Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fernand Herrmann

Satanas (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” tries to inject new blood into the serial by introducing a new, more sinister villain, and also alludes to the horrors of the First World War by giving him a cannon to conduct his malevolent will. Of course, it is designed more as a crime-adventure film than a horror movie, much less a Satanic movie, but the title alone earns it a place in my October history of horror.

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

The movie’s opening takes us back to the penultimate scene of the previous episode, where Irma Vep (Musidora) and Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) have just killed the Grand Vampire. They stuff him into a trunk and prepare to dump the body, when there is a mysterious ring of the doorbell. The man outside is an older man (Louis Leubas), and he prepares before going in by putting a glove over a spike tied to his hand so that it points out from the palm. He tells them that he knows what they have in the trunk, and when Moréno tries to eject him, he stabs him with the spike, which contains a paralyzing poison. He informs Moréno that he is the true leader of the Vampires, the man they just killed was an “underling.” Then he leaves them to dump the body in the river.

satanas1That night, Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is carousing with two girls and a male friend at a cabaret owned by Moréno’s gang. Apparently, he has quite forgotten the wife and children of the first episode, because the girls are hanging all over him and he does not protest. When Moréno and Irma Vep arrive at the club, Moréno receives a card telling him that the Grand Vampire will demonstrate his power at 2AM. We see the Grand Vampire, who apparently has an office below the cabaret, pull a large cannon out of a secret cabinet, load it, and, at precisely 2AM, he fires it, destroying the cabaret (but somehow not injuring Moréno or Irma).

A well-appointed office.

A well-appointed office.

Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) now decides to pay a late-night call on Mazamette, but finds only the butler there, concerned over his master’s late hours. When Mazamette returns, Guérande hides behind a curtain and listens as he entertains his guests. When the man starts going through his things without permission, Mazamette becomes annoyed and pulls a gun on him and the girls. They switch off the lights and run out (you’d think opening the door would create a silhouette, but Mazamette behaves as if he can see nothing while the light is out). When he turns on the light, he sees Guérande’s shoes beneath the curtain, and shoots blindly at the figure hiding there, making me think of Hamlet and Polonius, but fortunately Guérande has been squatting down behind the curtain, so the bullets pass harmlessly over his head.

Never stab an arras.

Never stab an arras.

The next morning, Irma Vep and Moréno go to surrender to the true Grand Vampire, but he offers them a job instead. He wants them to steal from George Baldwin (Émile Keppens), a billionaire American who is staying at a Paris hotel. Moréno calls on his friend Fleur-de-Lys (Suzanne Delvé), who was one of the girls Mazamette was running around with the night before. She goes to Baldwin’s hotel and poses as a magazine reporter collecting signatures, and she gets Baldwin to sign a piece of paper. Then Irma Vep shows up with a bulky Edison cylinder-recorder and asks him to speak the only French phrase he knows into it: “Paris has the most charming women” adding on, “All right!” in English at the end. Now, Moréno uses the signature to forge a check to Fleur-de-Lys in the amount of $100,000, and sends her to cash it at a local bank. Irma Vep, meanwhile, kidnaps the switchboard operator at Baldwin’s hotel and infiltrates as her replacement. So, when the cashier at the bank gets suspicious about so large a withdrawal and calls the hotel, she plays back the cylinder recording of Baldwin praising Parisian girls, and the cashier decides Fleur-de-Lys is a high class call girl and gives her the money.

satanas4At this point Mazamette walks into the bank and sees Fleur-de-Lys getting the cash and recognizes her from the cabaret. He disguises himself by pretending to have a toothache and follows her. He sees her turn the money over to Moréno and calls Guérande, who joins him at the home of Fleur-de-Lys. They threaten her with guns to make her talk about the robbery, but she, probably realizing that they wouldn’t dare shoot, refuses to say anything until they call Moréno on the phone and threaten her with arrest instead. She now tells Moréno to come over immediately. He has, meanwhile, taken the money to the Grand Vampire, who tells him to keep it, no doubt to build the morale of this highly useful follower. Now, Moréno and Irma go to the home of Fleur-de-Lys, but as soon as they walk in the door, they fall through a huge trapdoor into a bag in a basement full of police! Mazamette and Guérande congratulate themselves on capturing the desperate criminals, who are taken into custody, from which they will doubtless escape in the next episode.

satanas5This was an episode entirely without murders, unless Irma Vep killed the switchboard operator offscreen (possible). I was quite surprised when the new Grand Vampire only paralyzed Moréno, I thought he was dead when he got stabbed. I also thought the cannon would kill him, so this was an episode of lucky escapes for him or considerable mercy for the Grand Vampire. I said at the beginning that he seems to have been brought in to rejuvenate the series somewhat – the old GV (Jean Aymé) was sort of lame, and he kept getting defeated by Moréno’s ingenuity. Mazamette continues to be the more interesting and active hero, but his apparent abandonment of his family in his time of good fortune is disappointing. Even the butler says so!

satanas

Closing the lid on a lame villain.

So, for this week’s roundup of logical inconsistencies, we can start with Guérande’s narrow escape. Who would crouch down so low while eavesdropping and why? Wouldn’t his knees tend to make a big bulge in the curtain? And, really Mazamette, don’t shoot at people you can’t see clearly enough to identify, that never ends well. The crazier leap-of-logic, though, is the giant trap door that Guérande and Mazamette use to capture the villains. So, Fleur-de-Lys happens to live in a building with that trap door built into its lobby? How did they know that? Or, are we meant to believe that they cut that hole in the floor while Moréno and Irma Vep came over from their place? How will they pay back the building’s owners for all the damage? Either way, it’s wonderfully absurd.

Director: Louise Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Louis Leubas, Suzanne Delvé, Émile Keppens

Run Time: 43 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

 

The Eyes That Mesmerize (1916)

Alternate Titles: Hypnotic Eyes, Les yeux qui fascinent

This installment in the crime serialLes Vampires” involves hypnotism, cross-dressing, and murder, as well as a hard-to-follow plot that strains credulity while being hard to predict. In other words, it’s a lot like other episodes of the series.

Focus! Focus!

Focus! Focus!

The movie begins by telling us that more than two weeks have passed since the events of “The Corpse’s Escape,” and that a notary has been killed at Fontainebleau. We also learn that Juan-Jose Moréno (Fernand Hermann) is a master of mesmerism, and he now brings his maid into the parlor and hypnotizes her, causing her to go into a deep trance. Then, Mazamette (Marcel Levésque) and Guérande (Édouard Mathé) decide to attend the movies. They see a story about the recent murder, and recognize Irma Vep (Musidora) and the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in the footage. Immediately, they rush out of the theater and make plans to go to Fontainebleau. Along the way, they happen to see a visiting American named Warner galloping at high speed on his horse to a remote spot. They follow him and see him hide a box among some boulders, which they recover after he has left. At their hotel, they discover that it is $200,000, which was stolen from an American millionaire named Baldwin, who has posted a considerable reward for its recovery and the capture of Raphael Norton, the man who stole it. They realize that Warner is Norton in disguise.

This has nothing  to do with the plot.

This has nothing to do with the plot.

Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire is now disguised as a Count named “Kerlor” and Irma Vep accompanies him as a young (male) Viscount called “Guy.” They also figure out who Warner is (he’s not at all good at keeping secrets) and plan to rob him of the money. Moréno manages to get the room between “Kerlor” and “Warner,” although he has no idea what is going on, and he has brought a very large trunk along with him. The Count tells a rather silly story about a supposed ancestor of his who had to fight two bulls during the Napoleonic Wars (we see the whole thing played out). This somehow distracts the Warners while Irma Vep gets into her Vampire costume and searches Warner’s room until she finds the map. Of course, she is accosted by Moréno, who knocks her out with chloroform and drops her out the window to his gang waiting below. They bundle her into a car and drive off. Meanwhile, Moréno takes his hypnotized maid out of the trunk (!) and disguises her as Irma Vep, then has her give the map to the Grand Vampire in that disguise.

eyes-that-mesmerizeThe Grand Vampire now swings into action, sending his confederate (Miss Édith) to go find the loot indicated on the map. She gets there and finds instead a note from Guérande, inviting the legitimate owner of the box to meet with him. Then she gets captured by Moréno, who tells her to tell the Grand Vampire that he is holding Irma Vep and will release her for a ransom. She reports all of this to the Grand Vampire, who decides to get out because Guérande might have called the police, but plans to try to recover Irma Vep anyway. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Warner is actually Norton, so Guérande and Mazamette win the reward. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her various crimes, then orders her to kill the Grand Vampire, which she does with dispatch, as soon as he walks in the door.

Don't mess with Irma Vep

Don’t mess with Irma Vep

The episode ends with the now-rich Mazamette giving a press interview to his friend Guérande and other reporters, assuring them that, “though vice is sometimes slow to be punished, virtue is always rewarded.”

Since there are no actual vampires in the series, I am usually forced to stretch things a bit to justify my inclusion of it in my annual October “history of horror.” In this case, the connection is hypnotism, which has been a theme of horror writing and cinema since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar.” When Mesmer first began convincing the educated world that hypnotism was a real psychological phenomenon, and not just a parlor trick, Europeans became frightened at the possibility of a strong will dominating a weak one. What if crimes could be committed while under hypnosis, even murder? Feuillade plays on that theme in this film by causing the weak-minded maid to become a virtual robot, and Irma Vep to switch allegiances from the Grand Vampire to Moréno. In that case, however, I’m not certain mental dominance was necessary: she appears to me to have chosen to abandon the less successful master criminal for the one who has really become the focus of the story for the last two episodes. If the Grand Vampire is really dead, though, I’m not sure how they can justify calling the rest of the serial “Les Vampires.”

How far would you trust this woman?

How far would you trust this woman?

And now for my usual nit-picky logical questioning of the plot. OK, so Moréno hires a girl who looks sort of vaguely like Irma Vep to be his maid, hypnotises her and carries her into the country in a trunk…so she can wear a mask for a few seconds and give the Grand Vampire something Irma Vep was going to give him anyway? How did he know in advance to have her wear a Vampire costume? How did he manage to get the right room when everyone was using assumed names? How did he know to station his gangsters outside the window with a net just at the moment he was going to push her out the window? And why did we have to watch that silly bullfighting sequence? Anyway, I’m glad Mazamette finally has enough money to send all his children through school. Hopefully the adventures of Musidora and Moréno will continue to thrill us next week.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Levésque, Musidora, Fernand Hermann, Jean Aymé, Miss Édith, Maxa

Run Time: 58 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Corpse’s Escape (1916)

Alternate Titles: Les vampires: L’évasion du mort, The Dead Man’s Escape

This chapter of “Les Vampires” continues the cycle of capture-and-escape without doing much to advance the storyline, although it includes some references to earlier work of Feuillade and his mentor, Alice Guy-Blaché. The title as well as the plot seem to flirt with horror tropes, without actually becoming a horror film as we would understand the concept now.

corpses-escapeAt the end of the last movie, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) had managed to elude capture and rob the spoils of their “colleague” Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), while he was arrested. At the outset of this episode, Moréno is being interrogated by the magistrate when he produces a pill and announces that he’d rather die than go to prison. He takes the pill, and a doctor pronounces him dead without an examination after hearing the magistrate describe what happened. The “body” is moved to a holding cell until the morgue attendants can come pick it up, and of course Moréno gets up and cold-cocks a guard in order to escape.

The heroic Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is up late at night watering his plants when he sees Moréno and his lackeys go into a nearby warehouse. He has the presence of mind to take a piece of clay to make a mold of the lock of that warehouse, just in case he ever wants to sneak around in there. Meanwhile, the intrepid, tepid Philippe Guérande (played by, yawn, Édouard Mathé) pauses in his writeup of the escape to look out the window, and is suddenly hooked around the neck and pulled down to the street below, where a gang of Vampires put him into a wicker basket with a Gaumont symbol on the side. He waits until they place the basket near some stairs, then tips it over and tumbles down to another street, where some good Samaritan passers-by open it and free him. He discovers the name of the costume company that rented the basket on another side, away from the Gaumont symbol.

corpses-escape1In investigating that company, he finds that the basket was rented by a Baron de Mortesalgues, yet another alias of the Grand Vampire. Unfortunately, Moréno was also present at the costume company, since he needed some phony police uniforms for another heist, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to nab Guérande and drags him back to the warehouse. He tells Guérande that he’ll let him go if he gives him a way to get revenge on the Grand Vampire for stealing his stolen loot, and Guérande tells him the Baron’s identity. Once Moréno leaves, Guérande is quickly rescued by Mazamette.

The Baron is having a big society do for his “niece,” who is actually Irma Vep. They dose the guests with sleeping gas and emerge with other members of the Vampires in full costume to loot their wallets and jewels. However, Moréno is able to jump on top of the getaway car and throws the luggage containing the loot off the roof, then jumps off himself, and goes back to collect it all. Mazamette visits Guérande and accuses him of being “too honest,” (after flirting shamelessly with the maid – careful Mazamette, we know you have a wife and children!) but Guérande shows him a quote about focusing on the end result and Mazamette agrees to continue the fight.

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

The beginning of this episode was like a less-interesting version of “The Murderous Corpse” with Moréno substituting for Fantômas. Even the prison set is identical. I’m not sure why it was necessary to bring in a second master criminal for this series – perhaps because the hero was too bland? It seems to distract from focusing on the Vampires, and this episode has far too little of Musidora as a result. We do get a good amount of Mazamette, however, which is a consolation, and I love the little pantomime Lévesque performs to make certain we understand that he’s copied the key. The sequence with Guérande in the basket reminded me of “The Drunken Mattress” and other surreal comedies by Alice Guy where a person is trapped in an inanimate object which seems to develop a life and personality of its own.

Obligatory-but-admittedly-silly-logic-department: In this movie, we are led to believe that the Grand Vampire can convince half of the wealthy people in Paris to attend a party for his alias’s “niece.” Either he has somehow found time to build an identity and attend social functions for years in order to lure them to his home and rob them of whatever they brought with them (really a pretty petty theft) OR he was able to con them just by putting the word “Baron” before a name. Also, in this movie, we see Guérande pulled down from his apartment one story to the ground below, but in “The Red Cryptogram” we saw Musidora and the Grand Vampire escape out that same window to the rooftops of Paris, quite a bit higher up than a single story. Which is it?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann

Run Time: 38 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Spectre (1916)

It’s October once again, and with that I continue my history of horror. I covered all of the 1915 episodes of “Les Vampires” last year at this time, and so now I continue with the episodes released in 1916. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a horror film, since the vampires in it are just a gang of ordinary master criminals, but since the imagery and atmosphere has been influential in the horror genre since then, I include it for consideration at this time of year. Hang on to your hats, as usual the plot is ridiculously complex!

Like, who's this chick?

This episode begins by introducing us to yet another of the alter-egos of the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), a successful real estate agent by the name of Treps. One day a new client, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), comes to his office and requests an apartment with a safe. This arouses Treps’s greed, and he and Irma Vep (Musidora) break into the safe by way of a connecting door in the wall from the adjoining apartment. All they find, however, is a satchel full of the same type of black costume the vampires use during criminal activities. They conclude that he is a “colleague” and put the satchel back.

specterMusidora is meanwhile working for a bank under the alias of Juliet Berteaux. She learns of an upcoming transfer of 300,000 francs to be carried out by a “carefree” man named Metadier who likes to watch Gaumont films in the evenings. However, should Metadier be unable to perform his duties, she will be the substitute. So, she and the Grand Vampire attack Metadier on the train on the way home from the movies and kill him with a hatpin, dumping his body from the moving train. The next day, as she goes to get the money, suddenly the “specter” of Metadier walks in and takes it! The Grand Vampire follows him, but he escapes down a manhole.

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

When the intrepid but largely ineffectual Philipe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) learns of the theft, he goes to the bank office in disguise and recognizes Musidora. He is able to learn her alias and address, and has his agent Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) distract the maid so that he can sneak in. Musidora and the Grand Vampire, saddened at their failed heist, decide to look in Moréno’s safe to see if he’s had any success. They are startled when the body of Metadier falls out and even more surprised to find the 300,000 francs! Guérande now arrives and tries to take them captive, but of course the maid hits him on the head and they easily escape with the money. He wakes up and calls the police just before Moréno returns to find his safe broken into. Guérande holds Moréno and learns the true story: he was casing a villa for a robbery when he found the body of Metadier on the tracks, and found the note authorizing him to take the money. He then took the corpse home with him, disguised himself as Metadier and stole the envelope. Guérande hands him over to the police.

specter2Once again, the plot advances with no obvious resolution in sight: the Vampires killed a man and bungled a job, but still wound up with the money and Guérande is no closer to apprehending them. I liked this episode, though, because we got a lot of Musidora and not too much Guérande, although there wasn’t enough Mazamette for my taste. My usual logical criticism of the plot: it seems like the Vampires have to spend an awful lot of time working straight jobs in order to arrange their devious crimes. How exactly does one become a “successful real estate agent” when one only has a few days a month not wearing some other disguise? I think director Louis Feuillade handles the pacing and story complexity well. I’ve read some criticism recently that claims Feuillade always edited sequentially and never made use of inter-cutting between scenes. While that may be technically true, he does use cross-cutting here to show simultaneous actions in the adjoining apartments (maybe this could be seen as a single scene), and there’s good use of close-ups, location shots in Paris, and establishing shots that set up interiors. Also, he uses his triple-split-screen effect again to demonstrate a phone conversation, as he did in “The Dwarf.” Watching a Feuillade crime serial feels sort of like coming home: I more or less re-started this project when I watched “Fantômas” in 2014.

specter3Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Jean Aymé, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Eduoard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).