Star of over 40 novels and subject of over a dozen screen adaptations, fiendish criminal mastermind Fantômas is a long-standing cultural phenomenon in France. First published in 1911, its blend of crime drama, gothic menace, and pulp adventure energy made it an instant hit.
Fantômas was the brainchild of authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, whose unorthodox writing style involved each writing his designated chapters simultaneously in order to crank out up to a novel a month. This kind of fast, assembly-line technique was characteristic of pulp writing, and the speed at which the authors worked inadvertently established pulp as a style of writing and not just a method born of necessity.
Like the best pulps, the Fantômas stories were madcap, plot-driven, and reliant on a constant stream of shocks and novelty to keep the public’s interest.
Fictional serial killers that we hate ourselves for loving (like Hannibal Lecter and Freddy Krueger) owe a debt of gratitude to Fantômas for proving that unrepentant, larger-than-life villains could carry not just a single story, but could become the focal point of a series. In no universe is Fantômas an anti-hero. A master of disguise who often assumes the identities of those he’s viciously murdered, Fantômas is motivated entirely by greed and self-interest and goes out of his way to be as cunning, sadistic, and double-crossing as possible in the execution of his plans.
This bombastic arch-villain is doggedly pursued by Detective Juve and his sidekick, the newspaper reporter Fandor, but the pair never manages to stop Fantômas completely. Furthermore, neither Juve nor Fandor ever come close to achieving Fantômas-levels of charisma.
In an early example of a film studio licensing a book property, Fantômas was brought to the screen a mere two years after his first appearance on the page. One might correctly surmise that there are challenges in creating a screen adaptation of a gruesomely explicit narrative in which the true appearance of the protagonist is never known, particularly given the technology available to filmmakers in 1913. Director Louis Feuillade rises to the occasion in his series of Fantômas films, which retain the sinister delights of the character while condensing the intricate plots of the novel into something suited for the hour-long format.
There are a number of reasons why fans of weird suspense stories should seek out these pioneering silent films and I’ve selected a few key points to further whet your appetite for vintage pulp-crime goodness.
These movies feature early depictions of what would come to be known as forensic investigations. The Police Anthropometry Department shown in the serials was dedicated to the identification and cataloging of key physical attributes of criminals, including their fingerprints. Interestingly, the first case of the identification, arrest, and conviction of a murderer through the use of fingerprints took place in 1902 in France, so the sequence above from The Murderous Corpse (1913) shows cutting-edge science at work.
The police repeatedly attempt to capture Fantômas through conventional arrest, and Fantômas repeatedly judo-tosses them. The French police are very slow learners.
Charming vintage special effects can be found throughout the series, but if I had to pick a highlight, I’d select the model trains that collide in one of Fantômas’ more gruesome and excessive displays of violence during Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914).
Of all of the clever disguises assumed by Fantômas, “Tom Bob, American Detective” might be the most transparent.
Silent film depictions of costume balls are both delightful and ominous—let’s not forget that big Red Death reveal during the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera! The Fantômas series features scenes in cabarets and masked balls, where the arch-criminal’s mastery of disguise plays an important role. Perhaps the best of these moments occurs when actual-Fantômas shows up to his lover Lady Beltham’s costume party dressed in his signature cat burglar outfit, only to bump into Juve and a police officer wearing the same outfit. Nothing good comes of this, as you might imagine.
Fantômas employs a variety of arcane methods to dispose of his enemies (and anyone else to whom he takes a dislike—it doesn’t appear to take a lot of work to get on his bad side). One of the more dastardly techniques used by the criminal mastermind is the deployment of a boa constrictor to crush the unfortunate victim to death.
If I’ve successfully convinced you to watch Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas serials, you are in luck because they are available to watch online with a subscription to Amazon Prime or the aptly named Fandor service.