Fantom Menace: The Films of Fantômas

One can't help but feel as though the movements of the Fantômas romantic and dreamlike world are the work of some whimsical puppet-mastery.

A wildly popular pulp serial in France which was first created in 1911, Fantômas was one of the earliest detective thrillers of French cinema when the serials were adapted for the screen in 1913. Perhaps capitalizing on the sensationalist serial killings by England’s Jack the Ripper 20 years prior to the serial publications, Fantômas‘ stories revolve around a murderous thief stalking the streets of Paris.

Comprised of five films that make up the pulp serial, Fantômas begins with its first installment, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, where we are introduced to the masked menace. Here Fantômas hooks up with an unsavory bourgeois woman, Lady Beltham, who helps the thief carry out a scheme to murder her husband. This prompts an investigation by the Inspector Juve, who has a friend in reporter Jérôme Fandor. Fandor has a fascination with the Fantômas case and along with Juve, he works to solve the case behind the murder. Filmed in 1913, the debut of the series is undeniably the best of the five films; there’s a thick, eerie air of pervading evil that really builds atmosphere and Fantômas’ presence is more openly felt.

When the series moves on to its second film, things lag and the sense of tension lapses throughout. In Juve vs. Fantômas, the notorious felon targets passengers on a train, robbing them of their money and possessions before derailing the locomotive. There’s much more emphasis on the action here, and there’s a thoughtful design on the story’s pacing. But it’s at the expense of the moody atmosphere that made the first installment an engaging experience.

In the caper-esque narrative here, Fantômas’ mystery is somewhat unravelled, and the enigma which made the serial so popular is sidelined in favour of the action-thriller elements. As the series progresses, Fantômas is revealed to be more of a sociopathic criminal rather than the shadowy, inscrutable villain presented in the earlier films.

In The Murderous Corpse, there’s an almost Houdini-like masterminding of criminal activity; bodies disappear, mysterious fingerprints are discovered, and there’s subterfuge all round. Employing the mystery genre’s most common trope — the red herring — both The Murderous Corpse and the fourth installment, Fantômas vs. Fantômas deal with imposters and crime rings who are duped by the infamous thief. There are touches of humour to be found here, particularly a scene at a costume party where the guests seem to get a perverse kick out of watching a number of Fantômas lookalikes mill about on the dance floor. When things wind down to the final film in the series, The False Magistrate, there’s a turning of tables which have the police force enlisting in the help of Fantômas in order to solve a jewel theft scam.

These films are a world (and in a world) of their own. There’s a grand sweep to the proceedings onscreen, despite the fact that the settings are always stagy, stagnant and rather two-dimensional. Watching the characters onscreen, one can’t help but feel as though the movements of this romantic and dreamlike world are the work of some whimsical puppet-mastery; people on set are arranged and manoeuvred around like baroque furniture, pretty to look at and eerily stilted to dramatic effect. It’s beautiful, highly cinematic and often haunting.

What makes these five films work so magnificently (even during the times when the films lag) is the heavily atmospheric film score, which pours over the scenes like aural phosphorescence; half of what makes Fantômas spooky and unnerving is the result of its evocative music.

The films also excel in some fanciful art direction, which offers viewers the eye candy of some lavish and tastefully designed set decor. Even though most of the camera work is static and doesn’t deliver much in the way of any imaginative editing, there’s still plenty of technique on display to make a cinephile happy.

Kino Lorber offers a spectacular transfer. While films this old will always present certain issues that are understandably inherent in the print source, Kino has cleaned up the image extremely well, removing much of the dirt and damage. The picture, for the most part, is sharp and clear. Especially lovely is the colour rendering; certain colour filters are very nicely presented and give the films an added touch of mood and atmosphere. Sound is extremely clear — full and rich with the wonderful orchestral score.

Extras include a couple of informative commentaries and a gallery of stills; these supplements are not excessive, but for anyone who is a serious fan of the Fantômas serials, it will be most appreciated. All five films in Fantômas are silent with intertitles in English.

These are films that were initially designed to capitalize on the popularity of escapist entertainment, but they managed to transcend the limits of their pop culture origins with something truly artistic. Much like Germany’s grand milestone of expressionist cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fantômas works from a point of creating the fantastic within the ordinary and it succeeds admirably. Fantômas is where much of French cinema starts and their longevity is a testament to their significance within the annals of film.

RATING 8 / 10