Not bad, not bad at all, though the last few episodes do drag some.
This is, after all, the story of a criminal gang of ninja Apache feminist supervillains exploiting modern technology to take over the world, and only an intrepid reporter can stop them. What’s not to like?
Also, it’s French, which not only means that almost anything can and does happen, whether or not it fits into the plot, but also that very few title cards are needed to really get you into the story (the Gallic shrug is only the start of gestures used here). The story unfolds in a more natural way than if it had been filmed, say, by D. W. Griffith.
Finally, Louis Feuillade was crazy and made his actors do some of their own stunts, including riding on the top of a moving car, sorting through luggage (while the camera crew follows, presumably, on another car) and lying in between rails as multiple cars of a real train roll overhead.
Even “ordinary” thriller sequences like somebody climbing up the side of a building or moving with stealth over rooftops are filmed live wherever possible.
– A very strong bad guy. This gang is truly evil and close to unstoppable.
– The sort of decent, rather boring hero around whom the fantastic events of the entire eight-hour series can orbit without audience loss of suspension of disbelief.
– Musidora (the lady who had the train rolling over her). She’s the soul of the gang and in on the decision making as well as the action. Her overall style makes you wonder if the term “vamp” really came from this movie, which was contemporary with Theda Bara’s A Fool There Was.
– Details of a long-vanished way of life. According to Wikipedia, “Feuillade made the film quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” In doing so, he caught on film a view of Paris and environs in 1915 that we would otherwise never have. With the exception of scenes where a car is used (it’s usually the only one in sight), the story unfolds in the normal daily world, and since the hero is a reporter, we get to see that world on many levels, from offices, to jails, clubs, home life, streets, etc. This was my favorite aspect of the series, though it was sad, too, for this was the Europe that got smashed in two world wars.
– Mazamette. I think Feuillade used this character first to mock coincidence and the concept of deus ex machina and then to own both of these storytelling tools. It’s tremendously fun because, somewhere along the way, he created a French archetype. Later in the series, though, he turned Mazamette into a supporting character, and this weakened things overall. However, perhaps he gave young Julius Marx the idea for a character that would be called Groucho.
– A look at the very first vampire story? Now, I know there’s nothing supernatural about these Vampires, but in episode 2 there is a brief stage performance of something called “The Vampires” that does show a winged, blood-sucking woman. I wonder if Feuillade was referencing (without naming) Carmilla; if so, this short scene might be the first film representation of a vampire. It’s a good one, too. Here it is:
– It’s a silent film. This turns off a lot of people, who don’t know what they’re missing.
– It’s incredibly long, and the later episodes, probably because the series became wildly popular, are more formulaic and less interesting than the earlier ones as well as up to twice as long each.
– Some stunts look fake. Let’s face it, this was 1915 and they couldn’t CGI somebody falling down the entire side of a building while a rope unwound around their waist. They used a dummy and it shows. However, see above regarding actors doing their own shots.
– Cruelty in some scenes. That entire bullfighting sequence comes to mind; it was unnecessary to the plot, too. Also the way Philippe sets up the Vampires in the last episode so that they (mostly) all die is out of character for him as well as quite brutal.
– Soundtrack. I would get the DVD released in 2000 with the Robert Israel soundtrack, but others are out there as well. You have to look for something you can live with for 399 minutes, or else pass up music completely.
– The leadership of the Vampires is, to say the least, chaotic over the course of the series. [Spoiler alert] You end up guessing how each successor to the first one is going to get killed.
Where to find this online
Les Vampires is on YouTube and at least in part at the Internet Archive, or you can watch the roughly eight-hour series here: