(PG) 339min (Artificial Eye DVD retail)
Times of crisis are often also eras of escapism; yet the forms of art produced in such periods often unconsciously reflect the very crises we seek to escape. This is certainly the case in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, a series of shorts of uneven length from 1915, which makes little allusion to the slaughter going on not far from its Parisian location, but is filled with a subtext of dark anxiety.
In it, we meet crusading journalist Phillippe Geurande (Edouarde Mathe) whose sole aim in life is to bring down the secret criminal gang of the title, a vast organisation dedicated to murder, extortion and robbery stalking the streets of Paris and beyond. His chief assistant is Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) a comically morally flawed undertaker, but neither is a match for the wily femme fatal Irma Vep (Musidora), a prominent gang member. Geurande sees his fiancé murdered, while his mother (who proves more formidable than the gang) is kidnapped in the opening episodes. The journalist then chases the villains through a series of increasingly outlandish scams and capers.
A madly inventive narrative combines with all of the devices (poisoned household objects, brainwashing, drugs that stop the heart then start it on demand) that have come to be associated with the espionage film, yet beyond this, there is a far more fascinating encounter with history. The gang seem to reflect a profound disillusionment with the hierarchy of French society, its members including magistrates, estate agents and aristocrats. So too, they are frequently associated with the nightmare of the modern, with telephones, automobiles, recording devices and every other invention of recent years included in their evil doing; they even possess a canon, a chilling reminder of the slaughter in Flanders that modern technology has brought. Some wonderful clowning from Levesque, whose character at one point has his prominent nose shot off by his son, also gives us an insight into an old form of comedy that is now sadly lost. There’s a solid extras package, including a series of Feuillade shorts.