By Bishop T. Allen Greenfield © 2007

By the 1920s, women with the slightly menacing “vamp look” were all over the known speakeasy universe, with their affected hint of danger, dark eroticism and 'dance till you drop' attitude. These were the liberated women of their time, and were generally thought of as an out-of-bounds social phenomenon amidst the brief world between the wars built on the horror and disillusion of the first War, the brief affluence between, and the draconian Volsted Act, turning drinking into both a crime and giving rise to a shadow empire just beyond the reach of the law.

In most eras, what is considered sexy and attractive is almost the reverse of the “vamp” look. Make no mistake - the reference is to Vampires and the look is that of pale as death and the fatality of life headed for the gaping grave. To sleep with a vamp could mean anything from a strange bite on the neck and an unremembered night of debauchery, to a very good time. It usually mean neither, but such was the mythos of the shadow world of that period.

Yet this image, this mythos with a hint of gothic truth within in, had started much earlier. Bram Stoker's “Dracula” had created a profound impact during the outré fin de siècle period stretching from the late 1890s to 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Towards the end of this period the silent movie serial craze reached something of a peak, and nothing could show more clearly the difference between “vampiric eroticism” and “mainstream eroticism” than the popular American Serial “The Perils of Pauline” with the perfect helpless blonde played by Pearl White, and its French rival “Les Vampires” which is full of gothic symbolism and numinous names and surreal situations, and Louis Feuillade's unforgettable star - the vamp of vamps - Musidora as “Irma Vep” (the anagram is literally spelled out for the audience). Curiously, Irma Vep is not herself, literally, a vampire…the closest thing to a real vampire is the Dancer Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), who threatens to expose the 'gang' of Parisian Vampires, only to be murdered on stage (during a stunning performance that will remind modern viewers of the Théâtre des Vampires scene in “Interview”) by the Grand Vampire. If the plot sounds novel, to a large extent it reflects the director-writer's style -- he'd take his cast to a location, give the general idea of a scene, and set them loose on it. What follows is an anthology of notes and vintage illustrations associated with the serial which presaged today's gothic vampirism, in fiction and elsewhere.

Definitions : vamp1 (colloq)

     noun 1. A woman who flaunts her sexual charm,
             especially in order to exploit men.

            Verb vamped, vamping
     Q1. To seduce (a man) with intent to exploit him.

      2. To behave like a vamp.

     Etymology: Early 20c: a shortening of vampire.


“Vampish villainess Irma Vep, along with her jewel-filching gang, terrorizes Paris in this complete collection of the intrigue-laden French silent serials. Includes a restored score.”

“Vamp is a colloquial term applied to describe a particular type of femme fatale, popular in silent films. The term is a shortening of the word vampire, and is used to describe a woman who is glamorous in an exotic, stylized and usually overstated manner. She is usually noted for her striking features, dark clothing and hair, and cosmetics which darken and accentuate the eyes and lips. Her character is a heartless seductress, and the men she seduces are usually shown as helpless victims unable to resist her. From the perspective of American film audiences, she is often seen as foreign, usually of undetermined Eastern European or Asian ancestry. She was designed as the sexual counterpoint of the wholesome actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Among the notable vamps of the silent screen were Theda Bara, Louise Glaum, Musidora, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, and in her earliest film appearances, Myrna Loy.”

“Born Jeanne Roques in Paris, France and raised by a feminist mother and socialist father, Musidora began her career in the arts at an early age, writing her first novel at the age of fifteen and acting on the stage with the likes of Colette, one of her life-long friends. During the very early years of French cinema Musidora began a professional collaboration with the highly successful French film director Louis Feuillade. Adopting the moniker of Musidora (Greek for “gift of the muses”) and affecting a unique vamp persona that would later be popularized in the United States of America by actress Theda Bara, Musidora soon found a foothold in the nascent medium of moving pictures. With her heavily kohled dark eyes, somewhat sinister make-up, pale skin and exotic wardrobes, Musidora quickly became a highly popular and instantly recognizable presence of European cinema.

Beginning in 1915, Musidora began appearing in the hugely successful Feuillade-directed serials Les Vampires as Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”), a cabaret singer, opposite Edouard Mathé as crusading journalist, Philippe Guerande. Contrary to the title, the Les Vampires were not actually about vampires, but about a criminal gang cum secret society inspired by the exploits of the real-life Bonnot Gang. Vep, besides playing a leading role in the Vampires' crimes, also spends two episodes under the hypnotic control of Moreno, a rival criminal who makes her his lover and induces her to assassinate the Grand Vampire. The somewhat surreal series was an immediate success with French cinema-goers and ran in ten installments until 1916. After the Les Vampires serial, Musidora starred as Diana in another popular Feuillade serial, Judex, filmed in 1916 but delayed for release until 1917 because of the outbreak of World War I. Though not intended to be “avant-garde,” Les Vampires and Judex have been lauded by critics as the birth of avant-garde cinema and cited by such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang and Luis Buñuel as being extremely influential in their desire to become directors.”

Vampires, Les (1915)

Director : Louis Feuillade

Writer : Louis Feuillade

Release Date : 13 November 1915 (France)

Genre : Action / Adventure / Crime / Drama /
        Fantasy / Mystery / Thriller / War

Plot Keywords : Mistaken Identity / Safe / Train /
                Secret Panel / Thrown From Train

User Comments : Turgid

Cast(Credited cast)

      Musidora ...  Irma Vep

      Édouard Mathé ...  Philippe Guérande

      Marcel Lévesque ...  Oscar Mazamette

      Jean Aymé ...  Le Grand Vampire

      Fernand Herrmann .. Juan-José Moréno/Brichonnet

      Stacia Napierkowska ...  Marfa Koutiloff

Rest of cast listed alphabetically:

      Edmund Breon ...  Secrétaire de Satanas

      Renée Carl ...  L'Andalouse

      Miss Édith ...  Comtesse de Kerlor

      Jacques Feyder ...(episode V: L'évasion du mort)

      Rita Herlor ...  Mrs Simpson

      Émile Keppens

      Louise Lagrange

      Louis Leubas ...  Satanas/Père Silence

      Gaston Michel ...  Valet de chambre

      Frederik Moriss ...  Vénénos

      Laurent Morléas ...  Officier de la Grande Armée

      René Poyen ...  Eustache Mazamette

      Delphine Renot ...  Mère de Guérande

      Germaine Rouer ...  Augustine Thalès


Additional Details Also Known As : The Vampires (USA) (literal English title) Runtime : USA:399 min (DVD) Country : France Language : French Color : Black and White Aspect Ratio : 1.33 : 1 more Sound Mix : Silent Filming Locations : Paris, France Company : Société des Etablissements L. Gaumont Trivia : Musidora was an acrobat who did all her own stunts for this film. Goofs : Continuity - The same furniture appears in the different houses throughout the film. Newspaper article : The Vampire Gang is Not Dead. Satanas poisoned himself in his cell. Who provided the poison?

Movie Connections : CHAPTER BY CHAPTER

“Occultism, hypnotism, exorcism, clairvoyance: in LES VAMPIRES all refer to an obsession for the irrational, which bursts into a well-ordered world…LES VAMPIRES fulfilled the wartime spectator's wartime belief in the supernatural, which disrupted traditional logic. Irma Vep, was both unreal and marvelous. She pursues love and gets what she wants, and her sexual liberation gives the film a slight taste of heresy…” Fabrice Zagury

Movie Connections and Bishop Allen's Respective Takes
(Bishop Allen's comments in bolded text)

1: La Tête Coupée (The Cut-Off Head)

Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathé), a reporter working for “Le Mondial”, and his friend Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque), investigate the murder of Inspector Dural, decapitated by the sinister gang known as the “Vampires”. The leader of the gang, the “Great Vampire” (Jean Aymé), is unmasked but manages to escape.

2: La Bague qui Tue (The Poisoned Ring)

Dancer Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska) tells Guerande she will reveal the secrets of the Vampires, but the Great Vampire kills her with a poisoned ring.

3: Le Cryptogramme Rouge (The Red Cryptogram)

Guerande meets cabaret singer Irma Vep (Musidora); he also attempts to decypher a mysterious notebook he stole from the Vampires.

4: Le Spectre

The Vampires fight another criminal, Moreno (Fernand Herrman), who tries to steal their loot, but Guerande engineers Moreno's arrest.

5: L'Évasion du Mort (Deadman's Escape)

Moreno fakes death and escapes from jail. Guerande is taken prisoner by the Vampires but escapes as well. The Great Vampire organizes a deadly ball to steal his guest's valuables, but is outwitted by Moreno.

6: Les Yeux qui Fascinent (The Mesmerizing Eyes)

The Vampires are after a treasure in the Forest of Fontainebleau. Moreno hypnotizes Irma Vep into killing the Great Vampire. Then Moreno takes over the gang.

7: Satanas

The heretofore unknown Lord of the Vampires, Satanas (Louis Leubas), reveals his existence. He kills Moreno by bombarding the restaurant where he was eating. He then try to steal the fortune of millionnaire Geo Baldwin (Emile Keppens) but is thwarted by Guerande and Mazamette.

8: Le Maître de la Foudre (The Master of Lightning)

Irma Vep is captured by the Police but Satanas arranges her escape; however he, too, is caught. He kills himself in his jail cell.

9: L'Homme des Poisons (The Man Who Knew Poisons)

Enter the new Lord of the Vampires: Venenos (Frederik Moriss). He tries to poison Guerande but his plot fails.

10: Les Noces Sanglantes (The Bloody Wedding)

Guerande finally marries his girl-friend (Louise Lagrange). The Vampires plot against the couple, but are thwarted by Mazamette. The gang is killed or captured.

Note: Though Irma Vep is killed at the end of Les Vampires, her gang reformed in Nice in Feuillade's 1918 sequel Tih Minh, where it conspires to avenge her death and take over the entire world.

Episode 1 - The Severed Head - Paris, 1914 is beset by the strange, black-hooded secret society of Vampires….as if the World War wasn't enough. Ace reporter Guerande and the archetypal trickster sidekick Mazamette are on their trail. Mazamette is a little too enthusiastic, trying to steal the Vampire chronicle, but is caught and forgiven. The vampires are thieves, poisoners, wall climbers and hypnotists, on occasion venturing into mediumship. The dress in black tights and black hoods, and tend to eliminate anyone they wish with impunity. They also are darkly sybaritic, living a bohemian hedonistic life style in the shadows of Paris.

Episode 2 -The Ring That Kills - The famous dancer Marta Koutiloff portrays a vampire hungry for a young woman's blood, but - threatening to reveal the secrets of the vampires, is poisoned by the Grand Vampire and dies on stage, in what is probably the most memorable scene in the serial that doesn't include Irma Vep. The Vampire Grand Inquisitor is killed while Mazamette and the police rescue Guerande. The Inquisitor's red code book comes into our heroes' possession.

Episode 3 - The Red Codebook - We meet the original goth girl, Irma Vep, cabaret singer, liberated woman and muse of The Vampires. She is first seen singing at “The Howling Cat” - a hangout for Vampires. Guerande's mother is kidnapped by The Vampires, but kills her captor with the literally poisoned pen of the late Grand Inquisitor. Tough old cookie, her! Irma and the Grand Vampire go through a few secret doors, and spy out their criminal nemesis, Moreno.

Episode 4 - The Spectre - Moreno, who eerily resembles Bella Lagosi in his prime, is both a thief and a mesmerist. Keep in mind that in those times hypnosis was still a borderline supernatural phenomenon in the popular mind. It was one of the early interests of the Society for Psychical Research. Irma and the Grand Vamp discover to their dismay that Moreno is “one of them”….a 'copy cat vampire'. An elaborate plot is foiled, Moreno is arrested, but….

Episode 5 - Dead Man's Escape - Moreno apparently is poisoned, but rises from the dead and escapes prison. Moreno threatens to hang Guerande if he doesn't help him avenge himself on the Vampires for framing him. No fool, Guerande gives up the real name of the Grand Vampire. The Vampires gas a room full of wealthy socialites, and steal everything in site, but Moreno steals the booty.

Episode 6 - Hypnotic Eyes - This episode features Moreno at is Bela-best. This episode has it all. Spooky mind control, Irma Vep in male drag, a movie within a movie, a disguised Grand Vampire, and a plot to rip off a wealth American. Moreno kidnaps Irma, hypnotizes her, and falls in love. Irma goes with the flow. Under Moreno's spell, she kills the Grand Vampire, her former lover. She becomes Moreno's mistress. Is this the end of the Vampires? Not in Episode 6…..

Episode 7 - SATANUS - We meet Satanus, the new Grand Vampire. He confronts Moreno and Irma over the death of what turns out to be his subordinate Grand Vampire, having paralyzed Moreno temporarily. Satanus wants an alliance, but Moreno wants to be king of the underworld. Irma and Moreno go to “The Happy Shack” which is a vampire hangout, but thinks better of an alliance with Satanus after the Grand Grand Vampire blows the place up, a convincing argument for cooperation, even in wartime, no doubt. Another clever plot is foiled, and it is Madame Guillotine for Moreno, and prison for life in Algeria for Irma…or is it?

Episode 8 - The Thunder Master - Irma boards ship to be deported to a penal colony in Algeria, but the Vampires warn her to hide, and the ship is blown up. All are presumed dead, but Irma shows up, a bit disheveled, hiding under a Paris-bound train, and becomes the mistress of Satanus. She shows up on stage at “The Howling Cat” to the joy of all the Vampires. Satanus, captured, commits suicide, and is replaced by “Venemous” as Grand Vampire….

Episode 9 - The Poisoner - Venemous plans to poison Guerande and his family at the latter's gala engagement party, with some really kinky champagne, but the plot is foiled. A little bondage, as Guerande ties up a squirming Irma in the middle of the road, and they are off to the Hotel de la Pyramid, to lure the Grand Vampire to the tied up Irma. Irma and Venemous escape, the car chase ensues, and the Vampires escape once again.

Episode 10 - The Terrible Wedding - Mediumship, hypnotized widows, and a bizarre wedding between vampires ends with a police shoot out with the vampires. Irma is at last killed….or is she?

Book Adaptation A 7-volume novelization of Les Vampires by Feuillade and George Meirs was published in 1916 by Tallandier (as 4 paperbacks followed by 3 magazine-size issues).

Referenced in Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974)

Les Vampires
Author : Ed Gonzalez

Louis Feuillade joined Gaumont studios in 1905 as a scriptwriter, hired by none other than Alice Guy, who Feuillade would replace as the company's chief studio director two years later. Feuillade would go on to direct approximately 700 films over the course of his 20-year career, none more popular than his silent ten-part serial Les Vampires. Feuillade's achievements are often ignored in light of the technical innovations being pioneered at the time by the likes of D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès, but the director's magical mystery tour through a deadly Parisian landscape is, like A Trip to the Moon, a towering and radical work of narrative fiction that, like Broken Blossoms, is remarkably attuned to the morality of the time.

Critic Armond White has defended Stephen Spielberg over the years against a critical establishment seemingly opposed to the director's cinema of fun. The novelistic Les Vampires is in many ways no different than, say, Spielberg's Jurassic Park. According to Feuillade, a ferocious anti-intellectual, “A film is not a sermon nor a conference, even less a rebus, but a means to entertain the eyes and the spirit.” And while Les Vampires is every bit as adventuresome as Jurassic Park and even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, its Machiavellian reflection of a complacent bourgeois order on the brink of collapse makes this realist masterwork a precursor to the surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel, who, incidentally, was a great fan of Feuillade's film.

The allure of Les Vampires is a simple one. During the early-to-mid-1800s, Charles Dickens milked the Victorian serial publication to great success, a model that continues to entice housewives in today's television soap operas and one that Stephen King successfully exploited with the release of his six-part Green Mile series. The public's voracious fascination with the serial is certainly not unlike a drug addiction. Feuillade, like Dickens and King, gives the spectator his fix, and in telling a story over the course of months (maybe even years), the author ensures the spectator will come back for more. More simply, Feuillade no doubt recognized that some great stories, like life itself, shouldn't be consumed in one sitting. Now, the challenge was to tell the story without betraying the lives of the characters, and in turn the lives of those who bought into them.

There are no vampires in Les Vampires, at least not the blood-sucking kind. There is, though, a group of petty thieves who revolt against the banality of their time by feeding on the anxiety of the Parisian upper class. Nouvelle Vague auteur Jacques Rivette, also a fan and champion of the film, doesn't immediately come to mind when one thinks of Feuillade's criminal aesthetic. But Feuillade's influence on Rivette is obvious, primarily in the way characters slither in and out of rooms through doorways and walk atop rooftops; these motions are anxious, primordial, even pre-sexual. Though the alluring pictorialism of Les Vampires is difficult to ignore, it's ultimately the serpentine and claustrophobic interiors of the film that truly inspire awe and there's a mesmerizing truth beneath the film's realism.

Observe Feuillade's Paris as a body interconnected by a dizzying network of veins. Characters, good and bad, enter rooms via chimneys, water wells, and paintings, slowly invading their environment and seducing themselves with the act of penetration. The vampire threat even takes the film's human vermin by surprise. In the film's fourth episode (“The Spectre”), Musidora's Irma Vep readies herself to filch a room safe only to discover that the sucker in the next room is one of her own. The shape-shifting Le Grand Vampire (Jean Ayamé) is equally titillated and threatened by the mystique they've actively and dangerous propagated. (That a Supreme Court judge is also a member of their group suggests members of the bourgeois were easily “hooked” on this violent mystique.) The Vampires repeatedly tease the public with their presence: their silly dance troupe openly advertises Irma Vep on the marquee. A careful bystander (or is he just paranoid?) concludes that her name must be an anagram for vampire!

In his essay “The Public Is My Master: Louis Feuillade and Les Vampires,” Fabrice Zagury stresses, “A long time after Griffith reshaped American cinema, Feuillade kept rejecting the new editing methods, choosing instead to reserve cuts on action and close-ups as moments of unusual punctuation.” Not surprisingly, it's these very moments in Les Vampires that are often more daring than Feuillade's long shots. In episode three (“The Red Codebook”), Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé), a reporter for the The Chronicle investigating the Vampire crimes, pretends to fall asleep in an attempt to trap Irma Vep, here “disguised” as a maid. He observes through a small hand mirror as she poisons his drink; when Feuillade cuts to a shot of Irma reflected in the mirror, it feels as if this is the first punctuation in the film besides a cut to an intertitle. In episode six (“Hypnotic Eyes”), Feuillade cuts to the first and possibly only close-up of Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) in an attempt to emphasize the power of the man's gaze.

It's clear that Feuillade championed action over montage, and Les Vampires is a seductive collection of double-crossings, a major point of focus in Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas' homage to Feuillade's film. Even the film's more plot-fueled segments are ridiculously entertaining. In “Dead Man's Escape,” Guérande escapes (again!) from the grasp of the Vampires, partner and ex-criminal Oscar Mazamette (the hammy Marcel Lévesque) saves the day, and the Vampires' rival gang leader Moréno rises fabulously from the dead. As Guérande and Mazamette escape from Moréno's secret hideout, the Vampires have already gassed a roomful of Parisian aristocrats in order to steal their fortunes. That Les Vampires opens with news of a severed and missing head makes it all the more disappointing that these gassed aristocrats aren't really dead.

Zagury believes that, stylistically, Les Vampires may have had an impact on both German expressionism and film noir. The key word here is “may” because, since the film remained unseen in Britain until the '40s and in America until the '60s, it's influence is easier to trace much later: in works as diverse as Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel to Francis Ford Coppola's “epic”sodic The Godfather. As episode five comes to a close, Feuillade not only anticipates the birth of the crime drama as we now know it, but also the demise of his Vampires. After a series of double-crossings, Moréno gets the upper hand over Guérande. The reporter-cum-detective--who gets his daily fix by reading the newspaper (Feuillade himself was a columnist for the Revue Mondiale)--is immediately drawn to one headline: “In all things one must take the end into account.” In episode seven (“Satanas”), Moréno joins forces with the film's motley crew of thieves. After duping an American couple who fled to Paris with money belonging to millionaire George Baldwin, Moréno and the vampires bilk the millionaire himself after he sails to Europe. The thieves love the idea of screwing the same person twice and their plan is as richly detailed as it is drunk with irony. In order to forge the millionaire's signature, a vampire poses as a journalist from Modern Woman magazine. Of course Baldwin decides to sit with the woman. The only French the millionaire knows is: “Parisian women are the most charming I've ever seen.” Feuillade, like the sexy, defiant and androgynous Irma Vep, seems to openly flaunt his control over the spectator. It's also easy for them to extol this power because they have an uncanny ability to recognize weakness in both the victim and the spectator. And the chaos they create has a delirious rollover effect.

To keep us interested, Feuillade continued to introduce new characters right up until the 10th episode (“The Terrible Wedding”). It isn't too far-fetched to liken the Vampires to a disease that invades Paris's human body. If they're contagious they're also seemingly incurable. Because the film's Vampires are so resistant to authority, it comes as no surprise they prove so self-devouring by serial's end. The irony here is that the Vampires hone in on bourgeois complacency for personal gain and it's their own self-absorption that repeatedly and finally does them in. Feuillade saw the Vampire power struggles as business as usual. It's a shame then that Irma Vep plays second fiddle to no less than three male Le Grand Vampires throughout the course of the film (Louis Leubas' Satanus and Frederik Moriss' Vénénos followed Jean Ayamé's original).

Irma Vep is nonetheless a ferocious woman warrior. Though she outlasts her fellow Vampires, she is killed unceremoniously by Guérande's fianceé, the very delicate “modern woman” her clan actively and repeatedly revolts against. Perhaps there's a final message here: that the romantic power of the Vampires can repel foreign threats (the American characters in the film are all thwarted) but is no match for France itself. If Zagury is correct that Les Vampires portrays a France rooted in the 19th century, the film's finale seemingly anticipates the birth of the 20th century. Several times during the course of the film, characters make clawing motions with their hands as if grabbing invisible objects before them. Perhaps these are allusions to Feuillade's hold over his audience. Les Vampires grips you for nearly 400 minutes. The high is exhilarating but the comedown is devastating.

Ed Gonzalez
© slant magazine, 2003.