A Terrible Night (1896)

by popegrutch

This early movie by Georges Méliès is another contender for “first horror film,” along with “The Haunted Castle” (1896 version). I say “contender” for several reasons: first, it’s not terribly scary, second, I’m not 100% certain which came out first. Understanding that requires a bit more discussion: according to Flicker Alley’s insert for “Georges Méliès, First Wizard of Cinema,” the catalog number for this film in the original Méliès co. catalog is 26, while “Haunted Castle” is #78-80. So, “A Terrible Night” came first, right? Not so fast! According to Wikipedia, the movie on the Flicker Alley disc may actually be #190, listed as “A Midnight Episode,” essentially a remake of the real “A Terrible Night” released in 1897. Wikipedia isn’t necessarily trustworthy, so I checked “A Silent Era,” but they haven’t updated their entry for the movie since 2010, and the new discovery was announced in 2013, so no help there. Wikipedia’s source is an “official” Méliès website in French, which I can’t read, so I can’t be sure.

Terrible NightAll of which goes to show how hard it is to identify “the first” of anything, and that history is constantly being updated and reassessed, so don’t assume that older sources are better sources.

Frame purportedly from the original movie (credit: Wikipedia)

Frame purportedly from the original movie (credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, for now, assuming that what we have here is actually some version or other of “A Terrible Night,” what do we have here? It is a short, single-shot film of a costumed Méliès lying in an ornate bed. Before he can get to sleep, a giant insect, like a beetle or perhaps an ant, crawls up his bed and disturbs him. He swats it with a broom and throws it into the nightstand, but when he tries to get to sleep again, he seems to get a crawly feeling and starts swatting the bedclothes again.

Terrible Night2I said this wasn’t that scary, but for entomophobes, it might be quite hard to take, perhaps even more so at a time when people weren’t accustomed to seeing insects blown up to unlikely proportions on the screen. I suspect that, like so many horror films over the years, it thrilled children and upset adults. This could probably be the “first Big Bug movie,” although I doubt that the producers of “Them!” had it in mind. Notably absent is any of the camera trickery that Méliès later became known for – the original movie would have pre-dated it and the remake probably didn’t need it. There are special effects, however, since the bug appears to move on its own (presumably on wires), and since the insect itself is obviously a prop. Even before he started making things appear and disappear, Méliès was fascinated more by the ability of the camera to create fantasies than to depict reality, which is one reason he was so influential on what came later and often innovated things which had to be reinvented by others.

Alternate Title: Une nuit terrible

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.