Part Five: Being a tale of apache gangs and the woman who ruled the Paris underworld
On August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on France. German forces had planned for a swift and overwhelming victory by circumventing the bulk of the French forces, which were amassed along the Franco-German border, and instead coming in across France’s border with Belgium. Belgium, however, had a pact with Great Britain, so that the first German soldier who set foot in Belgium brought Great Britain into the war on the side of France. The German advance bogged down. Soldiers on both sides of the struggle began digging in, using a series of trenches to shield themselves from enemy fire. The Great War began, a grueling stalemate that lasted until November, 1918. Behind the lines of the Western Front, in perpetually threatened Paris, Louis Feuillade began work on his second thriller serial, one that reflected very closely the confusion and anxieties seizing Parisians as the streets of their city were overrun by chaos and the country’s men marched off to die in ineffective charges against German machine guns.
If the anarchists that were embodied by Fantômas gave the police and bourgeois heart palpitations, at least they tempered their hijinks with a veneer (however thin) of political idealism. In the case of Les Vampires, the inspiration for the gang of criminals running roughshod over Paris were less politically motivated apache gangs. Questionably named for the savagery Europeans thought was displayed by American Apaches, these gangs were the bane of early 20th century France. Who exactly coined the phrase remains a topic of debate (well, it remains undetermined; whether it is very often “debated” is unlikely), but by 1900, it was being used in print, mostly in the popular, sensationalist feuilliton, the “True Crime” style periodicals of 19th and early 20th century France. Apache gangs even had their own signature weapon: the apache revolver, an amazing, somewhat impractical three-in-one tool that combined a pistol, a shiv, and brass knuckles into a single nasty looking little fiend.
Unlike Fantômas, Les Vampires was an original work by Feuillade; not an adaptation of an existing property. But to say Feuillade “wrote” it himself is stretching the definition of what it is to have written something. By all accounts, the script with which actors were presented was skeletal at best. Actors were relied on to improvise, and Feuillade invented new scenarios and tangents as they were filming. Les Vampires is a serial after all, and pulp serials often ran so long that the author (or authors) would lose the strands of their own plot, or repeat themselves, or introduce inconsistencies and contradictions. Feuillade’s work on Les Vampires perfectly recreates, for the same production reasons, that same rambling and often confusing structure. In this regard, he is the forefather of the lackadaisical approach to scripting that became the hallmark of later European cult film directors, most notably Jean Rollin (whose oeuvre seems heavily influenced by Feuillade) and Jess Franco. Perhaps by accident, Feuillade’s seat-of-the-pants production style birthed the overarching attitude toward logic and reality that typified continental European horror for so much of the 20th century. Logic and reality are inessential, not even worth paying attention to during the creative process. Scripts (if they existed) should be willingly sacrificed on the altar of creating a dreamy (or nightmarish) mood in which events do not proceed with the same explainability, the same logic, as they do in waking life. Where American and British horror and mystery films concerned themselves with scientific explanations and rational deduction – the “why” of an otherwise fantastic situation – European horror just figured “why not?” When asked for an origin story or a rational explanation for events, it is more likely to shrug dismissively. Who cares? Who wants a rational dream?
The theoretical main character of Les Vampires is an intrepid newspaper man named Philipe (played by Édouard Mathé, who went on to play major roles in Feuillade’s subsequent thrillers Judex, La nouvelle mission de Judex, Tih Minh, and Barrabas). “Theoretical” main character because while the character of Juve could hold his own against the flamboyant Fantômas, Philipe Guérande is hopelessly outshined by Les Vampires’ villains. It’s Philipe who engages in the bulk of investigating and tracking down the notorious apache gang Les Vampires (no word on whether they allowed Bebe Apache to join, but one assumes every gang of cutthroats needs at least one cigar-smoking baby among its ranks) since there is almost no police presence at all in Les Vampires. They show up from time to time to make an arrest or cart off a corpse that has come tumbling out of a hidden chamber, but only after Philippe has done all of the actual detective work. It’s a statement of the disillusionment with the efficacy of state authority in the face of anarchists and apache gangs running wild and a reflection of the fact that Paris had been drained of so many men sent to the Western Front. Instead of the police, Philipe is assisted in his quest by the comical reformed Vampire Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque, also in Judex and La nouvelle mission de Judex), whose shtick is thankfully limited in screen time, usually funny (or at least inoffensive), and consists mostly of Mazamette dramatically removing a hood or hat or other disguise in a way that, even in a silent film, shouts “Hey! It’s a-me! Mazamette!”
For its first two episodes, “The Severed Head” and “The Ring That Kills,” Philipe matches wits with the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé, who went on to a role as the judge in Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc). All of that changes with the third episode, “The Red Codebook.” In and of itself it’s not a particularly outrageous entry in the series, especially not after the previous two episodes confronted audiences with a mutilated cop and the gorgeous scene in which Philipe’s fiancee, a dancer named Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), performs a surreal ballet in a bat costume meant to be reminiscent of the signature black bodystockings donned by the Vampires. She moves with graceful sensuality across the stage, menacing a slumbering young woman (perhaps a reference to Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous “lesbian vampire” short story Carmilla?). That grace transforms to terror when she begins to choke, convulse, and ultimately die while on stage, poisoned by the Grand Vampire! If Fantômas and Les Vampires teach audiences anything, it’s “don’t dress up like famous real-life criminals for your play.” “The Ring that Kills” even reveals that the Grand Inquisitor of the Vampires is a justice of the supreme court (eerily similar to real life politicians and upstanding members of society being unmasked as frauds, criminals, and hypocrites). Add a couple pretty good Mazzamete jokes, and it’s a hard act to follow. One doesn’t expect that the Grand Vampire is about to experience a dramatic fall from power, or that it will come from within his own ranks, or that it isn’t actually a function of the plot. No, the Grand Vampire seems an able foil for the crusading Philipe. But then, at one point in “The Red Codebook,” Philipe visits a seedy cabaret in pursuit of clues.
That’s when Irma Vep steps on stage.
Played by the enigmatic Musidora, Irma Vep’s introduction into Les Vampires is a conscious contrast to poor Marfa Koutiloff. Where Marfa was part of the classical arts, Irma performs at a run-down dancehall. Where Marfa performed for the elegant and rich, Irma sings and dances for the city’s thieves, cutthroats, cast-offs, and undesirables. And where Marfa’s dance was graceful in its sensuality, Irma Vep is not graceful or sensual; it’s sexual, full of thrusting. Aggressive, brazen, raunchy (by the standards of the day). In short, a threat to men, to patriarchy, to the idea of what a woman should be. It was similar in many ways to the introduction of Theda Bara in A Fool There Was, seen first destroying a flower, then a man, and shortly thereafter zeroing in on her next victim with a palpable, bestial lust. But where Bara’s vamps typically hungered for power and achieved it through sex, Musidora’s variation on the vamp hungers for power and achieves is mostly by shoving guns and knives at people. This is no respectable lady or demure coquette. This is a bold, liberated, dangerous woman. One of the screen’s first true femme fatales. Irma is not the Grand Vampire’s girlfriend. She’s not a tag-along. She’s not there to tend to the clubhouse while the boys have all the bloody fun. She’s a Vampire through and through, an equal. In fact, she very quickly becomes a superior. Neither Philipe nor the Grand Vampire hold the audience’s attention the way she does. She dominates the screen. As soon as Irma Vep shows up, Les Vampires becomes her show.
The daughter of a feminist and a socialist, young Jeanne Roques as she was named entered into the arts early. She began writing and, in her teens, acting on the stage. She struck up a lifelong friendship with novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known simply as Colette, writer of Gigi and no stranger to controversy. Happy to flaunt her bisexuality, Colette wrote and performed a pantomime skit called “Rêve d’Égypte” at the famous Moulin Rouge. The lesbian kiss exchanged during the performance between her and her then real-life girlfriend Mathilde de Morny precipitated a small riot, the arrival of the police, and the shutting down of the play. She was also romantically involved for a while with Italian writer and madman Gabriele d’Annunzio, a leading light of the Italian “Decadence” movement and in his spare time leader of his own private army. Despite the scandalous (code for exceedingly interesting) life of her best friend, Musidora and Colette were never romantically linked to one another (though rumors circulated). Jeanne Roques debuted in film in 1914, but it was her appearance in Les Vampires that made her a star, that made her Musidora. The “gift of the muses.” She certainly makes a striking first impression in Les Vampires. Throughout the serial, she remains a constant threat to poor ol’ Philipe, hatching scheme after scheme that the reporter and Mazamette must try to foil (often not entirely successfully). The gang loses leaders to assassination and prison with shocking rapidity, but Irma Vep remains, the unspoken foundation of this unruly gang of cutthroats.
She impresses with dark hair and darker eyes, but the enduring image of Les Vampires is Musidora clad in the signature black silk bodystocking favored by her gang. It fits her substantially better than it does the Grand Vampire – and certainly better than it does Mazamette, who looks likes he got saddled with a bodystocking two sizes too large. The more often critics condemned it or reporters wrote about it, the more scandalous the costume became. Breathless “naked beneath her costume” sort of hyperbole was applied to the admittedly tight-fitting costume. There are some shots where tricks of lighting, camera, and shadow make it look as if the suit is sheer. The suggestive nature of the costume is a contradiction, revealing yet covering her from head to toe, sexual but concealing, a fetishistic indulgence that accentuates her womanhood while depriving men of it, identifying her as unrepresentative of what society expects from woman but representative of what it might want (or want to be). By the time the press was done, one could be forgiven, had one not seen the movies, for thinking Musidora had been slinking around the dark streets of Paris fully nude. She only wears this maillot de soie sporadically, a few minutes spread throughout the serial’s epic run time of nearly seven hours, yet that is – not undeservedly – the indelible iconic image not just of Les Vampires, but of Louis Feuillade’s entire filmography.
Moreno is introduced in the serial’s fourth installment, “The Spectre,” when he is working the same con as Irma and the Grand Vampire. Philipe’s crusade against the Vampires takes a back seat to the struggle between the Vampires and Moreno (Fernand Herrmann), the leader of a rival gang nearly as feared (and better dressed) than the Vampires. Moreno and his gang are just as vicious as the Vampires, but they seem higher class; less apache, more Lucky Luciano. They selected smart pinstripe suits over silk body stockings. Like the police before them, Philipe and Mazamette disappear for long stretches of time as the movie concentrates on the gang war between the Vampires and Moreno. Fantômas kept Juve at the forefront of the action, but the heroes here are lost among the madness of these warring criminals. When they do resurface, there’s an interesting subversion of expectations since this middle portion lacks a female character to play the pure damsel in distress. It is Philipe who spends most of these episodes getting captured and tied up, and it is Mazemette who usually comes to his rescue. Yes, Philipe is Mazamette’s damsel in distress.
Moreno ends up on the wrong side of a frame-up involving a complicated real-estate scheme, a corpse, and a safe with a false back. He swears vengeance against the Vampires, and for most of the next two lengthy entries, the serial spend the bulk of its time among the criminals, with Philippe popping up only occasionally in an effort to remind us that we shouldn’t be rooting for either side in this struggle. But it’s hard to care about the right side of the law when the viewer is engulfed by such phantasmagorical madness as the mesmeric powers of Moreno, who uses his skills to put Irma Vep in his thrall, enlisting her aid in killing the Grand Vampire. In Fantômas, even when Juve was not on screen, it was obvious he’d soon be back and that, despite the title of the serial and the outlandishness of the villain, Juve was the hero and the focus. Here, however, by the time Moreno and Irma involve themselves with Satanas (the “real” leader of the Vampires), one can’t be blamed for having forgotten entirely that one is supposed to be on Philipe’s side. He can’t hope to compete with the likes of Irma Vep and Moreno and is decidedly dull compared to the criminals. In fact, he’s pretty dull compared to Juve, who kept the good guys interesting by being just as willing to hatch insane schemes and don elaborate disguises as was Fantômas.
From the title of the first episode in the lengthy series, “The Headless Corpse,” it’s evident that Les Vampires is bringing something to the screen in addition to the violence that permeated Fantômas; it’s bringing gruesomeness. As was the case with Fantômas, and later with Judex, viewers are thrown into the story in the middle of things. No need for an origin or to establish a history. The discovery that this vicious gang that calls themselves Les Vampires had murdered and decapitated someone and stolen the head (a policeman, no less, further signifying the general inefficacy of the police) is just one of many atrocities they’ve perpetrated, and it’s all the information needed for viewers to hit the ground running. Feuillade even trots out the head – once it’s finally discovered – in a scene during which you can practically hear audiences gasp and faint and seems right out of one of the obvious big influences on Feuillade and this type of cinema: the Grand-Guignol.
The Bloody Cul-de-sac
In 1897, a former policeman turned struggling playwright named Oscar Méténier purchased a defunct old chapel at the end of the Impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district. Méténier intended to stage plays there written in the Naturalist style championed by Émile Zola, eschewing overly poetic dialogue and historical characters in favor of plays focusing on the underbelly of society. Pimps and prostitutes, thieves and tramps, killers, con-men, and cops. His background in the police department provided Méténier with plenty of inspiration for the plays he wrote and directed at what he named Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a moniker that paid tribute to a popular satirical character in puppet theater. Méténier’s little theater – the littlest in Paris at the time – quickly garnered a reputation. His play Mademoiselle Fifi, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, was shut down for the crime of featuring a main character who was a prostitute (a first for the French stage). In 1898, Méténier turned directorial duties at the Grand-Guignol over to a relative nobody by the name of Max Maurey. Under Maurey’s direction, the Grand-Guignol cemented its reputation as a “house of horrors” and the “Chapel of Gore & Psychosis.”
Max Maurey tapped into a growing fascination with that which revolted. He was more than happy capitalize on that desire in many to witness that which repulses them. From 1898 until 1914, Maurey upped the ante with every production, showcasing plays that reveled in murder, betrayal, and wickedness. He was particularly fond of plays that explored madness and psychosis, only just beginning to be addressed in a scientific way. Maurey didn’t care if people were revolted and outraged by the plays as long as they kept buying tickets. And buy tickets they did, subjecting themselves to all manner of depraved acts and salacious displays. Maurey pioneered the sort of publicity stunts and ballyhoo that became the stock in trade of exploitation filmmakers like Dwain Esper in the 1930s and William Castle in the 1950s (Esper’s Maniac is practically a Grand-Guignol play turned motion picture, complete with a shared fascination with human madness and perversion). Maurey touted the danger of fainting during the shows and even hired “doctors” to be on hand in case anyone suffered heart attacks and other fear-induced maladies. In 1901, he hired André de Lorde, who worked as as a librarian in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, as the Grand-Guignol’s chief playwright. De Lorde, often collaborating with psychologist Alfred Binet, plumbed the depths of human madness for his material. The cramped interior of the theater, festooned with glowering angels and other accoutrements from its time as a church, only served to intensify the fear. De Lorde became known as “Le Prince de la Terreur.”
In 1914, as Louis Feuillade was beginning work on Les Vampires, Max Maurey retired and turned Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol over to Camille Choisy, a man who was obsessed with, among other things, special effects. He pioneered the use of gore effects at the theater, reveling in the spectacle of sex and violence that continued to keep audiences shocked and in attendance, even with the real horrors of the First World War bearing down on them. The theater became infamous not just for its lurid tales of the macabre, but also for the behavior of the audience which, though a mix of both low and high-brow attendees, was prone to treat their chairs like the back seat of a Camaro at a drive-in theater. Or so the shocked reports you have you believe, and the theater was happy to let that reputation grow. Couples out for a night or in the midst of a clandestine tryst were more than willing to let their fear lead to their arousal, and their arousal lead to the theater management needing to spend extra time cleaning the seats. Choisy hired actress Paula Maxa in 1917. She became the world’s first “scream queen,” appearing in countless productions and always game to endure the most grotesque and terrible fates. Her catalog of suffering – she was scalped, disemboweled, raped, beheaded, dismembered, stabbed, poisoned, whipped, strangled, flayed, burned, and even eaten alive by a puma – earned her the title of “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Impasse Chaptal,” or more befitting the nature of her career, “the most assassinated woman in the world,” the undisputed queen reigning over the blood-splashed stage of the Grand-Guignol.
The Head in the Box
It’s easy to imagine, when Philipe opens a box discovered in a secret chamber behind a painting and finds the missing head of the decapitated policeman, that audiences watching Les Vampires must have gasped in the same way as they did at the ghastly goings-on at the Grand-Guignol. At least there the horror was contained to the parlor rooms and crypts of the stage set. Les Vampires roamed throughout Paris with total disregard for boundaries. It was one thing for crimes to be committed in the disreputable parts of town, or for Fantômas’ house to be riddled with traps. It’s quite another thing when, as it was with Les Vampires, such things can happen anytime, anywhere. Although not the blood-soaked horror-show of the Grand-Guignol, Les Vampires certainly exploited deep-rooted psychological fears to augment its impact. Nowhere is safe. The whole of Paris is under assault from these degenerate brutes. Every building seems to contain a secret passage, every floor a trap door, every closet a corpse, and every rooftop seems to have no purpose but to facilitate the egress of these fiendish ghouls. It is these scenes in particular, in which a member of the Vampires eludes capture by taking to the rooftops, that Feuillade creates some of his most striking images. A combination of film technology, costume, and the actor’s body language combine to create an unnatural apparition, an inhumanly elongated and contorted revenant stalking across the rooftops of Paris. Although this Vampire is no vampire, not the stuff of Le Fanu or Bram Stoker, it’s easy to see the resemblance between the creeping criminal of Les Vampires and later, more unholy apparitions of the first wave of major horror films: the emaciated and wracked form on Count Orlok in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Conrad Veidt’s lanky, tortured somnambulist (himself rather fond of black bodystockings) stalking through the warped Expressionist streets in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The eighth episode, “The Thunder Master,” features one of the series’ best scenes – Irma Vep’s triumphant return to the Howling Cat Cabaret after narrowing escaping imprisonment in an Algerian labor camp. Charges that Feuillade was glamorizing the lives of scoundrels are lent credence by how easy it is to cheer along with the audience full of rabble and rascals when Irma Vep returns. But “The Thunder Master” also marks a curious turn in the focus of the series toward a more melodramatic structure. It begins when we meet Eustache, Mazamette’s ill-mannered son who is immediately enlisted in the effort to capture Satanas. Hey, no one ever claimed Mazamette was a good parent. The introduction of a child signifies a move toward threatening domestic stability (family, marriage, children), a hallmark of less fantastic melodramas. Shots had been fired previously by the Vampires (sometimes literally) at domestic bliss – the murder of Marfa, the unholy union of Irma and Moreno – but with the introduction of Eustache, Les Vampires starts to put Philipe and Mazamette back at the forefront.
It also makes the Vampires themselves less about sowing city-wide reigns of terror and brash acts of criminal daring and instead dedicates them (specifically, Irma, the very embodiment of threatening the status quo, of what was expected of women) to upsetting the domestic life of Philipe, who in the ninth episode, “The Poisoner,” suddenly has a new fiancee (and sadly, not one prone to flitting about in a bat costume). It all culminates in the final episode, “The Terrible Wedding,” in which Irma is to be wed to Venomous (yet another “real” leader of the Vampires). It is telling that for over six hours of film, Irma and the Vampires have run roughshod over the law, but when they threaten to profane the holy institution of marriage, things finally come to a head. Similarly, it’s telling – and a little disappointing – that the final showdown isn’t between long-time rivals Irma Vep and Philipe Guérande but is instead between Irma (the liberated, modern, or fallen woman) and Philipe’s wife Jane (the virtuous, proper woman).
Feuillade was a mainstream filmmaker, so it’s not surprising that in the end the good guys and social norms prevail. He was also a commercial filmmaker, so it’s not surprising that we spent seven hours reveling in the exploits of criminals and falling a little bit in love with the diabolical Irma Vep before the “being good conquers all” message was trotted out at the last minute. In the classic mold of the Grand-Guignol, and setting the template followed by exploitation films for decades to come, Feuillade knew (whether consciously or unconsciously) that you could get away with an awful lot for 99% of your film as long as that last 1% featured the eventual triumph of the forces of morality. Still, the road to the final showdown is strewn with an endless parade of corpses, murders, trap doors, secret chambers, suicide pills, bombs, poison gas (the preferred method of attack in the final two episodes, reflecting its heinous introduction as a weapon on the Western Front around the same time), Irma Vep ruling over all (even when she’s under Moreno’s spell or to be wed to Venomous, she seems the one in control), Mazamette punching a cop, and wholesale mayhem. Each episodes moves at a spry clip, denying viewers the chance to sit and wonder about the logic of it all. Like Fantômas, the Grand Vampire seems able to conjure lavish ruses with complicated back stories in a matter of hours and at a cost that seems substantially more than what the gang would net should the scheme go off without a hitch. Events never demand or offer an explanation; they merely happen. And just when you start to wonder about the feasibility of such schemes, a corpse will tumble out of a basket or Musidora will get thrown out of a window, and all is forgotten as we are swept up in the thrill of it all.