The French silent film director Louis Feuillade is the father of the movie serial, and all the TV serials that followed – everything down to 24, Homeland and Killing Eve owes him, whether they know it or not. His first great serial was 1913’s Fantomas, a five-parter about an enigmatic, mesmerising, coldblooded master criminal, adapted from a best-selling series of pulp thrillers. Les Vampires, released in 1915, is the wilder follow-up.
It’s nothing to do with undead blood-suckers. The “Vampires” here are an underground criminal gang in Paris, who, across 10 parts, conduct random slaughter and destruction, seemingly just for kicks. Back in 1915, Paris police banned it for glorifying crime – yet these villains are less fully-rounded human beings with comprehensible motives, than incarnations of a passionate evil sitting at the centre of society, with its tentacles everywhere. The gang’s rampant, unrepentant femme fatale, Irma Vep, became an icon among the surrealists who made a ritual of watching these films.
As viewers used to modern movies, we have to acclimatise to the pace of watching early silent cinema: this thing was made over 100 years ago, while cinema was still inventing itself in myriad directions, and no one was scared of melodrama. But it’s still gripping. Feuillade shot off the cuff out on the city streets, under the dappling leaves of real trees moving in the wind, up on the city rooftops, and the mix of that kind of inadvertent historical documentary eye with the fantastic nature the gang’s mysterious crimes – not to mention their penchant for dressing in all-black onesie body stockings, like living shadows – generates an anxious, poetic, disturbingly surreal feel. It’s an overused phrase, but sinking into these films is a genuinely dreamlike experience.