Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 10: Les Noces Sanglantes)” (1916)
Some time after the events of Part 9, star reporter Phillipe Guérande and Jane Bertonnier have married and set up their own home and hire Augustine Charlet, the widow of the Guérandes’ concierge who was poisoned during the engagement party, as their chambermaid. Augustine is still troubled by the circumstances of her husband’s death and is determined to find the murderers. The Vampires, wanting the Guérandes out of the way once and for all, take advantage of Augustine’s naivety and slip a note to her advising her to see Madame Alba, a seer. Augustine does so (with lovestruck Mazamette on her trail) and is hypnotised by the seer. The Vampires use Augustine as a pawn in an attempt on the Guérandes’ lives but Mazamette foils the murder plot and the Vampires settle for kidnapping Jane and imprisoning her in their mansion while Guérande, Mazamette and Augustine go to the police. Augustine ends up abducted by the Vampires while the police, Guérande and Mazamette visit Madame Alba’s. Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire, Venomous, escape the police but clever Mazamette discovers a way of tracing the gang to its other digs. Guérande investigates the mansion on his own and discovers the prison where his wife and maid are being held; he can’t rescue them but is able to supply a gun to Jane in case she needs it.
Irma Vep and Venomous celebrate their wedding and hold a wild reception that includes dancing and acrobatics in the entertainment but the police gatecrash the party and kill or capture most of the guests. Venomous dies in police custody. Irma Vep threatens Augustine and Jane but Jane kills Irma Vep with Guérande’s gun.
The plot cleverly leads from one scenario to another at a fast clip that never pauses and which calls for much use of stunt actors (mostly circus acrobats) to abseil from buildings and climb walls and balconies. The details of how the stunt actors get up and down may look amateurish and Feuillade obviously never heard of concepts like occupational health and safety and what that might involve; Jane’s kidnapping scene alone would have throttled her dead before she’s even in the getaway car but one never lets “minor” techncial and medical details like that and the police’s cavalier treatment of a chemical bomb that might blow them up or gas them dead stand in the way of a rollicking story! The acting in this episode and Part 9 is much better than in the earliest episodes: there’s still a lot of emoting that looks excessive to us moderns but one must remember that expressionism in film and other areas of art was a dominant trend and as film also did not have sound until the late 1920s, actors needed to use facial expressions, hand gestures and other body language to convey emotions.
Although the filming is in black and white with use of coloured filters to show the time of day and the passage of time itself, viewers and students of culture and history can see and judge for themselves the urban architecture of Paris, in particular the less visually attractive parts where the action takes place, the fashions people wore and the domestic interiors and furnishings they used. The film is a valuable cultural artifact in itself for these reasons. Also valuable is the respect that Feuillade shows for his audience and his expectation that viewers can follow the action or even two threads of the plot occurring simultaneously; at the same time, he’s not above humour and poking fun at Mazamette who at one point in the episode addresses the audience directly and in another sees himself the subject of a cartoon caricature.
Features of the plot that might strike some viewers as unusual include the sight of Jane defending herself on two occasions and women being much more independent and pro-active than they are even in current Hollywood film productions. The Vampires themselves are portrayed as ordinary people and not as a bunch of evil criminals. Leadership in the gang is open to upper class and bourgeois people at least. There is the insinuation that evil and corruption exist everywhere in society and any one of us could be a member of the gang. The Vampires have a good time together, eating and drinking greedily, dancing the latest jigs enthusiastically and laughing at Mazamette’s portrait; compared to the sober Guérandes and their servants, and the police officers, the Vampires know how to enjoy life – again, this may be a comment on the nature of French society in 1916: the good guys are proper and restrained but perhaps alienated from feeling and emotion; the bad guys break the law and snub authority but they have worthy qualities that the good have lost or don’t understand. Interestingly when Guérande gets a good look at Irma Vep lying dead on the ground, he seems upset and wants to do something for her but Mazamette leads him away.
Overall the serial is an enjoyable romp through some quite convoluted plots all linked together through their characters and the over-riding narrative of chasing down and combating evil and corruption, and how that chase can have dangerous consequences for the good hunters. The actors acquit themselves well and for a number of them, this serial was the high point in their careers.
The serial was a hit in France and Musidora (real name: Jeanne Roques) who played Irma Vep wowed audiences so much with her mysterious and slightly sinister beauty and head-to-toe black costume that Feuillade employed her again in his next film “Judex” (1916). Musidora later became a director and producer herself and concentrated on writing and film production in the 1950s as her acting career waned. Édouard Mathé who played Phillipe Guérande also appeared in “Judex” and had quite a prolific film career from 1914 to 1924. Marcel Lévesque who played Mazamette enjoyed a very long career as an actor from 1913 to 1957.