Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: October, 2016

The Treasures of Satan (1902)

Alternate Title: Les Trésors de Satan

This short film by Georges Méliès represents my final “history of horror” entry for the month of October. As usual, it deals with its subject matter playfully, and in this case it is even somewhat hard to be certain what is going on, but the theme of Satanic black magic is implicit from the title and performance.

treasures-of-satanA figure dressed as Satan is on a set, designed to be a large chamber in a castle. Satan has large feather-like horns on his hat and a goatee, but otherwise appears normal. On a table on stage left is a pile of bags with large numbers written on them (lots of zeros). He summons some assistants (with smaller “horns” on their hats) who lift a coffin-sized chest onto some stools and help Satan place the money bags into the chest. They lock the chest and leave the room. Almost immediately, another man in medieval garb (no horns) sneaks into the room and dances about with glee over the money he hopes is in the chest. He breaks it open, but it snaps shut on his fingers. Then the money begins leaping about uncontrollably. He traps it in the chest again, but then a demon-woman (horns again) climbs out holding one of the bags. followed by five others. They tempt him with the money, then suddenly the bags turn into large spears and the women pursue the man, poking him. When he tries to hide in the chest, it disappears and rematerializes upright on the left side of the stage, and he is exposed to the spears. He runs in to the chest again, and it blinks out and reappears on the stools with the same effect. Finally the women disappear when he kneels to pray. He tries to grab the chest, but it gets up of its own accord and eludes him. He hits it with a stool and it turns into a demon-acrobat, who tumbles. The demon and Satan try to grab the man, who tries to run away, but Satan charms him into the chest, which then emits fire and smoke, while all the demons dance around it. At the end, Satan transforms the chest back into the money bags.

I’ve tried to be somewhat neutral in my description of this plot, because there are contesting narratives as to what is actually going on. The logical assumption is that the non-demon man (played by Méliès himself) is a thief, trying to steal from Satan and being punished in return. However, the Star Films Catalog says that he is a miser, and that Satan is stealing from him: supposedly he is “greatly astonished” that his fortune has been moved from the table to the chest. However, this doesn’t really fit the action: why should a miser sneak into his own chamber? Why would he leave his money lying out on a table? And, he doesn’t look “astonished,” he looks excited by the idea that there’s money in the chest. The first time I watched, I actually thought this was dual-role movie, with Méliès as both Satan and the thief/miser. However, watching again, I wasn’t so sure that Satan was Méliès. He’s too far away from the camera to be identified for certain, and he moves differently than the playful dancing one gets to know as Méliès’s body language. The bearded man is unmistakably Méliès.

Director Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Lord of Thunder (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” continues the serial’s pattern of capture-and-escape, with the emphasis on the villains this time out. Musidora, as Irma Vep, manages to have a record number of wardrobe changes, and Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) remembers that he has a family.

lord-of-thunder

Irma Vep in her prison uniform.

This episode begins where the last one ended – with Moréno and Irma Vep in the custody of police and Satanas (Louis Leubas), the true Grand Master of the Vampires, still at large and unknown to the heroes. Irma is informed that her lover has been executed for his crimes, and that she will be transferred to a prison colony in Algeria for life. Satanas reads this news as well, and disguises himself as a priest, taking a hotel room with a view of the ocean in Montmartre. He then visits the women’s prison, distributing religious literature, but Irma Vep is able to decode a message in her pamphlet that warns her to leap into the ocean, because the boat will be destroyed by an explosion. Satanas then returns to the hotel, where his cohorts have been building one of his handy transportable cannons, and he destroys the ship with a single shell.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Meanwhile, Philippe Guérande has managed to use the codebook he got from the Grand Inquisitor in episode 2 to figure out that the shell must have been fired from Montmartre. Mazamette, who has dropped by to let him and his mother know that he is being considered for the “academic palms,” offers to investigate. He is unsuccessful on his first day, but then his son Eustache (played by Bout-de-Zan) arrives, having been expelled from school for bad behavior. The two of them dress as garbage pickers and return to Montmartre, where they find a cannon shell being delivered to the Grand Master of the Vampires in a hat box.

lord-of-thunder2Satanas stops by Guérande’s house and uses his paralyzing pin to immobilize him while secreting a time bomb in a top hat to blow up the apartment. He sticks a note to Guérande’s collar that proclaims that he has been condemned to avenge the death of Irma Vep. Mazamette arrives in time to see Satanas leaping from the window of the apartment into a waiting getaway car, then is able to find the ticking top hat and dispose of it before it explodes, saving the day. He announces that he now has the address of the Grand Master of the Vampires.

lord-of-thunder3Eustache and Mazamette return to Montmartre and attempt to sneak in to Satanas’s home, but Satanas uses a peephole hidden in a mask on the wall to see what they are doing and locks Mazamette into a chest, while threatening Eustache, who pulls out a gun and shoots at Satanas. Satanas acts as if he was hit, but then gets up and grabs the child, when suddenly thee police break down the door and apprehend him. Mazamette is rescued from the chest, but his face is covered with blood – somehow Eustache’s bullet hit him in the nose!

lord-of-thunder4Meanwhile, Irma Vep has escaped from the shell after all, and turns up at a railroad station, fainting from hunger and weakness. The railyard workers help her to recover and take up a collection for her, charmed by a phony story of a romantic tragedy that she makes up. She then heads back to the nightclub we saw in episode three, and announces her survival by performing on the stage – the assembled Vampires all recognize her voice. She is taken to the hideout in victory and a couple perform an Apache Dance in her honor. Then, the news of Satanas’s arrest comes, and Venomous (Fredrik Moriss), a “brilliant but deranged chemist” announces that he has been deputized to lead the gang in such a circumstance. They mail a seemingly innocuous letter to Satanas, which Satanas eats to commit suicide.

Irma Vep, in her

Irma Vep, in her “riding-the-rails” outfit.

We’re certainly going through the villains quickly in this serial! Only Irma Vep seems to survive, while the male leaders of the gang fall like flies. I found Satanas to be at least as dull of a villain as the old Master Vampire was, though, so no great loss here. I have some hope for the “deranged chemist,” Venomous, for these final chapters. The scene where Irma Vep arrived at the train station was somewhat shocking to me – because Louis Feuillade had Musidora lie on the tracks while an actual train passed overhead! A very dangerous stunt, luckily she was thin enough to pull it off without injury. The arrival of Bout-de-Zan was quite a thrill as well, although he didn’t have all that much to do in this episode, besides shooting his father in the nose, and we didn’t get much of a sense of the playful troublemaking that made him a huge star. Also, the shots of the ship blowing up appeared to be taken from actual footage of naval warfare, suggesting that this was one of the first movies to cut stock footage into its storyline.

Irma Vep's not even sure where these clothes came from.

Irma Vep’s not even sure where these clothes came from.

And, now, let’s pause to consider the logic of the story, as always. OK, so assuming that you can transport a cannon in pieces inside of a couple of large trunks, what are the chances you can fire it out a hotel window without getting reported to the authorities? No one complained about the noise? Montmartre must be a pretty raucous place for no one to have minded cannon fire! Also, Mazamette is remarkably fortunate in this episode: not only does he just happen to literally stumble upon a cannon shell being delivered to a particular address, he takes a bullet to the nose that fortunately didn’t go into his brain! Finally, I certainly wouldn’t be eager to advance in a criminal gang with such a high death rate among its leadership. Given the frequency with which they escape from the police as well, it would seem some kind of rescue would be attempted before sending the “poison pen” letter to Satanas.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Levésque, René Poyen, Louis Leubas, Fredrik Moriss, Florense Simoni, Renée Carl

Run Time: 51 Min

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

Blue Beard (1901)

Alternate Title: Barbe-bleue

This short by Georges Méliès is one of the longest things he did in 1901 and also one of the most serious subjects he handled. The story of a man who routinely murders his wives is a classic part of the horror genre, and fits neatly into my October exploration of its history.

blue-beardBy this point in time, Méliès and other filmmakers were beginning to stitch separate scenes together to create longer narratives. Méliès had already done something like this when he created the reenactment of “The Dreyfus Affair” in a series of single-scenes. However, those movies were sold separately, while this is billed as a single item in the Star Films Catalog, meaning that it would have been sold to exhibitors already edited together in sequence.

blue-beard1The movie begins with the “Betrothal of Bluebeard,” which shows a group of nobles in a set built to resemble a palace. There are many young women present. Suddenly, a man with a large beard and a haughty manner (Georges Méliès) appears, but the women reject him when he kneels before each in turn. He then has servants bring out cardboard props representing large sums of money, but this does nothing to change the women’s minds. They are more impressed when he displays a necklace, and the father of one of the ladies forces her to accept, although she (Jeanne d’Alcy) shows obvious reluctance.

blue-beard2The next scene is “Preparing the Wedding Feast.” We see the marriage party cross through a kitchen set, at which many cooks are hard at work. There is a procession of cardboard cut-out props showing elaborately prepared boars, steaks, desserts, etc. At the end, one of the cooks is bumped and falls into the stew pot. Another cook tries to fish him out, but only pulls out his clothes. Then there is a brief “Wedding Feast” scene at which the nobles sit down and eat in celebration in a sumptuous dining hall. It is not clear whether they are served the stew with the dissolved cook in it.

blue-beard3Next is the scene “Bluebeard departs on a journey.” Bluebeard displays the keys to his castle to his new bride and gestures that she is free to go to any room she likes. Then, he produces a large key separate from the set, and indicates the one door we can see on the castle set. He forbids her to enter this room, and gives her the key, perhaps as a test of her honor. Once Bluebeard leaves, the young woman shows an interest in entering the forbidden room, but she resists. Then an imp or devil appears (I believe that this is also Méliès in costume), and entices her until she opens the door. The next scene takes place in the “Forbidden Chamber.” At first, the room is gloomy and dungeon-like, and there are seven sack-like objects dimly visible in the background. The bride crosses the room and opens the window, revealing the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous seven wives, all hanging from ropes at the back of the room. The bride is shocked, and drops the key on the floor. The key grows to tremendous proportions, apparently to show us that it is now stained with blood, and when it returns to normal size, the bride attempts to clean it off. The imp dances about in this scene as well. The next scene is titled “A Troubled Dream,” and it shows the bride lying in her bed while visions dance above her as in-camera effects. She awakes upon having a vision of Bluebeard impaling her with a sword.

blue-beard4In “Bluebeard’s Discovery and Condemnation,” the bride is caught when Bluebeard returns home and sees the blood on the key, and he flies into a rage. This scene is staged on a courtyard set, the only set used twice in this movie. The bride flees stage right into a tower door. Bluebeard pursues her and we see the top of the tower as a set for “Looking in the Tower for Fatima.” There is another woman present (possibly intended to represent a Guardian Angel). Bluebeard seizes his wife and drags her back downstairs. The scene “At the Place of Execution” takes place back in the courtyard, as does the scene “Arrival of the Deliverers,” making them appear to be a single scene with two parts (and then a third): at first, Bluebeard threatens and rages at his bride, and then, just as he is about to slay her, a group of noblemen break through the gate (actually, it looks like paper) and fight Bluebeard, finally running him through with a sword and pinning him to the wall. He continues to struggle while they reassure the bride and the imp reappears to dance around the stage. Then the sword is removed, cuing the “Death of Bluebeard,” in which he tries to rise and fight again, but finally falls to the ground. Then, there is a short “Apotheosis: The Eight Wives over Bluebeard’s Body.,” in which we see the women in a happy afterlife, with Bluebeard sprawled before them.

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard is a traditional figure in French folk tales, and there were several operas written about him in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This doesn’t seem to draw on any of them, however, although it probably draws on a 1697 story version written by Charles Perrault. Audiences in 1901 (especially in France) would be familiar enough with the story that it was possible to make this movie with no Intertitles, although in fact it was probably accompanied by live narration, at least when shown at the Robert Houdin Theater. I have had to fill in some details from reading about the narrative – it didn’t all make sense to me when I watched it cold. In particular, I didn’t understand the part about the expanding key, which I think Méliès was using as a kind of close-up, to make sure we saw the key and what had happened to it, but to a modern viewer it just looks like an anomalous magic trick. It’s also strange that the catalog breaks a single scene in the courtyard into three separate titles.

At any rate, this is quite possibly the most genuinely horrific work we’ve seen from Méliès, even granting that it retains his sense of playfulness (especially in the character of the imp) and fantasy. The implications of the story are quite grim, and even the bit with the cook dissolving into the stew works as sort of a black comedy joke, establishing the low value of human life in Bluebeard’s castle.  Bluebeard writhing on the sword is also fairly grotesque for the time. This is also the most complex movie I’ve seen from Méliès at this early date, although we are just one year away from his masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon.” That movie is just a little over two minutes longer than this one, but involved more elaborate sets and special effects, and a somewhat larger cast as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bluette Bernon

Run Time: 10 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Satanas (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” tries to inject new blood into the serial by introducing a new, more sinister villain, and also alludes to the horrors of the First World War by giving him a cannon to conduct his malevolent will. Of course, it is designed more as a crime-adventure film than a horror movie, much less a Satanic movie, but the title alone earns it a place in my October history of horror.

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

The movie’s opening takes us back to the penultimate scene of the previous episode, where Irma Vep (Musidora) and Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) have just killed the Grand Vampire. They stuff him into a trunk and prepare to dump the body, when there is a mysterious ring of the doorbell. The man outside is an older man (Louis Leubas), and he prepares before going in by putting a glove over a spike tied to his hand so that it points out from the palm. He tells them that he knows what they have in the trunk, and when Moréno tries to eject him, he stabs him with the spike, which contains a paralyzing poison. He informs Moréno that he is the true leader of the Vampires, the man they just killed was an “underling.” Then he leaves them to dump the body in the river.

satanas1That night, Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is carousing with two girls and a male friend at a cabaret owned by Moréno’s gang. Apparently, he has quite forgotten the wife and children of the first episode, because the girls are hanging all over him and he does not protest. When Moréno and Irma Vep arrive at the club, Moréno receives a card telling him that the Grand Vampire will demonstrate his power at 2AM. We see the Grand Vampire, who apparently has an office below the cabaret, pull a large cannon out of a secret cabinet, load it, and, at precisely 2AM, he fires it, destroying the cabaret (but somehow not injuring Moréno or Irma).

A well-appointed office.

A well-appointed office.

Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) now decides to pay a late-night call on Mazamette, but finds only the butler there, concerned over his master’s late hours. When Mazamette returns, Guérande hides behind a curtain and listens as he entertains his guests. When the man starts going through his things without permission, Mazamette becomes annoyed and pulls a gun on him and the girls. They switch off the lights and run out (you’d think opening the door would create a silhouette, but Mazamette behaves as if he can see nothing while the light is out). When he turns on the light, he sees Guérande’s shoes beneath the curtain, and shoots blindly at the figure hiding there, making me think of Hamlet and Polonius, but fortunately Guérande has been squatting down behind the curtain, so the bullets pass harmlessly over his head.

Never stab an arras.

Never stab an arras.

The next morning, Irma Vep and Moréno go to surrender to the true Grand Vampire, but he offers them a job instead. He wants them to steal from George Baldwin (Émile Keppens), a billionaire American who is staying at a Paris hotel. Moréno calls on his friend Fleur-de-Lys (Suzanne Delvé), who was one of the girls Mazamette was running around with the night before. She goes to Baldwin’s hotel and poses as a magazine reporter collecting signatures, and she gets Baldwin to sign a piece of paper. Then Irma Vep shows up with a bulky Edison cylinder-recorder and asks him to speak the only French phrase he knows into it: “Paris has the most charming women” adding on, “All right!” in English at the end. Now, Moréno uses the signature to forge a check to Fleur-de-Lys in the amount of $100,000, and sends her to cash it at a local bank. Irma Vep, meanwhile, kidnaps the switchboard operator at Baldwin’s hotel and infiltrates as her replacement. So, when the cashier at the bank gets suspicious about so large a withdrawal and calls the hotel, she plays back the cylinder recording of Baldwin praising Parisian girls, and the cashier decides Fleur-de-Lys is a high class call girl and gives her the money.

satanas4At this point Mazamette walks into the bank and sees Fleur-de-Lys getting the cash and recognizes her from the cabaret. He disguises himself by pretending to have a toothache and follows her. He sees her turn the money over to Moréno and calls Guérande, who joins him at the home of Fleur-de-Lys. They threaten her with guns to make her talk about the robbery, but she, probably realizing that they wouldn’t dare shoot, refuses to say anything until they call Moréno on the phone and threaten her with arrest instead. She now tells Moréno to come over immediately. He has, meanwhile, taken the money to the Grand Vampire, who tells him to keep it, no doubt to build the morale of this highly useful follower. Now, Moréno and Irma go to the home of Fleur-de-Lys, but as soon as they walk in the door, they fall through a huge trapdoor into a bag in a basement full of police! Mazamette and Guérande congratulate themselves on capturing the desperate criminals, who are taken into custody, from which they will doubtless escape in the next episode.

satanas5This was an episode entirely without murders, unless Irma Vep killed the switchboard operator offscreen (possible). I was quite surprised when the new Grand Vampire only paralyzed Moréno, I thought he was dead when he got stabbed. I also thought the cannon would kill him, so this was an episode of lucky escapes for him or considerable mercy for the Grand Vampire. I said at the beginning that he seems to have been brought in to rejuvenate the series somewhat – the old GV (Jean Aymé) was sort of lame, and he kept getting defeated by Moréno’s ingenuity. Mazamette continues to be the more interesting and active hero, but his apparent abandonment of his family in his time of good fortune is disappointing. Even the butler says so!

satanas

Closing the lid on a lame villain.

So, for this week’s roundup of logical inconsistencies, we can start with Guérande’s narrow escape. Who would crouch down so low while eavesdropping and why? Wouldn’t his knees tend to make a big bulge in the curtain? And, really Mazamette, don’t shoot at people you can’t see clearly enough to identify, that never ends well. The crazier leap-of-logic, though, is the giant trap door that Guérande and Mazamette use to capture the villains. So, Fleur-de-Lys happens to live in a building with that trap door built into its lobby? How did they know that? Or, are we meant to believe that they cut that hole in the floor while Moréno and Irma Vep came over from their place? How will they pay back the building’s owners for all the damage? Either way, it’s wonderfully absurd.

Director: Louise Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Louis Leubas, Suzanne Delvé, Émile Keppens

Run Time: 43 Min

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

 

Extraordinary Illusions (1901)

Alternate Title: Dislocation Mystérieuse

This short trick film from Georges Méliès deals with magical dismemberment, animated body parts, and the danger of one’s own body parts going into revolt. Of course, it’s all handled in a light-hearted fun way that keeps with Méliès’s child-friendly spirit, but I’m still including it with my history of horror as a movie that may have inspired darker visions at a later date.

extraordinary-illusionsA man dressed as Pierrot walks onto a proscenium-style set painted to represent a cave, with a few stools set at a distance from one another. He sits on the middle stool, then looks over to see a bottle of wine to stage left. He reaches for it, but, as it is too far, he detaches his arm, which now floats over to the bottle and picks it up, floating back across the stage to re-join his shoulder. He then sends his other arm to retrieve the glass sitting on the other stool, and pours himself a glass of wine. Next, he takes out a pipe and puts it in his mouth, but the candle is on the second stool, so this time he detaches his head and it floats over to light the pipe from the candle. Now, he tries to cross his legs, but they are uncomfortable, so one detaches itself and floats to the right stool, the other to the left. His legless torso now drops painfully to the ground. He gets his rebellious legs to reattach themselves, and then does a dance which culminates in his complete dismemberment as all of his limbs and his head detach themselves from the torso, with all six pieces dancing on their own. Finally, the body is rejoined, and he takes off his own head and sits on it before bowing, tucking the head under his arm, and exiting the stage.

The original Star Films catalog refers to this as “one of the best and most mysterious films ever produced,” which seems to justify the sense that it might count as a horror film. It claims that “there [is] not the slightest doubt that they are genuine living limbs,” although for the final dance, most of the limbs do look like props on strings, except for the head. Nevertheless, a lot of work went into making these effects in-camera and getting the timing and positions right must have been quite difficult. Imdb claims that this movie stars Méliès himself, but I’m not certain – the Pierrot figure doesn’t have his signature beard, and I feel like he moves a bit differently from Méliès. At any rate, whether or not it is “absolutely unique” as the catalog claims, it is a fun example of what Méliès learned to do in a few short years as a filmmaker.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Brahmin and the Butterfly (1901)

Alternate Title: La Chrysalide et le Papillion d’or

This short from Georges Méliès involves giant insects and magical transformations, two frequently-recurring themes in his work. I include it in my “history of horror,” in part because of an ending that seems to suggest that a man has lost his humanity.

brahmin1A bearded man in a turban walks onto a set decorated to appear as a tropical forest or jungle. He brings out a large barrel-shaped object and attaches it to wires, then produces a flute and begins to play. An enormous worm-like creature (no doubt a caterpillar, but without any visible legs) craws onto the stage in answer to his summons. He kisses it affectionately, then puts it into the hanging object, which we now perceive is a giant cocoon. After a moment, the lid comes off and a woman with antennae and butterfly wings is pulled out on wires, appearing to fly. She stands on his hand for a moment, then flutters to the ground. The man pursues her as she dances about, and throws a blanket over her head, causing her to stop moving. Two other women now approach and remove the blanket, revealing that the butterfly has now transformed fully into a woman. The man falls on his knees before her, but she spurns him, finally putting her foot on his neck. This causes him to turn into a caterpillar, and he crawls after her when she departs with the women.

The appearance of the gigantic worm already had me thinking about including this movie in the run for October, but it was when the “Brahmin” was turned into a worm himself that I was really sold. The worm is cute, really, not frightening, but the idea of a human becoming one is creepy nonetheless. In this case, it seems as though the Brahmin has lost himself due to his powerful attraction to the butterfly-woman, and goes from being a powerful magician to a crawling worm for love. This movie was apparently based on a stage act by a fellow magician, Buatier de Kolta, which may have appeared on the stage at the Robert-Houdin Theater before Méliès filmed it and screened it there. A “Brahmin” is a Hindu priest, but I would imagine that Méliès was using the term for added exoticism, not out of a genuine interest in reincarnation. Still, one could argue that this Brahmin falls back into the wheel of Karma and misses out on enlightenment because of his attachment to the butterfly and inability to rise above human passions.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Doctor and the Monkey (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Savant et le chimpanzé

Admittedly, this short from Georges Méliès is clearly intended as a comedy romp, but I’m including it with my “history of horror” because of its obvious relationship to later “ape on the loose” movies like “King Kong.” This monkey is less imposing, but the special effects are no less impressive for the period.

doctor-and-the-monkeyThe proscenium-style set displays a split-level home, with both the lower and upper floors visible, and the floor cutting mid-way through the screen. On the lower floor is a laboratory, and a doctor, played by Méliès, has a large monkey in a cage (actually an actor in a very obvious monkey suit). When the doctor turns his back, the monkey breaks out of the cage and begins to smash up the lab. The doctor pursues him and tries to bring him back under control, but to no avail. He grabs the monkey by its tail, and the tail detaches itself and begins flailing around under its own power. The doctor grabs a broom and tries to swat the tail, but it leaps up and attaches itself to his nose. The doctor’s housekeeper runs in and helps him pull off the tail, whereupon it disappears for good. Meanwhile, the monkey has climbed up to the second level, where it is smashing stored bags of flour and other things it finds. As the doctor becomes free again, it smashes through the floor and returns to the lower level terrorizing the doctor and the housekeeper. It now tears off the housekeeper’s skirt, leaving her in her pantalettes. As the film ends, the whole house is in shambles, with the monkey in evident dominance.

Apparently this movie has been compared to later video games like “Donkey Kong” because of the split-level effect, and perhaps the destructive monkey as well. Méliès intended it to be funny, but all movies about monkeys and destruction bring out questions of evolution and the beast within humanity, and the thin veneer of civilization that holds order together. In this film, the doctor proves quite incapable of controlling his creature’s instincts, and the monkey clearly gets the better of him. There’s even a sexual aspect, both in terms of the phallus-like tail attacking the man’s nose, and in the monkey tearing clothes off of the female housekeeper. Horror film makers would be exploring these themes again in the subsequent century and beyond.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

The Eyes That Mesmerize (1916)

Alternate Titles: Hypnotic Eyes, Les yeux qui fascinent

This installment in the crime serialLes Vampires” involves hypnotism, cross-dressing, and murder, as well as a hard-to-follow plot that strains credulity while being hard to predict. In other words, it’s a lot like other episodes of the series.

Focus! Focus!

Focus! Focus!

The movie begins by telling us that more than two weeks have passed since the events of “The Corpse’s Escape,” and that a notary has been killed at Fontainebleau. We also learn that Juan-Jose Moréno (Fernand Hermann) is a master of mesmerism, and he now brings his maid into the parlor and hypnotizes her, causing her to go into a deep trance. Then, Mazamette (Marcel Levésque) and Guérande (Édouard Mathé) decide to attend the movies. They see a story about the recent murder, and recognize Irma Vep (Musidora) and the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in the footage. Immediately, they rush out of the theater and make plans to go to Fontainebleau. Along the way, they happen to see a visiting American named Warner galloping at high speed on his horse to a remote spot. They follow him and see him hide a box among some boulders, which they recover after he has left. At their hotel, they discover that it is $200,000, which was stolen from an American millionaire named Baldwin, who has posted a considerable reward for its recovery and the capture of Raphael Norton, the man who stole it. They realize that Warner is Norton in disguise.

This has nothing  to do with the plot.

This has nothing to do with the plot.

Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire is now disguised as a Count named “Kerlor” and Irma Vep accompanies him as a young (male) Viscount called “Guy.” They also figure out who Warner is (he’s not at all good at keeping secrets) and plan to rob him of the money. Moréno manages to get the room between “Kerlor” and “Warner,” although he has no idea what is going on, and he has brought a very large trunk along with him. The Count tells a rather silly story about a supposed ancestor of his who had to fight two bulls during the Napoleonic Wars (we see the whole thing played out). This somehow distracts the Warners while Irma Vep gets into her Vampire costume and searches Warner’s room until she finds the map. Of course, she is accosted by Moréno, who knocks her out with chloroform and drops her out the window to his gang waiting below. They bundle her into a car and drive off. Meanwhile, Moréno takes his hypnotized maid out of the trunk (!) and disguises her as Irma Vep, then has her give the map to the Grand Vampire in that disguise.

eyes-that-mesmerizeThe Grand Vampire now swings into action, sending his confederate (Miss Édith) to go find the loot indicated on the map. She gets there and finds instead a note from Guérande, inviting the legitimate owner of the box to meet with him. Then she gets captured by Moréno, who tells her to tell the Grand Vampire that he is holding Irma Vep and will release her for a ransom. She reports all of this to the Grand Vampire, who decides to get out because Guérande might have called the police, but plans to try to recover Irma Vep anyway. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Warner is actually Norton, so Guérande and Mazamette win the reward. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her various crimes, then orders her to kill the Grand Vampire, which she does with dispatch, as soon as he walks in the door.

Don't mess with Irma Vep

Don’t mess with Irma Vep

The episode ends with the now-rich Mazamette giving a press interview to his friend Guérande and other reporters, assuring them that, “though vice is sometimes slow to be punished, virtue is always rewarded.”

Since there are no actual vampires in the series, I am usually forced to stretch things a bit to justify my inclusion of it in my annual October “history of horror.” In this case, the connection is hypnotism, which has been a theme of horror writing and cinema since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar.” When Mesmer first began convincing the educated world that hypnotism was a real psychological phenomenon, and not just a parlor trick, Europeans became frightened at the possibility of a strong will dominating a weak one. What if crimes could be committed while under hypnosis, even murder? Feuillade plays on that theme in this film by causing the weak-minded maid to become a virtual robot, and Irma Vep to switch allegiances from the Grand Vampire to Moréno. In that case, however, I’m not certain mental dominance was necessary: she appears to me to have chosen to abandon the less successful master criminal for the one who has really become the focus of the story for the last two episodes. If the Grand Vampire is really dead, though, I’m not sure how they can justify calling the rest of the serial “Les Vampires.”

How far would you trust this woman?

How far would you trust this woman?

And now for my usual nit-picky logical questioning of the plot. OK, so Moréno hires a girl who looks sort of vaguely like Irma Vep to be his maid, hypnotises her and carries her into the country in a trunk…so she can wear a mask for a few seconds and give the Grand Vampire something Irma Vep was going to give him anyway? How did he know in advance to have her wear a Vampire costume? How did he manage to get the right room when everyone was using assumed names? How did he know to station his gangsters outside the window with a net just at the moment he was going to push her out the window? And why did we have to watch that silly bullfighting sequence? Anyway, I’m glad Mazamette finally has enough money to send all his children through school. Hopefully the adventures of Musidora and Moréno will continue to thrill us next week.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Levésque, Musidora, Fernand Hermann, Jean Aymé, Miss Édith, Maxa

Run Time: 58 Min

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

The Triple Conjurer and the Living Head (1900)

Alternate Title: L’Illusionniste double et le tete vivant

This short from Georges Méliès demonstrates the sophistication his special effects had already taken on in the last year of the nineteenth century, and the care and hard work he put into them. I’m including it in my “history of horror” for October, because of the theme of animated heads, which we saw in “The Mysterious Knight” as well.

triple-conjurerWe see Méliès himself appear on a proscenium-style set that has some familiar “magic show” elements in the background, including a cauldron and a demon face. He suddenly steps to the side, and a second Méliès steps out to the other side. The two Méliès sit on stools facing each other and interact. One Méliès gets a table and puts it between them, then places a woman’s (mannequin) head on top of it. The head comes to life and speaks. The conjurer crawls underneath the table to show that there is no body below the table. Then the second Méliès gets up and causes the woman to materialize completely – now she has a body. Both of them appear to be attracted, and make motions to kiss her, but she refuses. Then a new figure, which is Méliès in his devil costume from “The Devil in a Convent” appears and causes the woman to disappear. The Méliès facing the Devil sees him and runs off stage. The other one seems puzzled, and the devil gestures from behind his back. Finally, he turns around and sees the Devil, also running off screen. The Devil removes his costume and reveals himself as a third Méliès, taking a bow for his magic.

We’re so used to seeing people “mirrored” in the screen that we don’t think too much of it anymore, but it was quite a wow to have three images of the same person on the screen at once in 1900. Moreover, it took a lot of precision work. Méliès had to shoot the scene three times, making sure that he hit his cues at the same moment for each take, and not accidentally step in the same place at the same time as his “other self” would appear there. The interactions between the two images are perfect, including eye-lines and reactions, and there is no visible “split” between the two images, something which filmmakers as late as the 70s and 80s were still messing up. The head is less perfect – the table top seems to be detached from the legs, and it moves around when she talks or turns her head. This is another movie that won’t scare anyone, but I would say that the entertainment value is undiminished, in part because Méliès’s charm and enthusiasm comes through so strongly.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, and Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

Up-to-Date Spiritualism (1900)

Alternate Title: Spiritisme Abracadabrant

Another short from Georges Méliès depicting the plight of a fellow plagued by a Poltergeist, this movie has a lot in common with “The Bewitched Inn” and other ghost-comedies Méliès produced. I’m including it as part of my “history of horror” because it fits the theme of supernatural pests, even if it wouldn’t scare even a small child.

up-to-date-spiritualismWe see a man (Méliès) in costume on a typical proscenium-style set. He appears to be in a room or salon and to have just arrived – he is still in hat and coat, and he carries a large umbrella. He puts the umbrella on a stool and while his back is turned it suddenly flies offscreen to the right. He notices that it has vanished, but goes ahead and takes off his hat and places it on the same stool. The hat now levitates in front of him. When he tries to grab it, it eludes him, but when he lets it go, it suddenly appears on his head again. He now removes both hat and coat, only to have them reappear on his body again. He now begins a war to try to get the hat and coat off, but each time he lets go of them, they are suddenly on him again. He becomes increasingly agitated, trying to hurl the objects away, but to no avail. Finally, he tries overturning a large table and putting the offending clothes underneath it. He rubs his hands together, believing that he has outwitted the ghost, but once again the hat and coat appear on him! He now flees the room in terror or perhaps annoyance.

The Star Films catalog refers to this movie as a “comique eccentric,” and describes it much as I have, with perhaps a bit more action than I saw (“the chairs, his umbrella, his hat, etc fly away in different directions and by various methods”). The only method at work on the flying objects was suspension by a string, and the effect of having things reappear on the character is entirely handled with jump cuts. It still works, though, and I got a few chuckles watching the way Méliès’s character shows his growing irritation at the phenomenon through body language. A nice example of the work Méliès was producing in huge numbers at this point in time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).