizes the Grand Vampire as the person who imitated Dr. Nox and goes after him.  But Philipe is caught in the process and now is going to be executed.  But disguised as one of the gang members is Mazamette.

“Les Vampires Episode 3: The Red Cryptogram” features Philipe trying to decipher a red booklet that he found on the body of the Grand Iquisitor, which details the crimes of the Vampires.   This leads him to a night club where Irma Vep (portrayed by Musidora) is performing.  Philipe recognizes that her name is an anagram for the word vampire and the Grand Vampire has Irma Vep on mission to take back the red booklet that is in Philipe’s possession.  Meanwhile, Philipe’s mother is kidnapped by the Vampires.

“Les Vampires Episode 4: The Spectre” features the Grand Vampire now pretending to be a real estate broker doing business with Juan-Jose Moreno (portrayed by Fernand Hermann), who is looking for an apartment with a safe.  Moreno doesn’t know that the safe has a secret door in the back that Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire can access, thus stealing whatever Moreno can keep inside the safe.  Meanwhile, Philipe in disguise is on to Irma who is pretending to be a bank secretary at a location where a man named Mr. Metadier has gone missing.

“Les Vampires Episode 5: The Corpse’s Escape” features the magistrate (from episode 1) being assigned the Vampire case and the Moreno case.  When Moreno is to meet with the magistrate, he fakes his death with a cyanide capsule.  Thinkng that Moreno is dead, when the night-watchman checks on him, it’s a ruse and Moreno steals his clothes and escapes prison. Meanwhile, Philipe is once again kidnapped by the Vampires.

“Les Vampires Episode 6: The Eyes that Mesmerize”features Moreno looking for the Vampires.  Meanwhile, Philipe and Mazamette go to watch a film which shocks them because Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire are in it.   Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire and Irma Vep have their eyes on an American tourist named Horatio Werner.  When they learn that an American millionaire was robbed of $200,000 and there is a reward who can capture the criminal, the two feel that Werner is the American millionaire that was robbed.    Meanwhile, Moreno arrives and intends to use his hypnotic power on Irma Vep.

“Les Vampires Episode 7: Satanas” features Moreno now in control as he used his power to have the Grand Vampire killed.  Or did he?  It appears that the real Grand Vampire has been revealed to be a man known as Satanus.  And in his first coming out to show his power, Satanas sends a warning to Philipe that he will be destroying “The Happy Shack”.  We are introduced to Moreno’s accomplice named Lily Flower.

“Les Vampires Episode 8: The Lord of Thunder” features Irma now being sentences to life in prison at St. Lazarus prison.  As she leaves by ship to Algeria, Satanus blows up the vessel.  Is Irma dead? We are introduced to Mazamette’s son Eustache (portrayed by Rene Poyen) and we see a major confrontation between Philipe and Satanus.  Meanwhile, we are introduced to a new Vampire who wants the leadership position…Venomous (portrayed by Frederik Moris).

“Les Vampires Episode 9: The Poison Man” features a new leader, Venomous.  With Irma Vep alive and well, she works with Venomous to finally get rid of Philipe and Mazamette.  Meanwhile, Venomous learns that Philipe is engaged to a woman named Jane Bremontier (portrayed by Louise Lagrange) and the two will be having an engagement party.  The Vampires plan to crash the party.

“Les Vampires Episode 10: The Bloody Wedding” features the final confrontation as Philipe and Mazamette plan to stop the Vampires one last time.  But can they?  Meanwhile, as Philipe has married Jane, Mazamette falls for Augustine Charlet (portrayed by Germaine Rouer).

VIDEO:

“Les Vampires” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio), black and white.  Featuring a restoration from 1996 courtesy of Cinémathèque Française, as one can expect from a film that is nearly a 100-years-old, it’s not going to be pristine.  You’re going to see dust, scratches and the sprocket holes (which is not a bad thing because you get the whole image instead of it being cropped).

Another difference compared to the Image Entertainment DVD is that the handwritten letters were featured with text on black, but for Kino’s version Blu-ray, this time the entire letter is featured with subtitles on the bottom. Because the Image DVD is older and thus watching it looks a bit blurry, the picture quality and clarity for the HD version on Blu-ray is much more detailed and clearer to see.   Sure, some scenes that are high in contrast may get a bit too white, but the Blu-ray if compared to the older DVD is  quite significant in some ways.  If anything, fans of the film will definitely want to upgrade from the previous DVD version because frankly, the clarity of the image is much better.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the definitive version of “Les Vampires” to own at this time!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Les Vampires” does not use the Robert Israel score, this time Kino goes with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and presents their wonderful music in uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra version is crystal clear and compliments the storyline very well.  It would have been nice to have Robert Israel’s score to be added as a secondary choice for those who prefer it.  But for the most part, I’m quite pleased with the newer Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“Les Vampires” comes with a trailer for Kino’s previous DVD release of Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas”.

EXTRAS:

“Les Vampires” comes with a slipcase.

As a silent film fan, one of the things that I love about Kino and its contribution to silent cinema is that they have released continually released silent films that are entertaining but also released collection of shorts that are historic and quite informative for those wanting to learn about the earlier years of cinema.

From Kino’s release of the Avante-garde DVD sets, the Melies set, the Edison set or even Gaumont sets, the company have provided films that many have dreamed of being released on video.

For those who follow silent serial’s, Kino has released Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas” on DVD and now is releasing “Les Vampires” in HD.

“Les Vampires” is a release that is not only entertaining but also fits into the context of cinematic firsts.  Not only was it one of the longest serial films at the time but it was also instrumental of being one of the earliest form of gangster films and “Les Vampire” is credited for being one of the first thriller films.

Sure, “Les Vampires” may not have received much love for audiences at the time nor was it a big budget film that was going to compare to similarly released films in America by D.W. Griffith.  If anything, Louis Feullade focused on creating a serial with what he had.  From re-using furniture to having actors who were on leave to the war, needless to say, he had the challenge of releasing films quickly, so audiences would have a new film each month to watch.

For silent film fans of today, sure D.W. Griffith was very much about creating expensive films with elaborate sets and many extras, but “Les Vampire” was like watching a fascinating indie production but despite it’s low budget and constricted time schedule, we are able to follow this crime drama.

We are able to be watch and see why Irma Vep has become somewhat of a vampy iconic character, even going so far to have a 1996 film by Olivier Assayas based and paying homage to her character.  As Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” had an android character that will be remembered for its look, “Les Vampires” will also have a memorable character as Irma Vep, an antagonist sporting a skintight black outfit.  The film’s symbol of danger and sexiness but also a hint of darkness that we see played out in many superhero films and comic books with antagonists dolled up in skin tight outfits.  Suffice to say, in terms of vamps, I’ve always felt the character of Irma Vep was very cool to watch.  For its darkness and quite simply, those eye-piercing stares that Musidora gives in a scene.  Personally, in terms of vamps, I would watch Musidora over Theda Bara any day.

As for the Blu-ray, this is the definitive version of “Les Vampires” to own at this time.  The clarity of this Blu-ray release is much better than its Image DVD counterpart but once again, I emphasize that these serials are not pristine.  Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people just watching silent films on Blu-ray that not everything is going to look as great as “Metropolis” or Buster Keaton’s “The General”.  This film is not pristine but the fact that you are getting the complete ten episode run and that the damage to the original source are pretty much scratches, dust and occasional sprocket holes showing up, are not so bad.  It makes “Les Vampires” quite appealing to own on Blu-ray!  One can only hope that now Kino considers releasing “Fantomas” on Blu-ray and also pursues the release of “Judex” to Blu-ray as well.

There are a few things that I wish Kino could have done for the Blu-ray release and that is give people the option to choose between the new Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s score and the older Robert Israel score. And as for the special features, the European Artificial Eye DVD release came with a Louis Feuillade documentary and even included four of his short films.   It would have been nice to have more special features included on this Blu-ray release.

“Les Vampires” is one of those must-own releases for silent film fans.  It’s also a serial that you want to watch over time and not try to watch it in a single setting.  Not only does the film have its importance in cinema history but it’s also a pretty entertaining release from Kino.  I loved the mystery and suspense of the film but if I had to pick something that I didn’t like, then it would be the hypnotic power that the character Moreno seems to have later on, especially the character of Satanus.  The film starts to go from real situations but then starting to include a more supernatural side to it that could be a little kitsch at times.

But I value “Les Vampires” as a release that finds a balance of being a release purely as of entertaining and also historical value.  The fact is you are getting 6.5 hours worth on Blu-ray and it may not have many special features but for it’s improved transfer on Blu-ray and how great these serials look in HD compared to the last DVD and the fact that they are nearly 100-years-old is incredible.

And the fact that you get ten episodes on Blu-ray for an incredible price, makes “Les Vampires” worth owning!

Overall, “Les Vampires” is simply a Blu-ray release that silent film fans will want to own for their collection.  You’ll be entertained by its storyline and characters but you also know that you are owning one of the longest films made for its time but also a collection of serials that can be seen as one of the early gangster and thriller films before the genre was created and defined.

A classic masterpiece by Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires” on Blu-ray is highly recommended!

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