Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Before I Die #538: The Vampires (1915-1916)

This is the 538th of the 1,162 films placed on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through...

Director: Louis Feuillade

Original French Title: Les Vampires

I've watched dozens of silent films. While I'm no expert or enthusiast of the era, there are plenty of movies from that time period that I quite enjoy. However, no silent film (or series of films, as it were) has been as tiresome to sit through as the 1915 French series Les Vampires.

The innovations of the series do not escape me. A modest amount of research reveals that this series was perhaps the very first to construct a longer, serialized crime story in film. For this, along with the decent production values, it was immensely popular. Later film geniuses like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock even adopted some of the techniques used in the series. Such latter-day filmmakers, however, advanced and evolved those techniques light years beyond how they were being used by Feuillade.

However, no silent film that I've seen has aged so horribly. Firstly, the collective series is 10 episodes and 412 minutes long. That's 6 hours and 52 minutes, which was, to me, about 6 hours and 22 minutes too long. Obsessive completist that I am, I sat through every minute of it. The whole tiresome collection tells the tale of a championing young journalist - Phillipe Guerande - and his attempts to root out and bring down a ruthless and shadowy crime syndicate known as "The Vampires."

A man checks out an advertisement for the actress Irma Vep,
which any 8-year old can see is an anagram for "vampire."
Sadly, this is about as complex as any of the endless plot
points or twists get through the entire series. 
Probably the greatest problem is how simplistic nearly everything is about the film. The story is thoroughly plot-driven, without a single scrap of character development. Not one. Each and every character, from the noble and heroic reporter to the nefarious masterminds of The Vampires, is as one-dimensional and cartoonish as they come. Without any emotional ties, we are only left to follow the criminal pursuit of the tale, which is equally disappointing.

The plot points, twists, and turns could possibly have been engaging 100 years ago, when the series was released. Now, however, they insult the intelligence. Some of this is not the fault of the film. The procedural crime thriller has become such a tremendous presence in modern storytelling that century-old prototypes are bound to get outpaced. However, there are some elements that were simply dumb, no matter what time period you are watching them in. Anyone who gives the slightest amount of critical thought to many of the plot points will find gaping holes throughout the tale.

In short, this film was a major chore to watch. I can only recommend it to the most dedicated and passionate fans of film and film history, though even many of them may find it a gruelling task. One would have to have a very special place in one's heart for silent film to gain much entertainment out of The Vampires.

That's 538 films down. Only 624 to go before I die...