The titular Vampires in Feuillade's 1915 film serial (ten episodes of variable length, ranging from 12 to 58 minutes) are a gang of master criminals plaguing Paris, and it is up to Philippe Guerande, reporter at Le Mondial, and later his sidekick, the stereotypically French Mazamette to stop them. What follow are plots full of criminal heists, car and bicycle chases, vengeance, counter-vengeance, thrilling escapes and detective work. The world of Les Vampires is oddly empty of normal life (the episodes were produced at the height of the Great War, in fact after Feuillade has returned wounded from the front), but completely full of thieves and other criminals. The Vampires have several grandiose schemes going on, using multiple identities, aliases and hideouts, and the authorities are helpless to stop them.
Guerande is an alert and upstanding, if straight-laced character with Mazamette as comic relief (and often deus ex machina), but the real stars are the Vampires, and particularly Irma Vep, bar singer and master thief. Irma Vep, played by the actress Musidora, might be the first movie example of the cat burglar character - beautiful, deadly and fiendishly clever, as effective creeping across a rooftop in a skintight black suit as inflitrating a household as a maid or posing as a bank clerk in pursuit of valuable information. She steals the show so thoroughly that it feels almost like cheating when she is thwarted. The fascination with her has continued well into modern cinema, recreated in loving homages by Georges Franju (in the 1963 remake of Judex, a nostalgic look back at this early age in the movies), Olivier Assayas (in Irma Vep, an 1996 art movie) and of course many others who may not even know the original character.
From the descriptions above, Les Vampires may feel like an action movie, and that's right. It is full of non-stop, breakneck action, stunts and improbable devices (like an apartment which hides a long-distance cannon, or a trap door at the entrance of a middle-class home). One can see traces of all kinds of later genres here - spy movies, crime, urban thrillers - in a very clean, very archetypal form that still works without a hitch. But what makes it so enthralling is that there is a darker undercurrent beneath all this. Unlike films which stylise crime until it is removed from reality and (therefore) doesn't feel effective, the criminals in this serial are merciless and murder anyone who gets in their way without regret, or even making long speeches about it. Characters who appear to be shaping up to major figures in the plotline are dispatched in a summary manner; the turns of the story are unpredictable and reflect the semi-improvisative character of the production. There is a sense of fear about how effective crime can become when combined with the anonymity of modern cities and the conveniances of technology, a sort of mechanised and invisible menace. And there are always the character's eyes, darting around and surveying the dangerous environment and if they are being followed - the lines between thieves and Guerande are blurred as he starts using the Vampires' methods against them, and, much like Dr. Mabuse seven years later, the air is thick with paranoia.
In this release (Gaumont's restoration, UK release by The Mechanical Eye), the masterful musical score underlines this feeling of "wrongness" by tense and haunting themes as characters stalk along walls, peer through windows or hide behind curtains. As it has been remarked by others, some DVD extras would have been welcome on this three-DVD set. Here, we only get a few more short movies from Feuillade, showing the breadth of an amazingly prolific man's artistic output. Of course, Les Vampires stands well enough on its own: more than simple historical artefact, it sticks in one's mind to return again and again.