The Red Cryptogram (1915)
This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” is being reviewed as part of the Silent Cinema Blogathon at “In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.” I’m always pleased that film fans are taking the chance to learn about early and silent cinema, and I hope you’ll check out the other entries as well this weekend. For those of you who may be new to this series, the main thing to understand is the the “Vampires” are actually members of a criminal gang called “Les Vampires,” not supernatural undead beings.
This was the last episode of the serial to be released in 1915, so we’ll have to wait a while to see how things develop. It’s also the longest so far, getting back to more the style of full-length serial episode that we learned to expect in Fantômas. It begins with our intrepid hero, the lackluster Guérande (Édouard Mathé), playing hooky and staying home from work on false pretenses. It’s not clear to me whether he does this to try to trick the Vampires, who thought that they had killed him in the previous episode, or just because he wants a day off. He discovers a Vampire watching his apartment, however, and goes out in disguise to a hot new nightclub featuring the act of one “Irma Vep” (played by Musidora, who would be the biggest star to come out of this series), where he watches her sing. She then goes to an after-hours club with an Apache Dance as the floor show and meets with the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), who instructs her to retrieve a red notebook that Guérande got from the Grand Inquisitor in the previous episode. Guérande returns home by way of his fireplace, and is shortly thereafter followed by Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who passes along a poisoned pen he has stolen from the Vampires.
The next day, Irma Vep arrives and applies for a job as a maid. She tries to poison Guérande, but he figures it out and drinks water instead. Now, a message comes for Guérande’s mother (who he lives with, remember), telling her that her brother was in an accident and she should come quickly to the country. Guérande suspects something and advises her to take the pen along. He continues working on decoding the mysterious notebook. A Vampire sneaks into the house with the help of Irma Vep, but Guérande shoots them both. While he goes to summon a police officer, the two “bodies” manage to escape – Irma had filled his gun with blanks! Of course, when the mother gets to her destination she is kidnapped by Vampires, who try to get her to write a ransom note to her son. She gets out her pen, and uses it to kill the man holding her captive. She runs outside and flags down the first car to make good her escape. the Grand Vampire and Irma Vep return to the hideout, and recognize the pen, which tells them that there is an infiltrator in the organization, but not who it is.
For people not accustomed to the serials of Louis Feuillade, this may all seem a little strange, not least because the episode doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but this was standard for serials at the time. Each episode was more or less self-contained, and had a resolution, or partial resolution, at the end. We still don’t know what the significance of the red notebook is, and obviously Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire are still at large, but for the time being Guérande and his mother are in no immediate danger. There were some things that took me by surprise, though. For one thing, I nearly knocked myself out I slapped my forehead so hard when the name “Irma Vep” was decoded. I’ve known about Irma Vep for twenty years, even though I’d never seen this serial, and it never occurred to me it was an anagram for anything. Och! Meanwhile, Guérande continues to be a total panty-waist. Not only does he fail to rescue his own mother, he spends most of the movie in bed pretending to be sick! I don’t even think Feuillade wanted us to like this guy. Mazamette and Musidora are, ultimately, in too little of the movie to make up for it. And the usual logical inconsistency: if the gun was firing blanks, why didn’t the Vampires just overpower Guérande and force him to show them the notebook instead of escaping? Why bother putting blanks in the gun at all, instead of just taking out the bullets? I know, this is part of the fun, I should really just relax.
Starring: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Marcel Lévesque, Florense Simoni
Run Time: 40 Min