Serial Thriller

Les Vampires is as fresh and fast as it was in 1915

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Irma Vep seems trapped. The Queen of the Paris underworld is hiding in her attic as the police storm upstairs. Fortunately, she keeps 100 ft. of rope for just such exigencies. She coils it around her waist, climbs out the window and falls, twirling like a runaway yoyo, till she lands seven stories below. Vice triumphant!

And ageless melodrama in all its florid glory. This scene, from Louis Feuillade's 10-part serial Les Vampires, was shot in 1915, the year of The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith's epic, a masterpiece of film form, creaks today. But Les Vampires, with thrill upon stunt upon criminal chicanery, is as modern as Rush Hour or The X Files. In Waterbearer Films' ravishing 6-hr. 40-min. video edition, restored by David Shepard with its color tinting and long-lost intertitles, Les Vampires is revealed as the prototype and apotheosis of every hurtling action film and devious crime thriller to follow.

The Vampires are a Paris gang preying on the rich and eluding their nemesis, a crusading reporter. He is the nominal hero, but the villains are the stars: smarter, snazzier. They scamper over the roofs of Paris in their Spider-Man skivvies; they perform the great stunts; they are the master spies, the mad bombers, the killer caterers. And in Irma Vep (played by Musidora, fetchingly saturnine in pancake makeup and black tights), Les Vampires gave us film's first modern woman. No wonder the Paris police banned an episode for depicting "exalted evil."

With all due respect to Griffith, Les Vampires was the movie event of its year. And now of this one.

--By Richard Corliss