When Louis Feuillade's landmark, 10-part French serial Les Vampires was first released in 1915, a couple of episodes were temporarily banned by the Ministry Of The Interior for glamorizing criminal behavior. That this charge happens to be dead-on is perhaps the chief pleasure of the series, which follows an underground thieving ring as it sneaks through secret passageways, experiments in alchemy, and gases the aristocracy. Beautifully restored by David Shepard, the man behind 1995's indispensable The Art Of Buster Keaton boxed sets, Les Vampires is perhaps best known for featuring one of the most enduring screen icons: Irma Vep (an anagram for "vampire"), a devious villainess in black silk tights played by the fleshy, balletic Musidora. The partly scripted, partly improvised episodes (with eye-catching titles like "The Severed Head" and "Dead Man's Escape") track a clean-cut journalist (Edouard Mathé) and his comic sidekick (Marcel Lévesque) in their continued attempts to foil The Vampire Gang's elaborate schemes. Feuillade's wild pastiche of slapstick, lurid sensationalism, and a dark, underlying realism (which connects the subversive to the workaday world) was an early influence on the avant-garde, recently inspiring Olivier Assayas' dazzling 1996 film Irma Vep. More than just an historical artifact, Les Vampires is consistently engaging in its own right, especially after the fourth episode, in which a rival gang of jewel thieves muddies the simple plotlines. Even at nearly eight hours, the series has ingenuity to spare.
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