A fabulously weird, ten-episode 1915 serial from Louis Feuillade, whose pulp fictions were loved equally by popular audiences who enjoyed the thrills and the pretty girls and high-brow surrealists who relished the implied savage anarchy. The Vampires — a band of black-clad, gloating criminals — terrorise Paris, opposed by determined journalist Guérande (Edouard Math) and his beaky comical sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Levésque). Perhaps because Feuillade kept falling out with leading men, the gang lose three leaders (and one rival crook arch-enemy) throughout the story – but clearly the break-out star is Mademoiselle Musidora as the body-stockinged, sexy, maniacal, murderously devious Vampire No. 2, Irma Vep (crude animation rearranges the letters of her cabaret poster to unpick the anagram). Irma follows the crook Fantomas and the vigilante Judex, lead characters of earlier Feuillade hits, in her penchant for proto-supervillain gear when in action, augmented by a wide range of effective disguises.
In the early episodes, the antagonism is to be between Guérande, a newsman who can get astonishing cooperation from the police at a flash of his press card, and Le Grand Vampire (Marcel Aymé), a Fantomas-type troublemaker who goes so far as to murder the hero’s dancer fiancée (Stacia Napierowska) with a poison ring in the second episode (perhaps because her batwing outfit mocks vampires). The Grand Vampire has Guérande kidnapped to be put on trial by a vampire Inquisition, but thanks to the infiltrating undertaker Mazamette – a bald, beaky eccentric who would fit into Hergé’s universe – he escapes, leaving the vampires’ Inquisitor under a hood to be executed by his fellows. However, the Grand Vampire also has to put up with trouble from Juan-José Moréno (Fernard Hermann), a rival gentleman thief who not only beats the Vampires to some scores but woos and wins the faithless Irma. But everything gets a shake-up when the Grand Vampire is killed and Moréno hanged (offscreen between episodes), and a sleek bourgeois nick-named Satanas (Louis Leubas) reveals himself as the real leader of the Vampires, only to be arrested within two episodes and poison himself in prison. His successor is the poison-specialist Vénénos (Frederik Moriss), who takes a rather larkish approach to crime – after one coup, he throws a party at which he does a high-kicking celebratory dance and reveals his fiendishness by drawing a cruel caricature of Mazamette (shooting an eyehole with a pistol) to the amusement of his fellow vampires.
Irma (who, it is implied, devotes herself to a succession of criminal lovers), Mazamette and the plucky Guérande are around throughout – the hero gains and marries a new fiancée (Louise Lagrange), and Mazamette proposes to a maid (Germaine Rouer) whose husband is an incidental victim of a poison plot – but the tone changes as episodes unfold. This serial really does feel made up on the hoof: early on, the Vampires are a fearsome secret society, with disguised members among all ranks of society and perhaps some greater anarchist purpose, but by the end, they seem to be a jovial crew of apache lowlifes with little ambition beyond loot and a few grudges. Despite their former fearsomeness, the villains are all apprehended in a slapstick pile-up, after Guérande sabotages their getaway balcony. Much of the action takes place before stage flats, which are recycled so the same wallpaper shows up in many venues, but Feuillade gets out on location for some scurrying up walls and across rooftops which find the Vampires using a 1915 version of parkour to escape, and some ambitious chases in which the camera is on a moving car. It’s more genial, and perhaps self-aware, than Fantomas and Judex, as if everyone were beginning to tip the wink to the audience—which makes it a precedent for an entire strain of larkish action cinema that persists to this moment, delivering the delights of high melodrama but with an admission that it can’t be taken seriously.