Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: October, 2015

The Severed Head (1915)

Severed HeadI’m going to skip ahead in my history of horror this week, because I want to cover all of the 1915 episodes of the serial “Les Vampires” before the month of October is over. This serial is often confused for a more typical horror movie by writers who haven’t seen it, because of the title. In fact, it is a kind of follow-up to “Fantômas” by Louis Feuillade – another crime and detective serial involving a master criminal. The name of the “Vampires” is simply a moniker chosen by the criminal gang that leads this movie. Still, with secret passageways, mysterious notes, a murder in a police station, and, of course, a severed head, there is plenty here for horror fans to enjoy.

Severed Head1This first episode begins by introducing the intrepid reporter Guérande (Édouard Mathé), who returns to his office after some thrilling investigation, only to find that his files on the criminal gang known as the Vampires is missing. He accuses his co-worker Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) of pilfering them, then finds the folder on his person after his denial. Mazamette convinces him not to turn him over to the police by showing him a picture of his children, and says he will be forever in Guérande’s debt when he agrees. Now Guérande’s boss calls him in and assigns him to investigate the case of Inspector Durtal, whose body was found in the swamps without its head. After a farewell scene with his mother (who packs his clothes for him by rolling them into tubes), Guérande cables ahead to an old friend of his father’s, Dr. Nox (Jean Aymé), to request permission to stay at his chateau near the crime scene. Dr. Nox agrees, although he is in negotiations to sell the house to Mrs. Simpson, a wealthy American. The three dine together, and Guérande thrills Mrs. Simpson with stories of the exploits of the Vampires and Mrs. Simspon impresses the men with her valuable jewels, which she always carries with her as a security precaution. That night, Guérande receives a note warning him of tragedy if he doesn’t give up the case. At midnight, a thief uses a secret passage to creep into Mrs Simpson’s room wearing a distinctly Fantômas-like costume and steals the jewels. In the morning, evidence has been planted to incriminate Guérande and he rushes out when the crime is reported, leading Dr. Nox to accuse him in his absence. But, Guérande tells his story to the local Magistrate, who agrees to hold Nox and Simpson at the police station while they investigate the chateau together. Instead of the jewels, what they discover is the missing head of Durtal! Now, they go back to the station to confront Dr. Nox, but they find that he has murdered Mrs. Simpson and fled the scene, leaving a mocking note in the name of “The Grand Vampire.” The audience, though not the characters, are treated to the image of the Grand Vampire escaping across the roof and down the drainpipe of the police station unobserved.

Severed Head2I actually found this first part of the series a bit disappointing, compared to its Fantômas predecessor. I’m hoping that’s because Feuillade is still setting the scene and establishing the situation for greater thrills to come. In spite of the good parts mentioned above, an awful lot of the action in this movie is just people sitting in drawing rooms talking to one another. One interesting parallel between the two series is that both begin with a jewelry heist. There’s fairly little exterior footage, which means we are limited to rather cramped-looking interiors, and sometimes the biggest visual thrill is when the tinting on the film changes from blue to amber when someone turns on a light. I thought it was interesting that our hero is a teetotaler who lives with his mother – neither the American image of the action hero nor of the average Frenchman! So far, the Grand Vampire has been mostly a disguise-wearing Fantômas clone, but I expect things to get more interesting, given the stills I have seen from other episodes.

Like, who's this chick?

Like, who’s this chick?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Cast: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Alchemist’s Hallucination (1897)

This is another early short trick film by Georges Méliès, which seems to earn a place in the history of horror films. It incorporates supernatural themes and spooky imagery, but appears mainly intended to amuse and evoke wonder at the magic of cinema.

L'hallucination_de_l'alchimisteMéliès appears as a bearded and robed magician or alchemist. His dwarf servants show him a grimoire and use a bellows to build up a flame beneath a glass retort then flee the stage. A snake emerges from the furnace and performs some acrobatics, suddenly turning into a green-clad elf or imp. The imp gives the alchemist a wand with a solar symbol on its end, then uses magic to blow the retort up to giant proportions. We see various images inside the retort, most notably a huge spider with a creepy human face. Then smoke pours out of the retort into a bucket that has been placed beneath it. A semi-transparent ghost levitates out of the bucket and dances in air. The alchemist rises from his chair as the ghost disappears, and the beaker suddenly explodes behind him, knocking him to the floor.

Méliès at work in his studio.

Méliès at work in his studio.

This movie is a good example of the magical performances Méliès used the camera to bring to life. The print I watched was beautifully hand-painted, and, while it isn’t perfectly preserved, gave a good idea of how striking and effective his color films were at the time. There are several instances of double-exposures in the film to make the effects appear at the same time as the alchemist. The enlargement of the retort is also an important effect: I have seen references to “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) as the first instance of such a magnification (done by moving the camera closer to the object, creating a close-up), but this was done several years earlier, admittedly not with a human body part. Finally, it is fun to speculate what substance the alchemist had invented in order to see these fantastic images!

Alternate Titles: L’hallucination de l’alchimiste, An Hallucinated Alchemist, The Hallucinated Alchemist

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free online, if you know where it is, please let us know in the comments!

The Bewitched Inn (1897)

L'auberge_ensorcelée_(1897)This is another of Georges Méliès‘s short trick films, and another entry in my history of horror films for October. It does deal with the supernatural, and the events do disconcert and maybe even frighten its protagonist, although the audience was most likely expected to react with laughter.

Bewitched InnMéliès enters the stage wearing a false beard and a large pith helmet, portraying a stylized traveler in a hotel room. As he prepares for bed, each of the items he discards comes to life, moves about the room and disappears. When he tries to light a candle, first one disappears, and the other, allowing itself to be lit, explodes. He tries to sit on the chair, but it teleports across the room. When he finally removes his boots, they “walk” across the floor and disappear as the other items have. Finally, he tries to get into bed, but it disappears from under him. When it reappears, and the chair leaps on top of it, he flees the room in terror.

Bewitched Inn1This is reputed to be the first film in which Méliès made inanimate objects come to life to torment their owners, which would become a common theme in his movies. As with “A Terrible Night,” it depicts a guest who is prevented from sleeping by odd events, which was supposedly a common theme in variety shows. Méliès would also repeat this idea, and it is not very different from the two movies called “The Haunted Castle” (1896 & 1897) also by Méliès. He was of course still in an early experimental stage and was trying things out at this point, some of which he would return to and build upon later. One thing I thought was interesting is the large sign which says “notice” (“Avis”) on the door: apparently hotels already posted rules in France almost 120 years ago. I had always assumed that was a recent, possibly primarily American, development.

Alternate Titles: L’auberge ensorcelée, The Bewitch Inn (possibly a typo).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

October, 1915

Stamp commemorating Edith Cavell, executed Oct 12.

Stamp commemorating Edith Cavell, executed Oct 12.

As we start putting out carved pumpkins and plastic skeletons, it’s time to take a moment to look back at the headlines from a century ago. There’s plenty here to foster a chilling Halloween spirit, especially in the trenches of the First World War.

World War

Espionage: Nurse Edith Cavell is executed on October 12 by a German firing squad for assisting at least 200 Allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium. Cavell would become a symbol in Allied (especially British) propaganda for the decency of resistance fighters in Belgium and her execution as proof of the cold ruthlessness and militarism of Germany.

Serbian Front: A new campaign to conquer Serbia (the focal point of the beginning of the war) is launched by Germany and Austria-Hungary on October 7, joined by Bulgaria on October 14. Within six months, the Serbian army will be forced to retreat and the bulk of Serbia occupied.

Baltic: The German armored cruiser SMS Prinz Adelbert is torpedoed by a British submarine and destroyed on October 23. Over 670 sailors are killed, the greatest loss of life for the Imperial Navy’s Baltic forces during the war.

Other News

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Literature: Franz Kafka’s book The Metamorphosis, about a man who turns into a giant insect, is first published this month in Germany.

Diplomacy: The United States recognizes the revolutionary government of Venustiano Carranza, the “Primer Jefe” of the Constitutionalists in Mexico on October 19. He will go on to become President of the country in 1917, but is assassinated only three years later.

Politics: The United Daughters of the Confederacy holds its annual meeting in San Francisco on October 21. This is the first time the meeting is held outside of the South, and reflects the growing acceptance of the “lost-cause narrative” in non-Southern states, in part due to the success of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Law: Lyda Conley, who had been arrested a year earlier for shooting a policeman, becomes the first Native American woman admitted to practice at the US Supreme Court, October 25. She had appeared in propria persona (in her own person) in 1909, to argue in favor of protecting a Native American cemetery.

Government: Billy Hughes succeeds Andrew Fisher as Australian Prime Minister on October 27. He will break with his own party (Labor) over the issue of conscription and form the new National Labor Party, which later merged with the Commonwealth Liberal Party to become the Nationalist Party, while still serving in that capacity.

Disasters: The St. Johns School in Peabody, Massachusetts catches fire on October 28. 21 girls between the ages of 7 and 17 die in this fire, in part due to poor safety procedures and lack of safety exits.

Deaths: Actress Blanche Walsh dies October 31 from kidney failure. Mostly known for her work on the stage, she appeared in a film version of “Resurrection,” the novel by Leo Tolstoy, produced by Adolph Zukor in 1912.

Juve vs Fantômas (1913)

Juve_versus_Fant_masFor my first “feature film” for October’s history of horror movies this year, I decided to return to the series I watched when I started this blog. While I did discuss the series and reviewed the DVD collection from Kino Lorber, I haven’t ever gotten around to doing each of the movies. This is the first “sequel,” the immediate follow-up to “Fantômas: Shadow of the Guillotine.”

Juve vs FantomasThis episode begins with a brief re-cap of the previous one, establishing that Inspector Juve continues his hunt for Fantômas with the aid of the reporter Fandor. They follow a woman believed the be connected, and Fandor manages to be on the scene when Fantômas’s gang holds up a railway car to get the money being transported by her lover, a bank agent. Unfortunately, he doesn’t prevent Fantômas from wrecking a train or getting away. Juve and Fandor both get messages leading them to a dockside warehouse, and shoot at each other, each mistaking the other for Fantômas. Then, the real gang springs up from behind barrels and starts shooting at them. The gang sets fire to the barrels and leave them to burn, but Juve and Fandor get into an unlit barrel and roll into the water, swimming away to safety. They make another attempt to arrest him when he meets the woman at a club called “The Crocodile,” but Fantômas escapes by putting on false arms, and running away as they lead him to a police car, leaving them holding his arms! He then returns to the Crocodile and finishes his evening in peace. Next, Fantômas makes contact with Lady Beltham, his lover from the previous movie, and they begin meeting at her now abandoned estate. Juve and Fandor put on disguises and take a tour of the place, posing as prospective buyers. They figure out a way to hide in a heating duct and listen in on Fantômas and Beltham. They learn that Fantômas plans to kill Juve in four days time with his “silent executioner.” This makes Juve think of a crushed body from an earlier case, so he takes the precaution of putting on armor with nails sticking out that makes him look like a middle-aged member of Immortal. Sure enough, when the boa constrictor enters through the conveniently open window, it is unable to get a crushing grasp and leaves in defeat. Now, Juve and Fandor bring a contingent of policemen to the estate and try to catch Fantômas, who eludes them by hiding in a cistern and breathing through a bottle with no bottom. While Fantômas’s worst plans have not paid off, he remains at large.

Juve vs Fantomas1Once again, I have to return to the question of, “is it a horror movie?” Not exactly, it’s a thriller about a super-genius villain and his almost equally clever pursuer. But, I have to think that horror film makers drew from the imagery and ideas of these movies in later years. Fantômas may not be a “monster” in the strict sense, but he calls himself a phantom and has a distinctly frightening costume. He often brings about multiple deaths as he does in this episode, and he hides in haunted houses and abandoned places. In this case, he even uses a snake for a weapon, and his power of disguise makes it possible for him to be anyone.

Juve vs Fantomas2

Snakes and spikes? How many Black Metal bands saw this movie?

The movie, like all of Louis Feuillade’s work, is very well done technically and a visual feast. I particularly enjoyed his exteriors of century-past Paris. He isn’t shy about using close-ups and camera movement, which adds to the excitement. The depth of field of some shots impressed me, particularly in the night club, in contrast to the difficulties Billy Bitzer had with deep focus in “The House of Darkness.” One criticism I have is that there is a heavy dependence on Intertitles and close-ups on documents like letters to explain the story, particularly at the beginning where an especially long letter backfills the audience on what happened in the previous episode. Probably unavoidable, but somewhat dull. Surprisingly, the big action sequences are some of the least interesting visual moments, in part due to the weakness of the special effects of the time. The train crash is handled with a tiny model train and the barrel fire mostly consists of smoke, in contrast to the lovely poster above. I wondered a bit about the frame rate of the transfer – at times it seemed to me that the movie was unnaturally slowed down, and I wonder if they over-compensated for earlier sped-up versions by playing it at a slower speed. The story is, as usual, impenetrably complex and contradictory. At one point, the police are not certain whether a body they have discovered is Lady Beltham, half an hour later, they are releasing her (alive) for “lack of evidence” with no explanation in between. That sort of thing has long been part of the charm of the series, however, so I won’t hold it against the movie.

Juve vs Fantomas3

Alternate Title: Juve contre Fantômas

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Georges Guérin

Starring: René Navarre, Edmund Breon, Georges Melchior, Renée Carl

Run Time: 1 hour, 2 min

I have not found the entire movie available free online. You can watch about half of it: here. If you find a free version, please say so in the comments.

The Vanishing Lady (1896)

Once more we have an example of something that may or may not be the first surviving “horror film.” This one is cataloged as #70 in the Méliès company catalog, which would put it after “A Terrible Night” (if the movie we have access to is the right one) and before 1896’s “The Haunted Castle.” Like the others, it is short, and not very scary.

Vanishing LadyIn this case we see Georges Méliès walk onto stage in his role as a performing magician. He places newspaper on the floor and a chair on top of that, demonstrating that there is no trap door beneath which opens during the trick. He then calls his assistant out and has her sit in the chair, and covers her with a sheet. Voila! She has vanished. When he tries to make her come back, a skeleton sits in her place (this is the only real horror element). He again covers the skeleton, and the lady reappears. They take a bow and exit.

Vanishing Lady1This is identified as the first of Méliès’s “trick films,” in which he used the “stop trick” (seen previously in Edison’s “Mary Queen of Scots”) to perform magic on screen. This was one of his most important camera techniques, and to some degree defines the rest of his career as a filmmaker. Because it allows “supernatural” events to be portrayed, it is also undeniably important to the development of horror movies. Indeed, the mysterious appearance of skeletons due to occult forces would be a key element in the 1942 Bela Lugosi movie, “Night Monster,” although I doubt if its makers had this parallel in mind.

Alternate Title: Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, The Conjuring of a Lady at the House of Robert-Houdin

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Terrible Night (1896)

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.