Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 1: La tête coupée)” (1915)
First episode in a ten-part serial about a gang of criminals called Les Vampires and the efforts of young investigative reporter Phillipe Guérande to catch them, “The Severed Head / La tête coupée” is an engrossing story filled with drama, intrigue and mystery. It doesn’t end well for a couple of characters but the narrative is bound to whet viewers’ appetite for more. Guérande of The Chronicle newspaper is enquiring into the decapitation death of Police Inspector Durtal; he visits the castle of Dr Nox, where Durtal was last seen alive, and stays the night. During the long night, the reporter discovers secret caches and passages in the castle. Morning arrives and fellow guest Mrs Simpson discovers she has been robbed; Guérande is framed by Dr Nox for the crime. Our hero high-tails it to the magistrate’s office with Dr Nox and Mrs Simpson, the buyer of the castle, hot on his heels. Conveniently, the magistrate arranges for the irate couple to stay at the court under police guard and he and Guérande with a couple of other men drive off to the castle and investigate its interiors. They find the head of Durtal in a box in a secret hole behind a painting in the room where Guérande had slept overnight. On returning to the court-house, Mrs Simpson is found dead and Dr Nox has disappeared.
The film has an intense, brooding quality and the locations selected promise much mystery and chilling suspense. The camera work includes plenty of shots that embrace the distinctive exterior and interior appearances of Dr Nox’s surprisingly modern-looking mansion. Close-ups of actors’ faces are not used; instead considerable distance filming of the actors arriving at the court-house in open sedan cars and of Dr Nox’s domicile is featured. The use of coloured filters to show changes in time and lighting conditions is very effective and looks very avant-garde for the film’s time (1915). Clues such as cryptic notes on cards, hidden safety vaults behind paintings and characters’ secret comings and goings, some of which are done off-screen, advance the plot and give it a frisson of suspense and dread.
The story flows well and comes to the point quickly and smoothly; the climax which reveals the unhappy fate of Dr Nox and shows the Great Vampire leader’s daring cat-burglar escape across the roof-tops and shimmy down a hose-pipe to the ground, is rather long and the film ends awkwardly and abruptly on that note. Viewers must wait for future episodes to find out if Guérande captures not just the Great Vampire but his (or her) infamous crime gang whose presence is more sensed than heard. The music accompaniment, full of zest and drama, fits the action well.
For its period, the film looks well done and quite accomplished. There’s silly humour and some of the acting and stuntwork may look amateurish to modern eyes but the story is enthralling enough that I think I will see more episodes.
The film may have some cultural relevance to post-911 times: as in the film, made in the early years of World War I, the public in the present day is spooked by an unseen and poorly understood enemy who may not be what s/he seems but can cause serious and fearsome upset and catastrophe.