Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: October, 2014

Devil and the Statue (1901)

Devil and the Statue

October is nearly over, and my history of horror film has just barely broken into the twentieth century. Well and good, that leaves plenty for next year! I wanted to talk about this movie, because it’s different in tone and sophistication to the earlier films by Méliès that I’ve discussed. It is also a bit of a technical breakthrough, because apparently it is the first movie in which he used macro-photography to enlarge an object on the screen, something he famously did later in “The Man with the Rubber Head.” In this one, a couple (who may or may not be Romeo & Juliet) begin with a serenade, then the man leaves. The woman swoons around her room and suddenly the Devil appears and taunts her. He dances “suggestively” (according to the original catalog) and grows to enormous size until the woman prays to a statue of the Virgin Mary, who comes to life and diminishes the Devil with her powers, until he vanishes. There seems to be a clear sexual subtext here, that Juliet is so turned on by Romeo that she herself summons the Devil to tempt her, but interestingly at the end when the Madonna has saved her she also removes the bars in the window, allowing Romeo to once again enter the room. The narrative places Juliet in apparent peril, however, making this a “scarier” movie than most of the simple trick films we’ve seen up to now.

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901)

Haunted_Curiosity_Shop_(1901)

This is another British Méliès-inspired “trick” film, but director Walter R. Booth comes with a very full bag of tricks indeed. An old man who runs a junk store discovers that various items in his possession have minds of their own and magical powers. These include a floating transparent woman, who is cut in half and re-joined, an animated skeleton, mummy, and a suit of armor, and a large vase or cauldron out of which playful dwarves emerge and frolic about. I’m not sure if it’s just cultural, but somehow the British approach to this kind of film seems more in line with the atmosphere I expect for Halloween (see also “The X-Rays”). It is child-friendly and not overly horrifying, but it’s somehow more atmospheric and not as strictly humorous as in the case of Méliès. Booth had done some earlier trick films, such as “The Human Flies” in which a group of people suddenly find themselves on a ceiling, but this was his most advanced effort to date and included several camera tricks, rather than just one. Technically, he was still lagging behind Méliès, who had done this years before, but he seems to me to have an interesting style of his own.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Run Time: 2 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.

Faust and Marguerite (1900)

Faust and Marguerite

Along with “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” the legend of Faust seems to have inspired many of the early efforts at horror movies; for example it is undeniably part of the impetus behind “The Student of Prague.” This is its first known filmed interpretation, and also the earliest known foray into the horror genre by Edison Studios, who would later give us “Frankenstein.” It derives from staged productions, themselves inspired by Goethe’s famously complex “Faust, Part II.” It seems to me that the director, Edwin S. Porter, had a hard time boiling the story down to something simple enough for a one minute “trick” film. Faust and Mephistopheles argue over who will behead Marguerite, who sits very passively the whole time, until she magically trades places with Faust. It looks like Faust and Marguerite are both doomed, but suddenly the Devil disappears and they appear with a parson, who seems to be marrying them. I think it’s meant to suggest that their love has overcome evil, but it’s a little hard to be sure. There is a cool skeleton at one point, and the whole thing feels a bit more serious than the comparable Méliès and Smith movies I’ve been discussing, but that may just be the classical subject matter adding weight to it.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 57 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Devil in a Convent (1899)

It’s interesting to observe that none of the “horror” films I’ve been able to track down from the nineteenth century seem to be intended to be scary. It’s not that horror didn’t exist as a concept back then – there were already stage performances of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by the end of the century, as well as the founding of the infamous Grand Guignol in Paris, right where Méliès was producing works like this much more whimsical entertainment. In it, the Devil appears as a priest is preparing to set up for a sermon to some nuns, he substitutes for the priest, then chases the nuns out and establishes a mini-pandemonium in the chapel. Various folks try to drive him out, finally the combined power of the church and an animated statue of St. Michel are victorious. The theme does flirt with blasphemy (demons and devils in the House of God), but to jaded Parisians this would have seemed pretty mild. The fast-paced action and appearances and disappearances keep things light, and no one ever seems in danger for his life or his soul. It may be simply a reflection of Méliès’s own character, and that of other early filmmakers, that the early “horror” films we find emphasize wonder and comedy more than fear, but it may also reflect concern that audiences would find the horrors too real to bear in cinematic form.

Alternate Titles: “le Diable au Couvent,” “The Sign of the Cross”

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 3 min, 10 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

X-Rays (1897)

The_X-Rays_(1897)

So, to make things even more complicated, apparently a British director, George Albert Smith, also released a movie called “The Haunted Castle” in 1897, which was more or less a remake of the original movie by Méliès. It’s apparently lost, though, so I won’t be discussing it in this post. No, instead I’m going to talk about another contender for the prize for “first British horror movie,” which is this humorous but macabre little entry. In it, a couple in Victorian dress flirts on a park bench, while a bearded fellow with a camera-shaped box marked “X-Rays” turns them both into skeletons. This does nothing to curb their ardor, however, and he eventually gives them their flesh back, at which point the lady slaps the fellow and the scene ends with him alone and forlorn. As compared to Méliès, the photography seems to be up to par, but the background scenery and costumes are somewhat lacking. Apparently the woman on the bench was Smith’s wife, which is not unusual for the in-house productions of the time, where one used the people at hand for “actors” and performers, although many production companies rapidly expanded their talent pools.

Alternate Title: “The X-Ray Fiend”

Director: George Albert Smith

Starring: Tom Green, Laura Bayley

Run Time: 44 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Haunted Castle (1897)

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Wait, didn’t I just review this? Well, sort of. It appears that two movies were released by Georges Méliès with this title in English This “Haunted Castle” can be seen as a sort of remake of the earlier film, although they were shown with different titles in France (see below). The theme is quite similar, with a man in period costume being threatened by apparitions that appear and disappear thanks to camera trickery. It’s not clear to me whether the version we have is complete, but it’s much shorter than the earlier movie as well, and uses fewer actors, which probably meant it was cheaper to produce. What wouldn’t have been cheap is the color, which has been hand-painted frame by frame on this print, making it (arguably, as always) the “first” color horror movie. Again, it’s mostly played for laughs and whimsy, but there’s a skeleton and a Devil, so it can be seen as a Halloween-themed movie.

Alternate Titles: Le château hanté.

Director: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 39 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

October, 1914

Belgian troops defend Antwerp

Belgian troops defend Antwerp

The news 100 years ago was pretty dominated by the First World War (especially in participating countries), which was underway for good by now.

As usual, let’s start by getting war news out of the way. Much of it can be summarized by saying that things weren’t going as well for either side as their military experts had predicted only two months earlier:

World War One: After a long siege, the city of Antwerp in Belgium falls to German troops, October 9-10.

The Battle of the Yser, from October 16-31, in which Belgian troops make a heroic stand against the German invaders, tying up troops that had been intended to fight in France.

The First Battle of Ypres, also in Belgium, breaks out on October 19, between German and Allied troops, significantly including much of the British regular army, which suffered crushing losses.

On the Eastern front, the Battle of the Vistula River ends in Russian victory at Warsaw.

In the Balkans, Greek forces, with Allied encouragement, invade and occupy the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus.

Religion: October 2, the first date predicted by the Watchtower Society (or Jehovah’s Witnesses) comes and goes without witnessing the end of the world or the coming of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. The Society will begin its long-standing practice of reinterpreting its own interpretations of scripture to explain this

Disasters: in Turkey near Lake Burdur, an earthquake estimated as 7.0 on the Richter scale hits on October 7, starting fires that will destroy 17,000 homes.

Crime: Gavrilo Princip is sentenced for the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on October 28. Because he was a minor at the time, he receives 20 years imprisonment instead of the death sentence.

Sports: the Boston Braves beat the Philadelphia Athletics in a four-game World Series, from October 9-13.

Movies: releases of “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz” (October 14), “Mabel’s Blunder” (October 14) and “What’s Her Name,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille (October 22).

Births: Actor Jackie Coogan (who starred with Chaplin in the title role of “The Kid” and would grow up to be Uncle Fester on the original “Addams Family” TV show) is born on October 26. Anna Wing (from Britain’s “EastEnders” and also a small role in the “Doctor Who” episode “Kinda”) and Ruth Hussey (best known for her role in “The Philadelphia Story” and who also starred in “The Uninvited,” a 40’s ghost story) are both born on October 30.

Deaths: Gustav Wied, Danish writer, died on October 24.

Haunted Castle (1896)

Haunted Castle

For my history of horror, I’ll probably wind up talking about several different movies which have been claimed as the “first” horror movie. This is probably the earliest of those, for what it’s worth, but it’s also probably the hardest to nail down as “really” being a horror movie. Made by Georges Méliès very early in his experimental period, it is clearly meant to produce more chuckles than shudders. Nevertheless, the use of bats, demons, boiling cauldrons, skeletons, and classically “sheeted” ghosts all evoke the images we associate with Halloween and horror today. Méliès himself appears as one of the hapless “cavaliers” who wanders into the castle, and he uses a variety of simple camera tricks to make things appear and disappear, or move about by themselves, while the befuddled cavaliers turn on one another or look on in wonder. Interestingly, the Devil, who makes an appearance, is not played by Méliès, who may not have figured out how to “double” himself on the screen at this time (or who may have thought it too much work to bother with). Considering how early this movie is, it is still impressive in its ability to entertain, although I doubt if it ever scared anybody.

Alternate Titles: “Le Manoir du diable,” “The Devil’s Castle.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 3 Min, 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Frankenstein (1910)

Frank-1910bis

I want to dedicate the month of October to the development of the “horror” film, although as genre, it didn’t really get going until the advent of German Expressionism after the First World War. Still, I’ve discussed a few examples and influences before, but for the theme this Edison movie is perhaps the best place to start, because, of everything made 100+ years ago, it is probably the most recognizably a horror movie. Edison no longer dominated the market at this time, but they were still producing some innovative films, as this demonstrates.  The use of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel would return, of course, and arguably be done better in the sound period. But, this movie is not to be underrated. I particularly enjoyed the creation sequence and the emergence of the monster through an elaborate animation sequence. The creature itself is downright creepy, although maybe the poor quality of the print explains why I was able to imagine that some of the rags it wore were actually strips of skin. The end, in which the monster looks into the mirror and fades away, leaving behind its reflection, which Dr. Frankenstein walks up and sees, may be a kind of statement about the degree to which the creature is a projection of Frankenstein’s twisted genius, which, the movie suggests, is overcome by love.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Cast: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller

Run Time: 12 Min 41 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.