Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 8: Le Maître de la Foudre)” (1916)
Skipping a couple of episodes of this crime-thriller serial, I arrive at Episode 8 in which Moreno the corrupt businessman has just died and Irma Vep arrested, charged and sentenced to exile in an Algerian prison. She boards the ship but the leader of the Vampires gang, known as Satanas, visits her disguised as a Roman Catholic pastor and warns her that the ship has been booby-trapped with a bomb and she needs to be at the stern to avoid being blown to bits. Sure enough, once the ship is far out to sea, it goes ka-blooey and everyone goes down with it – except for Irma Vep. In the meantime the hunt is on for the ship saboteurs; the Vampires discover where fearless investigative reporter Phillippe Guérande and Satanas goes to his house, immobilises our hero and leaves a bomb behind. Luckily Mazamette turns up in the nick of time to save Guérande and the two determine to capture Satanas and turn him over to the police. Satanas is caught all right and put into jail. Irma Vep returns to the gang’s headquarters where she learns of Satanas’s arrest and imprisonment and she is tasked to carry a poisoned letter to him in jail. Satanas receives the letter and swallows it; he dies and his suicide makes front-page news. Guérande and Mazamette vow to continue hunting down the Vampires and bring them to justice.
There are still some wonky discontinuities in the plot but the story has become so involved and complicated that viewers will forgive hiccups in the details: how Irma Vep has managed to swim or otherwise travel all the way back to France from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea isn’t explained and how Mazamette and his son Eustache always turn up to rescue Guérande and perform other brave needs in the nick of time will have to be attributed to amazing powers of telepathy on the Mazamettes’ part. Seems to be a hereditary thing. Satanas turns out to be a wealthy businessman or industrialist and this in itself suggests the penetration of the Vampires gang into every area of French society; the gang’s headquarters turns out to be a well-maintained establishment complete with waiters serving food and wine and a stage for performing plays and concerts. People of all classes wander in and out and the well-to-do bourgeoisie rub shoulders with working-class people. Perhaps the Vampires represent a genuine political and social movement dedicated to the overthrow of a sick and corrupt hierarchical society and its replacement with a democracy and an economy that distributes wealth equally among all and eliminates differences on the basis of income earned.
As always, the film’s appearance is clear and sharp and the acting is as natural as can be for the period. The costumes worn, the interiors of houses, offices and prisons, and the cars driven will be of interest to cultural historians. The action is fast-paced and plot twists are common now but there is still plenty of room for slapstick comedy whenever and wherever Mazamette and young Eustache appear.