Les Vampires: a dream of silent cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tim Major, a writer of speculative and weird fiction. His short stories have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year. His next novel, Snakeskins, will be published by Titan Books in spring 2019. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com

There are moments when I experience a twinge of surprise that I’ve written a long-form non-fiction book about Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 crime serial, Les Vampires. I’m a novelist and short-story writer rather than a film writer. While I love silent film, it’s far from my specialism. Even so, when I was invited to write a book for the Midnight Movie Monographs series from Electric Dreamhouse Press, Les Vampires was my first choice.

Les Vampires exists in a strange hinterland between the ‘cinema of spectacle’ and the narrative and montage techniques being developed concurrently by filmmakers such as DW Griffith. Nowadays Les Vampires is accepted as highly important in the canon – it laid the groundwork for many staples of crime films as well as the conventions of episodic drama now more likely to be experienced on TV – but it’s equally likely to be mentioned as an example of one of the world’s longest films, at seven hours. Frankly, I’m appalled that the serial gets referenced so much, but seems to be watched relatively little.

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More to the point, I think that Les Vampires is a wondrous film. Composed on the fly across ten episodes released in (more or less) monthly instalments, the serial follows journalist Philippe Guérande and his right-hand man Mazamette, who act as proto-detectives on the hunt for the members of a gang named the Vampires. However, within the first few episodes Feuillade’s allegiances shift. Focus moves to the gang and particularly, after her spectacular introduction in the third episode, to Irma Vep, the muse of several successive leaders of the gang. Musidora, the actress who plays Vep, is rightly the most iconic aspect of the serial and is allowed to wrest control of the narrative from her besotted pursuers.

The tone of the film is bizarre. Dream logic reigns and its inconsistencies are as compelling as its storylines. The proximity of the Great War is felt constantly: the streets of Paris are desolate and actors disappear without warning, having been called up to fight on the front lines. Anxieties about the war are made manifest in the Vampires’ penchant for bombs and oversized artillery. More obliquely, Paris is transformed into a network of hidden passages in which no space is as it seems and any home might suddenly be invaded via unlikely portals: windows, fireplaces, hidden staircases, false walls. This sense of uncertainty and paranoia strongly evokes David Lynch’s attitude to undermining his onscreen world in, for example, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

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While I’ve relished researching the cinematic and historical contexts of Les Vampires, my response has been partly creative. Rewatching the film many times over has already influenced the type of fiction that I write. In the monograph I’ve also included ten pieces of weird fiction, one following each episode. These stories ‘remix’ elements of the serial and feature a protagonist who is a combination of its most important contributors – Louis Feuillade and Musidora – and who must navigate the labyrinth of a shifting, uncertain city alone.

If nothing else, I hope that my enthusiasm for Les Vampires proves infectious. It deserves to be watched.

By Tim Major

  • Tim Major’s monograph about Les Vampires will be published by Electric Dreamhouse Press in September 2018 and can be pre-ordered here.
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