At 7 hours total, the French serial Les Vampires is one of the longest films ever made; I paced myself a bit, watching only one or two of the ten sections each night. But this thriller crime story sucked me in really quickly, and I even came away so fond of a particular character that I ultimately tracked down a fan club.
It’s not about supernatural vampires; rather, in this film the “Vampires” are an organized crime syndicate, and the obsession of young cub reporter Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé). In the first segment, Philipe gets a tip for a story – a Parisian police officer was just murdered, and the corpse was missing its head. Suspecting a connection to the Vampires, he begs his editor for the assignment. Only fifteen minutes later, he’s stumbling through a secret passage in the walls of his hotel, pursuing a masked intruder who tried to plant some stolen diamonds in his pocket as he slept – and who did hide the officer’s severed head in his trunk. And that’s all just the first chapter.
The ten segments in the serial are jam-packed full of thriller plot twists. There are three poisonings, blackmailings, exploding steamships, double-crosses, dueling crime mobs, prison breaks, exilings to Algeria, dance sequences, kidnappings, jewel thefts, two completely different secret codebooks, hypnotists, Mickey Finns, and even an assassin whose weapon of choice is a cannon – and somehow it all manages to hang together long enough to defeat the bad guys and allow both of the serial’s heroes a happy ending.
There’s also a plum of a femme fatale – “Irma Vep”, played by avant-garde actress Musidora. Philpe first discovers her at a cabaret frequented by the Vampires – at first he thinks she’s just a singer. But he is soon to learn that the enigmatic vamp is the Vampires’ heart and soul. Three men assume the lead of the Vampire gang over the course of the story, but Irma Vep is a constant – she was the masked thief who framed Philipe at the very beginning, she’s the one who plots out the Vampires’ most involved heists, and when she and the current Grand Vampire are imprisoned, she’s the one they try to spring from jail (as for the male counterpart, they smuggle him in a cyanide capsule so he can kill himself). Her name is even an anagram of “vampire”, as the film helpfully shows us –
Irma Vep may be a compelling character. But she wasn’t the character who won me over, nor was young Philipe. Instead, the character I found myself looking forward to seeing was the comic-relief sidekick, Oscar Mazamette.
Unlike most comic-relief sidekicks, Mazamette is no dumb bumbler. Initially a reluctant low-level member of the Vampires, he soon jumps ship to work with Philipe, and his assistance helps Philipe to crack several parts of the case. Mazamette also bravely comes to the rescue of Philipe’s mother and fiancee on two separate occasions, and even concocts a scheme to get himself inside one of the Grand Vampire’s apartments with a gun to take him prisoner (it doesn’t work, alas).
For all his loyalty and bravery, actor Marcel Levesque plays Mazamette as a bit of a clown; he’s something of a ladies’ man and a little pretentious, both traits that get him in trouble. The film also cracks several jokes at the expense of his nose; in one shoot-out, a bullet meant to kill one of the Vampires instead grazes Mazamette’s protuberant proboscis. I actually burst out laughing in the next scene when Mazamette entered wearing a comically over-sized bandage.
Even the Vampire gang has a go at his nose, which he discovers during a raid of their lair towards the end of the film and is none too pleased about.
It may have been seven hours’ worth of viewing, but it was an enormous amount of fun to watch.