The story of Louis Feuillade’s sinister silent films, Fantômas and Les Vampires, as well as the early days of action-adventure serials, stunt queens, vamps, and Frankenstein monsters.
Paris was a strange place in 1913. Poised on the brink of the most devastating conflict in human history, the city was a cauldron of anarchists, criminals, pioneers, and dreamers. Among them was Louis Feuillade, protege of Gaumont film producer and director Alice Guy. Across the Atlantic, writers and directors at Edison Studios in New Jersey were in the midst of creating the cinematic format in which Feuillade would excel: the serial. So begins a tale of cinematic innovation, tragic queens of early cinema, and a hooded madman who terrorized all of Paris with his relentless reign of chaos.
Mary Fuller was the star of Edison Studio’s What Happened to Mary, the world’s first episode serial. For a time she was one of the biggest stars in the world, rivaling even America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford and America’s most dangerous woman, Theda Bara — until Mary Fuller vanished from the public. But before all that, she played a role in what is arguably the world’s first horror film, a 1910 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.
Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas was an adaptation of a series of novel that took the concept of the “gentleman thief” pioneered by the likes of Arsene Lupin and Raffles and dropped the “gentleman” part. The result was a series of controversial films in which a hooded maniac sows anarchy and death across Paris with seemingly no regard at all for whether the scheme is ultimately successful, as long as he creates fear and death in pursuit of his mad goals. Pursuing him every step of the way is policeman Juve, who in many ways is just as crazy as his arch nemesis.
As the 1910s progressed as Europe found itself plunged into a war that would consume the world, the cinema soldiered on. Two of the most famous stars to emerge in the first half of the decade were like opposite sides of the same coin. Perils of Pauline star Pearl White was blonde, athletic, healthy, wholesome, and famous for performing hair-raising stunts. A Fool There Was star Theda Bara was dark, brunette, mysterious, frequently surrounded by accoutrements of spiritualism and the occult, was became cinema’s iconic man-eater: the vamp.
From vamps to Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade followed up Fantômas with a spectacular and surreal crime series that gave the early silent era one of it’s most famous characters: the vamp of the Vampires, clad in an alluring black silk catsuit: Musidora. This penultimate chapter of our series looks at Feuillade’s masterpiece Les Vampires, the woman at the center of it, and the birth of horror on stage at Paris’ macabre Theatre Grand-Guignol.
As the sun comes, up banishing all things ghoulish, murderous, and fun to the lairs for another day, we wrap the series with reflections on the end of the Great War, Feuillade’s proto-Batman/Shadow serial Judex, the shift from focusing on villains to dwelling on heroes and domestic happiness, the migration of the world’s cinematic and artistic nexus from Paris to Weimar Berlin, and the final days of both Louis Feuillade and his greatest discovery, Musidora.
Fantomas made a triumphant return to the big screen in 1964, updated for the James Bond era into a larger-than-life super villain. But some things never change, and even though director Andre Hunebelle updates Fantomas for the swinging age, he’s still spending most of his time mesig with Fandor and Juve.