Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 5: L’évasion du Mort)” (1916)
This time in the serial, the crooked businessman Juan José Moreno (Fernand Herrmann) plays the leading role in hunting down that mysterious gang The Vampires while intrepid reporter Phillipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) has a support role requiring him to do even less than his side-kick the comical Mazamette. After escaping the police by faking his death (hence the title of the episode), Moreno seeks revenge on The Vampires; he captures Guérande (who’s managed to escape a kidnap attempt by The Vampires) and under duress forces him to reveal a robbery The Vampires are planning to commit. Moreno and his myrmidons go at once, leaving Guérande bound in a hide-out; fortunately Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) turns up – he has good timing, that fella! but he has been studying the joint so it’s no surprise he knows when to pop in and when not to – to rescue Guérande. In the meantime, The Vampires wait at a swanky aristocrats’ party until midnight when it’s time to release the sleeping gas through the aircon vents; everyone then swoons and the criminals collect the jewellery and money off the guests. Unbeknownst to the black-garbed ones, Moreno has been hiding in the getaway car; once the car leaves the crime scene, he manages to sneak up where the booty is being held and throws off the cases of jewels onto the road. He claims the stolen loot as his own.
Perhaps the stand-out in the film is the party scene after the guests have all fallen unconscious: it reminds me of 19th century French painter Thomas Couture’s work “Romans in the Decadence of Empire” with bodies strewn over the furniture and the floor. The camera forces our gaze to the very back far into the scene where doors open and The Vampires, led by Irma Vep, pick their way through the guests and take the jewellery. This is the only time in the film we see Irma Vep and her accomplices at all. The Grand Vampire himself is the Baron who organised the party and he looks a very fop. His involvement in crime and in The Vampires gang suggests that corruption exists at the very heart of Parisian society and if people are looking for the cause of that corruption, they should seek it within themselves. Guérande, Mazamette and the police may fly hither and thither to find and arrest its most obvious manifestations but where The Vampires originate from, other contagion will fly out and follow.
The standard of acting is better than in earlier episodes and from Episode 5 on, the stories are longer, hinting that story-lines are improving (there are still gaps in the plot that need explaining – how does Moreno manage to get onto the car, tip off all the booty and escape without being noticed?) and Feuillade, his cast and the technical crew are growing more confident as film-makers and story-tellers. Close-ups are being employed and there’s not so much reliance on car-chases and secret hidey-holes in walls. Ingenious if not always plausible twists are a major part of the plot and help to advance the story which always moves at a brisk pace.
As with previous episodes of “Les Vampires”, the quality of the film is very clear when its age is taken into account. Parts of the film sometimes look very modern and the costumes worn by the evil Baron’s guests are stunning to see and are of historical value to culture historians.