Les Vampires (Kino), Louis Feuillade’s mad serialized tale of a master criminal organization that robs, kidnaps, and murders their way through Parisian society, is a strange and wonderful masterpiece of 1914 cinema. The Vampires of the title are bloodsuckers only in the metaphorical sense. They’re a Masonic criminal conspiracy that intrepid reporter Philip Gueraude (Édouard Mathé) vows to expose. He outlives a succession of Vampire Grand Masters but the grand dame of all femmes fatales, the slinky, sinister Irma Vep (French icon Musidora in a body stocking and black mask), eludes him.
It’s easy to see why the surrealists embraced Feuillade’s mad serialized tale. Spiced with sudden revelations and unexpected humor, the pulp plots of his episodic adventure are less mystery than chaotic thriller where nothing is as it seems and anything goes. When Philip discover and opens the hidden compartment above his bed, his pride turns to shock when he finds a severed head inside. And that’s just the beginning of this heady mix of secret passages, poison pen letters (with real poison pens!), disappearing bodies, and disguises galore.
While D.W. Griffith was changing the face of American cinema with his editing, Feuillade took a different approach. He emphasized tableaux scenes played out in single takes, with little camera movement (apart from mounting it in cars during escapes and chase scenes) or edits within scenes — there are few close-ups and almost no crosscutting here — yet he gives the film a dynamic energy with his compositions and choreography and inventive imagery. The energy is created through staging, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience’s attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. The style makes the film even more mad: you can’t take anything at face value. Watching the well-ordered world turn upside down in a single shot makes the experience even more shocking.