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Cinema Revisted: “Les Vampires” (1915-16)

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"Les Vampires" is an epic silent film

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In 2012, Kino-Lorber released the beautiful restoration of Louis Feuilliade's “Les Vampires,” a six-and-a-half hour saga of a journalist in France and his pursuit of underworld savages (not supernatural beings as suggested by the title) on DVD and blu ray.

Originally released in chapters from November 1915 through June of 1916, “Les Vampires” contains the prototype for nearly every such mystery. Feuilliade's careful concentration on character, his deliberately relaxed pacing, and his method of using striking visual composition to carefully build each scene, are all ingredients that would later permeate the work of such noted masters as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, among others.

At the time of its initial release, “Les Vampres was dismissed by French critics for not progressing the country's cinema at a technical level. D.W. Griffith had just released his epic “Birth of a Nation” (1915) in America, which extended the scope and spectacle of cinema during the medium's infancy. French critics believed “Les Vampires” offered little or no indication of greater technical achievement at a time when France was interested in making better films, inspired by the advancements in American movies. While there may not be anything cinematically innovative in “Les Vampires” Feuilliade's careful framing of each scene is a solid example of the French mise-en- scène that is the essence of cinema's visual composition. For instance, there is a scene where Feuilliade uses a medium shot of the leading man in bed, placing him in the lower corner of the frame, surrounded by negative space, most of which is above. The room engulfs the journalist, offering a striking visual statement. In another nicely composed shot, a woman calling from the upper floor of a tall building is framed in the background, with two men standing below in the foreground. The composition of this shot (in its narrative context, there is a connection among the people) is arguably more effective than the cross-cut editing Griffith might have utilized. Throughout the film, close-ups and medium shots continue to propel the tautly paced narrative.

Some accounts have taken issue with the hamminess of the lead actors, but this is another case where, arguably, the performances are actually a bit more refined than in “Birth of a Nation,” where stage trained thespians exhibited gestures that were far too broad for the intimate movie camera. Actress Musidora (ne: Jeanne Roques) is especially effective as a cabaret singer who is under hypnotic control that forces her to engage in savage crimes.

The concept of "Les Vampires" is immediately engrossing, while the narrative maintains viewer interest over the episodic film's long running time. And, as with films like "The General" (1927) and "Duck Soup" (1933), the reputation of "Les Vampires" has grown considerably more positive over time. It is considered by contemporary film historians and scholars to be Feuilliade's masterpiece, as well as one of the most important films of French silent cinema.

Kino-Lorber's high definition release is on two discs, and was remastered from the Cinémathèque Française's 35mm film restoration. It includes an excellent musical score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The visuals are stunningly clear, made especially evident during the deep focus shots such as when the journalist is shown a theater box in the foreground with tumultuous action on the stage in the background.

“Les Vampires” is highly recommended for any library or collection with an interest in the mystery or suspense genre's history and development. It is a clear example of early cinema's rise to the level of art.

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