The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1898)
Another somewhat dubious entry in my history of horror, this may be more rightly thought of as a religious film. Still, in the cases of “The Astronomer’s Dream” and “The Devil and the Statue,” I have included movies with nearly identical plotlines, simply less overtly Christian themes, so it only seems right to include it.
It begins with Saint Anthony in a cave, with only a bible, a skull, and a massive crucifix for company. A toga-clad woman appears on the altar and touches Anthony, who recoils. Other women appear before him, but he remains steadfastly disinterested. He does, however, kiss the skull, which of course turns into a woman. Soon, three women are dancing around him and his few possessions have disappeared. Finally, when a woman appears in the place of Christ on the cross, it seems that all is lost, but an Angel appears and Saint Anthony turns to pray to him. He banishes the women. Saint Anthony has resisted temptation.
Although Saint Anthony is not threatened with horrific images, it is clear that his soul is in peril throughout this movie, and that his opponents (the women) have supernatural powers to mobilize against him. The movie also has a kind of esoteric meaning – anyone who has attempted meditation knows how readily distractions, like the toga-ed women in the movie, will appear to break one’s discipline. I suspect, however, that audiences at the time may have regarded this as a somewhat daring, even shocking film, since Georges Méliès’s movies up to this point had not dealt with “sacred” material, and it was being shown in a music hall surrounded by magic acts and dancing girls, making it a questionable context and medium for such a subject. Given the “low-brow” connotations of the art form, it was a while before passion plays started to be shown on film in churches, and even then it was somewhat controversial. Méliès recycling a plot from his trick films in a religious context was also probably pretty chancy stuff.
Director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min 10 secs
You can watch it for free: here.