Les Vampires (Part 2: La Bague qui tue / Part 4: Le Spectre): microcosm of public paranoia and terror

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 2: La Bague qui tue)” (1915), “Les Vampires (Part 4: Le Spectre)” (1916)

Here be two further episodes in which investigative reporter Phillipe Guérande (Edouard Mathe) has encounters with members of that dastardly criminal gang The Vampires who go skipping about in head-2-toe all-leather black costumes (ooh, ah!) and evade all attempts to arrest and identify them. In “The Killer Ring / La Bague qui tue”, a ballerina and Guérande’s supposed fiancee, Marfa Koutiloff, receives a visit from aristocrat Count de Nourmoutier who unaristocratically shoves a strange ring he himself has just received from a stranger onto her finger; the ring scratches her skin and injects a poison that later kills her while she performs a ballet dressed as a vampire bat. Guérande tries to pursue the Count but is captured by the Vampires who plan to execute him. Guérande’s trusty side-kick Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) turns up unexpectedly to rescue him and substitutes another fellow in his place. They make their getaway, the Vampires execute the substitute but before they can uncover his face, the cops arrive so the baddies escape, but just narrowly. The cops find the body and discover that the dead man is a chief justice.

In “The Spectre”, businessman Moreno is taken on a trip through an apartment by real estate agent Treps and is shown a secret safe. Vampire gang member Irma Vep overhears their conversation and starts planning some mischief. Impersonating a secretary, she takes a job at a bank where manager Metadier is preparing to take a large sum of money to another bank by train. On his trip, Metadier is murdered and his body disappears. Reporter Guérande reads about the murder and, snooping about and finding clues, goes to the apartment with the secret wall safe and attempts to make a citizen’s arrest of Irma Vep. She and her accomplices overpower Guérande and escape. On recovering consciousness, Guérande finds the dead Metadier in the safe. Moreno also arrives and he and Guérande confront each other. Moreno tells Guerande how he found Metadier on the train tracks and then attempts to flee but police, called earlier by Guérande, arrive and arrest Moreno.

As in Episode 1, coloured filters indicate the time of day and inter-card titles the passage of time in the story. In these subsequent episodes, the Vampires gang is revealed to be a more amorphous and trickier entity: it seems that their members are hired from different social levels and their leader, the Grand Vampire, changes a lot as well. The Vampires assume the veneer of a radical political movement opposed to the bourgeois nature of society which is perhaps why the city of Paris is so afraid of them and the police and Guerande are so keen to capture them. A parallel can be drawn between the Paris of “Les Vampires” and the present-day post-911 world in which citizens across the First World fear terrorists, Islamic fundamentalism and banksters alike. (Only one of these is worth fearing, the others most likely don’t exist or exist only because of the odd one out and its depredations across the world.)

The acting is not remarkable – there tends to be considerable over-acting and emotional excess which are par for the course in silent films – but more emphasis is placed on action-thriller activity and skulduggery with each episode under review here featuring a car chase and some form of evasion. Humour is present whenever Mazamette turns up which is not often. Props and sets are significant characters as well, the interiors and in particular the wallpaper patterns of the apartment with the secret safe quite lurid in this respect!

Holes in the narrative do exist and the second episode’s plot seemed quite sketchy but on the whole these episodes are packed with activity and story and so are exciting to watch (though the downloading on Youtube took a while and broke up Episode 4 which was annoying). Above all, the atmosphere in these episodes is sinister and Paris itself appears as a city of menace with deserted streets over which long shadows in the afternoon loom and where strange deaths and disappearances occur without rhyme or reason at night.



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