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Bloodsucker's Ball.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  There's a great doctoral thesis lurking out there on the significance of vampires in 1990s America. Sure, they've been part of the landscape since at least Bram Stoker, but have there ever been so many of them everywhere all at once? From Anne Rice to Anno Dracula, from Blade to Buffy, from dusk 'til dawn, the sharp-toothed suckers positively dominate the pop-culture playing field.

So it's an interesting time for the first-ever video release of Les Vampires (1916), Louis Feuillade's legendary French silent serial. The 10-part, eight-hour adventure series has been carefully restored with original tinting—blue for outdoor scenes, yellow for lamplight, purple for nighttime—by Water Bearer Films. And it's a blast (not to mention an obvious influence on everyone from Fritz Lang to Hitchcock). The Vampires of the title aren't actually vampires in the undead sense, but members of a sinister criminal gang that rules the Parisian underworld. The 10 episodes detail the efforts of fearless reporter Louis Guérande to unmask the gang's well-connected leaders. His arch-nemeses are a master of disguise known only as the Grand Vampire and—my favorite—the lascivious villainess Irma Vep (whose name is, of course, an anagram for vampire). The various plotlines involve beheadings, pens filled with poison ink, paintings that open onto hidden passageways, deadly rings, and secret codes. This being 1916, the scenes are mostly long, static takes, but Feuillade makes what must have been a revolutionary use of deep focus to keep things interesting in both the foreground and background. Some shots—like black-clad Vampires prowling across Paris rooftops—belong in the cinematography hall of fame. Often funny—I love when Louis' plump mom takes on a Vampire kidnapper—and sometimes genuinely creepy, it's a treasure from film's early years. (For info, write Water Bearer Films, 48 West 21st St., Suite 301, New York, NY 10010. Or call (212) 242-8686.)

If you're looking for more newfangled fangs, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987, R) is one of the best of the modern vampire flicks. Smarter but less flashy than The Lost Boys, it's about a clan of bloodsuckers led by the perfectly cast Lance Henriksen. They travel the country in a van, picking off victims and moving on. Darkly funny and almost poignant, it's an undead family drama (family as in vampire family, not family as in kid's movie—it's violent and pretty scary).

Maybe the most pretentious vampire movie ever is Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1996, R), a black-and-white brooder in which Lili Taylor is a philosophy grad student who gets bitten and tries to reconcile her bloodthirst with humanity's capacity for evil. Too talky by half, it still has striking scenes and a great, horrific denouement.

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