A Rare Treat for Cinephiles from Kino Lorber
A strong argument can be made that contemporary horror audiences are ill-equipped to consume black and white suspense films from the early ages of cinema. While horror classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will always be revisited with a certain level of respectful understanding, the expectations of horror fans have become intertwined with the necessity of bloody violence, unpredictable or twist-loaded plots and elements of surrealism. However, for those appreciative of the roots of the horror genre and simplistic, suspenseful storytelling, Les Vampires goes beyond its initial social allegories to provide a fascinating, albeit patience-testing, look into the macabre world of the bourgeois.
Although blood is spilled and certain costumes are evocative of gothic horror imagery, Les Vampires is closer in line with crime thrillers, following individual crimes through an over-arcing narrative. Make no mistake, despite the film’s namesake, the supernatural creatures of the night do not appear; instead they relegate the title to an underground crime organization aiming to destabilize the French upper class. A crowning achievement in the career of Louis Feuillade, Les Vampires is a hard film to absorb under an objective eye, as a retrospective, analytical view is common for films of a world beyond our familiarity. However, at complete face value, Les Vampires draws curiosity and intrigue of various degrees, especially when considering the length of the total film.
Les Vampires is incredibly immersive, utilizing rich characters and awe-inspiring art design to rope in even the most reluctant of viewers. But the film is difficult to digest in a single sitting, with the expression-heavy silent film acting starkly contrasting the performances most horror viewers have grown accustomed to seeing. Cinephiles may engage this material with an insatiable inquisitiveness, but Les Vampires is definitely far from general consumption. Kino Lorber is releasing their painstakingly restored DVD and Blu Ray of the entire 6 and ½ hour film, in its intended episode format. Featuring music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Les Vampires is brought to a new generation through new eyes, thanks to a collaborative effort from Gaumont Studios, Cinémathèque Française and the grandson of Feuillade, Jacques Champreux.
Using the best of stark, impressionistic photography and grandiose costumes, Les Vampires makes the most of the black and white, silent filmmaking format. The images at times are tantamount to nightmares, granting the violent and shocking moments of the piece a substantial resonance. But although the inspiration to horror as a genre is apparent in spades, Les Vampires crosses between genres to tell the tale of greed, murder and sabotage through the rich citizens of France in the 1910’s.
The story mainly follows Philipe, masterfully portrayed by Edouard Malthe, as he repeatedly falls into contention with a group of exquisite terrorists known as the Vampires, who kill, rob and frame the bourgeois and the lawful. The motivations for the crimes are clearly greed, and at the time, the violence depicted in the film, including decapitation and various other methods of brutal murder, were controversial, yet considerably effective. At the helm of many of these murders stands Irma Vep, the character most likely to haunt your psyche beyond the film’s running time, thanks to an unforgettable performance from Musidora.
The film is intelligent, yet also refreshingly basic, making the episodes easy to follow and allowing the action to remain unpredictable, despite the revisionist understanding of genre tropes. The numerous characters come and go as the villainy of the Vampires continues, but the film never feels overcrowded and never sends the story into flashbacks, adding only to the film’s mounting tension. The style of the film also feels uniquely beautiful and incredulously developed, serving as a stepping stone to the works of later filmmaking pioneers such as Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman.
To reveal more of the plot may hurt the enjoyment of the film, as the episodes in which the film is presented can easily be ruined through recap and summary. The film requires patience, but those willing to provide are rewarded with a thrilling score, chilling visuals and a stimulating story from an era of filmmaking largely forgotten by the world at large.
Despite sporadic problems with the film print, as with most aged film prints of the black-and-white era, Kino Lorber takes a wonderfully purist approach with the print, allowing the film to embrace the apparent flaws. The 1080p conversion adds a substantial element of depth to the film, with details of the impressive art design revealed in unprecedented clarity compared to previous releases. Grain-haters may beware, as there is no sign of digital noise reduction, but the old-fashioned appearance of the film is a large part of the film’s charm.
The Audio is wonderfully mixed and presented, utilizing a grandiose original score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra through an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 stero track. Appropriate and engaging, this new score is the best part of this set, an unbelievable feat when compared to the film at hand. The film benefits from this score tremendously, as the moments of suspense on screen would not nearly be as effective without this particular composition.
No real special features are included in the package, despite new title cards and subtitles specifically recreated by Kino Lorber.
Cinephiles and fans of silent films will find it a necessity to add Les Vampires to their collection, as the deceptive story and glorious mixture of the new score and gorgeous 1080p presentation from Kino Lorber is too tempting to resist. However, for contemporary horror fanatics unaccustomed with the cinema of old, be warned: the episodic film plays better in smaller doses, lest you want to test the limits of your patience.
– By Ken W. Hanley