Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: October, 2017

The Magician’s Cavern (1901)

This short film be Georges Méliès is more of a magic show than a narrative, but the use of spooky iconography makes it relevant to my “history of horror.” No doubt it evoked more laughter than screams, even in audiences of the day.

A man with a large beard and a coat enters a proscenium-style stage dressed as a the stronghold of a magician. Two large gargoyles flank the stage and a strange creature (perhaps a dragon on an alligator) hangs from the ceiling. A skeleton is hangs just above the stage as well. The magician bows to the audience, then bumps into the skeleton. He takes it down from where it is hanging and puts it in a chair. With some magical gestures he transforms the skeleton into a befleshed woman with a helmet and shield, looking like Athena or perhaps an Amazon. She walks to the front of the stage and bows, then the magician transforms her clothes to a more formal dress. He hypnotizes her and levitates her between two chairs, then removes the chairs and shows that she is floating without assistance of wires. He then turns her back into a skeleton, which does a humorous “danse macabre.” The magician joins in the dance, then removes the skeleton from the stage. Now he brings out a table and stool, and the table moves through jump cuts at his command. The stool is levitated to the top of the table, and the articles of furniture do a dance of their own. Next, he summons the transparent image of several women, who dance in a circle about the stage. When he tries to grab them, they turn out to be insubstantial. There is more floating furniture dancing until he throws everything off-stage. He then flies up through the ceiling, only to return from below via a trap door, and bows again. Suddenly he pulls off his clothes, revealing himself as Méliès in his standard attire. Méliès puts on a hat and takes out a cigarette, lighting it from one of the gargoyles. He bows one last time and walks off the stage.

Méliès’s movies were starting to get longer about this time, and I feel like he was still uncertain how to fill that time with a coherent storyline. This feels like at least two separate acts, with the women and the skeleton being one story, and all the furniture (and maybe Méliès’s own transformation) being a separate one. Of course, there’s no real narrative to any of it, just a series of illusionary special effects calculated to mystify and fascinate, and it does succeed in this even today. Some of the effects work very well, including the dancing skeleton (a marionette) and the ghostly women. The levitation is a bit less impressive, because the multiple exposure he used causes him to become partially transparent when he tries to demonstrate the lack of supports for the lady. Even though it doesn’t fit that well, I like his “reveal” at the end, it’s like he’s letting us in on a part of his magic.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Fear (1917)

This movie represents the only contribution to the “history of horror” from 1917 that I’ve been able to identify and locate. The now-iconic team of Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt would return in two years to produce the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but this movie gave them a chance to cut their teeth on madness and mystical curses.

Count Greven (Bruno de Carli) returns to his old castle after spending several years touring the world. We see his carriage pull up to the gate from a high angle, and then he comes into the castle to be greeted by his staff. An Intertitle tells us he was a “cheerful and happy man” when he left, but we see that he is now restless and furtive. He orders the castle locked and the gate barred, claiming he wishes to see “no strange faces.” He goes into a room and shutters the light. Once alone, he opens one of his traveling cases and takes out an Indian statue (the script calls it a “Buddha,” but it’s kind of skinny and looks more Hindu to me). For a moment, his face shows pleasure before returning to fear. He carries it through the halls and puts it in a display case hidden behind an arras – thus concealing it and displaying it at the same time.

After a few days of watching his odd behavior, his chief servant goes to the local minister and tells him that his master needs help. The minister visits and Greven confesses his sins. His “unhappy passion for art collecting” has led him to steal the statue from a temple in India, where the “Buddha priests” have sworn revenge on him. He claims that they will kill him to retrieve the statue, using magical powers no one can understand. The minister concludes that he has gone mad.

Greven is at his wits’ end. He now longs for death as a release from his terrible dread of not knowing when the blow will come. One night, he has a vision of one of the priests (Conrad Veidt in a turban) appearing on his lawn. He tries to shoot at the image without effect, then he begs it to kill him. The priest tells him that he will not kill him until he has “learned to love life” and that then he will die by the hand of “the one dearest to him” in exactly seven years.

With this temporary reprieve, Greven launches into a life of dancing, drinking, gambling, and parties to try to “drink the dregs of life” while he has time. When this lifestyle becomes dull, he begins a feverish program of research to discover a means to “transform nitrogen into protein” thus curing world hunger forever. When he succeeds, a crowd of people hails him and lifts him to their shoulders, just before he lifts up a hammer and smashes the flask. He has now experienced the fame of glory and the impulse to destroy all at once. Next, he pursues a love affair with a lovely young woman (Mechthildis Thein), who agrees to become his wife. After they are wed, he plans to leave her and go on a world tour, but he finds he cannot part from her and stays.

 

Finally, the appointed day arrives. Once again his fearful persona comes to the forefront. He tries to get rid of the curse by hurling the statue into the water, but it reappears in his display case. He demands that his butler taste his tea before drinking. When he sees his wife holding a dagger (presumably from his art collection), he takes a shot at her. He flees from everyone, unable even to trust the coachman not to crash and kill him. Finally, the pressure becomes too much. He turns his pistol on himself, shooting himself and becoming his own executioner. Once again, we see the image of the “Buddha priest.” He rises from the lawn, becoming transparent through multiple exposure and walks to the barred gates, which open at a gesture form him. He walks through the halls and stairs, finally retrieving the statue and carrying it back out of the castle.

 

If you’re hoping for Expressionist photography or wild sets, as in “Caligari,” you’ll be disappointed here. There aren’t really any creative shadows or silhouettes as we’d expect from Maurice Tourneur. No scene is more than slightly underlit. The scene of the confrontation on the lawn is shot in full daylight, we have to accept that it’s night based on the Count wearing his nightgown. I think the movie would have benefited from more close-ups, to give us a better sense of the characters’ emotions, but with a better quality print than is currently available on home video, this might not be as much of an issue.

In terms of the story, however, this is a classic horror tale. I was reminded right from the start of the structure of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the character returning changed from an experience abroad, then revealing what happened to another character who concludes that he’s insane. That level of disconnect forces the audience to question how much of the story is true, even as we know that for narrative purposes the story will proceed as if the character’s perceptions are real. Wiene would return to this theme of the unreliable narrator in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it is used effectively here as well. The structure of the middle part, where Greven goes from wild partying to scientific research to pursuing love, reminded me of the story of “Faust,” which seems to be a part of all early German horror.

 

The movie also reminds me of “The Mummy” in showing how a white man’s blind passion for collection results in his being cursed by the unknown powers of an “exotic” culture. There are definite themes of colonialism and “othering,” and Wiene is somewhat ambiguous as to who is the monster and who the victim here. It never seems to occur to Greven to just give back the statue he stole, or to show remorse for taking it. Even when he begs for death it is to relieve his own suffering, not to make amends. It’s all the more fitting then, when “the hand of the one dearest” to him turns out to be his own.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bruno DeCarli, Conrad Veidt, Mechthildis Thein, Bernhard Goetzke, Hermann Picha

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

October 1917

Time once again for a roundup of news headlines from one century ago. A huge amount of war news dominates this month’s Century News. Some may be surprised that there’s nothing about the Russian Revolution, especially in light of the movie “October” and references to the “Red October.” The explanation for this is simple: the Russians were on a different calendar, so their “October” actually extended into our November, which is when the revolution actually occurred. Since the rest of my Century News has been based on the standard Gregorian calendar, I’m waiting for next month for that news.

Morning After the First Battle of Passchendaele.

World War One:

Battle of Broodseinde near Ypres, October 4: British Imperial forces overpower the German 4th Army‘s defences.

First Battle of Passchendaele, October 12: Allies fail to take a German defensive position with the biggest loss of life in a single day for New Zealand, over 800 of whose men and 45 officers are killed, roughly 1 in 1000 of the nation’s population at this time.

Operation Albion, October 12-19: German forces land on and capture the West Estonian archipelago.

At Vincennes outside Paris, Dutch dancer Mata Hari is executed on October 15 by firing squad for spying for Germany.

A Brazilian ship is destroyed by a German U-Boat on October 23, encouraging Brazil to enter World War I.

Brazilian President Venceslau Brás signs a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

Brazil declares war against the Central Powers on October 26.

Ottoman force attacks Desert Mounted Corps units garrisoning el Buqqar ridge on October 27 during the Battle of Buqqar Ridge fought in the last days of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Battle of Beersheba, October 31: The British XX Corps and Desert Mounted Corps (Egyptian Expeditionary Force) attack and capture Beersheba ending the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Religion:

The Miracle of the Sun is reported on October 13 at Fátima, Portugal. Thousands of people gathered to see a prophecy fulfilled of miracles performed by the Blessed Virgin Mary. They reported to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes.

Politics:

Carl Swartz leaves office as Prime Minister of Sweden on October 19 after dismal election results for the right-wing in the Riksdag elections in September. He is replaced by liberal leader and history professor Nils Edén.

Transportation:

Dallas Love Field airport is opened October 19.

Film:

Cleopatra,” starring Theda Bara released October 14. This (mostly) lost film is among the most iconic of 1917, and images of Bara from the film still circulate on the Internet.

Satan Triumphant” (Satana likuyushchiy) released October 21. One of the last movies of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.

The Adventurer,” a Charlie Chaplin short is released on October 22. This was the last of the films Chaplin produced under his contract with Mutual Studios, and for the first time since he started making movies, it left him with no contractual obligations to fulfill. He would soon sign for a million dollars to First National.

Coney Island,” a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short is released October 29.

Births:

Helmut Dantine, actor (in “Mrs. Miniver” and “Casablanca”), born October 7.

June Allyson, actress (in the 1948 version of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Glenn Miller Story”), born October 7.

Alice Pearce, actress (in “On the Town” and TV’s “Bewitched”), born October 16

Marsha Hunt, U.S. actress (in 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Johnny Got His Gun”), born October 17. Apparently she’s still alive! Happy birthday Marsha!

Joan Fontaine, actress (in “Suspicion” and “Rebecca”), born October 22.

Florence La Badie

Deaths:

Movie star Florence La Badie dies on October 13, from septicemia as a result of injuries sustained from a car crash in August. Several of her movies have been reviewed on this blog.

The Monster (1903)

Alternate Title: Le Monstre (Star Films #481-482)

Georges Méliès appears again in our history of horror with this fanciful short about the living dead in Egypt. This may not be the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, but it is a bit darker than a lot of other Méliès trick films.

A standard proscenium-style set is decorated like the Egyptian desert, with a large Sphinx (still with its nose!) prominent on the backdrop. Two men in middle eastern garb, including headdresses, walk onto the set, apparently engaged in conversation or negotiation. One sits on a stone block while the other gestures to him. The standing one walks to one side of the set and retrieves a large casket. He opens it and pulls out a skeleton, which makes the seated man flinch a little. The first man places the skeleton on the ground on the opposite side of the set, near another pile of blocks, then removes the casket. The seated man watches while the other performs a series of gestures. While his back is turned, the skeleton sits upright and rises, then flops over to one side. The man interrupts his gestures to place the skeleton upright on the stone blocks. He then speaks to the seated man, who looks on with interest as the skeleton continues to move on its own. When it stands up, the first man runs over to push it down again, then he gets some fabric and clothes the skeleton. He gestures again and the skeleton rises to its feet, now apparently a more fully-fleshed creature with a skull face. It begins to dance, which seems to alarm the seated man. The standing man gestures in a way that causes to monster to seem to melt into the ground, then rise up again, stretching out to become much taller than the men. It shrinks back down to normal height, but then extends its neck. Causing further consternation. Then it begins its dance again, and the standing man gestures as if he regards the operation as a success. The seated man now stands and rejects the monster, but the other man puts a veil over its head and when he removes it, the skeleton has been replaced by a young woman. When the second man gets on his knees before her, she backs away from him. The first man wraps her in fabric again and tosses her at the second man, but when he catches her she has reduced back to the skeleton and he recoils. The first man flees and the other pursues him off screen.

I’ve given a very impressionistic synopsis, above, in part because Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently reviewed this movie and went into detail regarding the context. Her view is more “correct” in terms of what Méliès wanted, and you should certainly read what she has to say. However, it should be noted that in the century since this movie came out, it has been seen many times without the original narration, and given the practice of “duping” and the arbitrary behavior of exhibitors, it’s quite possible that it was shown without that context even at the time. If you simply see it as a series of moving pictures, what you get is the impression of a magician “creating” a young woman from bones for a patron, who ultimately rejects the necromantic operation – but only after the young woman rejects him. As a horror film, it draws our attention to the line between the living and the dead, and the dangers of an erotic fascination between them. It seems that in order to get to the young woman the patron wants to see, he has to endure the parody of life that the skeleton performs for most of the movie. And then, like the “Bride of Frankenstein” in later years, the created woman has no interest in loving the man that instigated her creation. Certainly, tropes from this film continued to haunt the horror genre for many years. It’s interesting to note that the face and general look of the “monster” in this movie is the same as the ghost we see in “A Fantastical Meal” from three years earlier, even its spooky dance is similar. Méliès wasn’t above re-using a good prop, and I think here he felt that the ghost puppet had been particularly effective in eliciting chills from his audience. We can see this “monster” as part of his iconography, along with the famous image of the rocket-in-the-moon’s eye.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, probably Georges Méliès as one character.

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Fantastical Meal (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Repast Fantastique (Star Films #311)

This typical short trick film from Georges Méliès begins playfully, but becomes somewhat dark and even violent by the end. It qualifies for my “history of horror,” although in the end I believe that the violence was meant to be funny.

The movie begins with four people in a typical bourgeois French dining room, preparing for a meal. One is a maid, two are nicely-dressed women, and one is Méliès in a wig with sideburns. The maid puts some food on the table and the others pull up chairs to sit down. Suddenly the chairs disappear and reappear on the table. Everyone falls down, then they get up and retrieve their chairs. This time they are able to sit down and Méliès prepares to ladel them some soup from the bowl. Suddenly the bowl disappears and is replaced with a much larger bowl. He reaches in and pulls out a boot. The others turn and yell at the maid, who comes in very distressed. Méliès takes out another boot and the maid removes the soup as Méliès throws the boot after her. They take their seats again and the maid brings in a large turkey, cooked and ready to be carved. Méliès picks up the cutlery and suddenly the table legs have grown so tall he can no long reach the bird. He and his dinner guests try climbing on their chairs, but the table suddenly becomes short again. When they sit down, the table disappears and reappears across the room. When they chase after it, it descends through the floor and emerges in another spot. This repeats, but the second time it comes back with a ghost on top instead of the food. The ghost does a frightening dance and the ladies run out of the room. Méliès tries to fight the ghost with his chair, but it just passes through the image harmlessly. Méliès persists and is able to destroy the table but not to hurt the ghost. He prepares to take a mighty blow, but the ghost disappears and is replaced by a box marked “dynamite.” When Méliès hits it, it explodes and he is thrown onto the wall. His now boneless body flails about, stuck on the wall (it’s a puppet). The maid comes in to try to assist him, but a bunch of broken crockery (his bones?) flies out of his coat and he flops around the floor bizarrely.

The theme of a ghost, poltergeist, or supernatural entity preventing the characters from performing a simple task (often going to bed) has come up several times before, but never in quite this way. The ending took me by surprise: I was expecting the ghost to chase them out of the room, but not to use dynamite to destroy its enemy! The flopping Méliès-body is darkly comedic, much darker than I expect from early cinema, although I think it’s really more slapstick than gore. The other interesting thing is the non-corporeal ghost, achieved through multiple-exposure. Méliès has used multiple exposure to multiply images on the screen, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen objects appear to pass through a body like this. Of course, it became a standard way to show a ghost on film for the next century and more. Méliès will also use puppetry more elaborately in the years to come, but the use here makes it possible for his character to survive impossible violence. It’s a pretty fun example of a supernatural film from the turn of the century.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Golden Beetle (1907)

This short film by Segundo de Chomón will remind my regular readers of the work of Georges Méliès. The story is a typical one of magic and its consequences, but it goes in a surprising direction.

This movie depicts a sorcerer in a turban who looks like something out of an Arabian Nights fantasy. The background is similarly decorated in an elaborate Middle Eastern pattern, as if it were the outer wall of the Taj Mahal or a similar structure, with the camera placed in the courtyard. The sorcerer gives the audience a little tumble, then notices a large beetle climbing up the wall behind him. He gestures for the audience to be quiet as he sneaks up to it. He grabs it, and gestures, causing a cauldron to appear. He tosses the beetle into the cauldron and it bursts into flame. He makes more magical gestures over the fire, and now a faerie appears hovering in space above him. The faerie has six wings and the body of a young woman. The sorcerer rubs his hands in glee, but becomes more concerned when the faerie conjures a large fountain and descends into it. He seems frightened by the sprays of colored water from the fountain. He crawls along the ground, sort of like a beetle himself, and suddenly the fountain shoots forth pyrotechnical displays of smoke and embers. Now the sorcerer runs and tumbles about the stage. The faerie reappears at the top of the screen, spinning in place like a top. The fountain disappears and two more faeries join the first. The three faeries descend to the stage floor and dance together while the sorcerer cowers in fear. The first faerie sends the others offscreen, then dances about in pursuit of the panicked sorcerer. The faeries bring back the cauldron from the beginning of the movie and throw the sorcerer in. He bursts into flames as the beetle did. The faerie waves her wings in triumph, climbing atop the cauldron which contains her vanquished foe.

Segundo de Chomón

This is a thrilling movie, made all the better with hand-painted color that is among the best early color work I’ve seen. There’s no doubt that Méliès was the inspiration, but this isn’t a rip-off or remake of one of his movies, this is a loving homage done by an artist who may have equaled or excelled him in creativity. All of the magic and effects are there, but with an unusual sensitivity to the “female” character of the beetle/faerie. The movie has been interpreted as a feminist revenge on the sorcerer by the victim of his magic. Whether this is right or not, it certainly surprises us when the power is taken from the sorcerer and he winds up the victim of a stronger sorcery. I found myself thinking at the end that de Chomón had a distinctive “voice” as a director, even while working within the framework of a formula invented by another artist.

So, is it a horror film? I’m posting it as part of my October “history of horror,” and like many of the early films on here, it is somewhat ambiguous. The human character is ultimately destroyed by a non-human (supernatural) creature, so one can read it that way. Or, we can see it as a typical “Frankenstein” tale, in which the hubris of the sorcerer causes him to create a monster beyond his control. One could also read the magician as the “monster” of the movie, who tries to victimize the innocent faerie. In any of these interpretations, it certainly demonstrates some elements that would be typical of the future horror genre, even if its purpose really isn’t to frighten.

Director: Segundo de Chomón

Camera: Unknown, possibly Segundo de Chomón

Starring: Unknown, possibly Segundo de Chomón

Run Time: 2 Min

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

Raising Spirits (1899)

Alternate Title: Évocation Sprite (Star Films #205)

This short film from Georges Méliès fits in with other entries from him in our “history of horror” (continued each October on this blog). He uses a supernatural theme to reproduce a kind of magic-show, using the tricks of cinema to produce effects that would be difficult or impossible on a live stage.

Méliès stands at the center of a small, sparsely decorated stage, holding a large wreath. He puts his head through the wreath as he bows, then hangs it from a string so that it is about the height of his head. He demonstrates that there is nothing inside the wreath again, then waves his hands below to show that there is nothing there either. Now he makes magical gestures and the image of a demon appears inside the wreath. Méliès shakes his head disapprovingly and then gestures to make the demon disappear. The images inside of the ring first appear as fuzzy, out-of-focus blurs and then come into focus. The second image is that of a young woman. Méliès bows to her and she fades in and out once before being replaced by an image of Méliès. The two Méliès-images act independently, showing that this is a multiple-exposure. After he makes his duplicate image disappear, Méliès once again puts his head through the now-empty wreath to take a bow.

This is a pretty early use of double-exposure images in film (but see also “The Four Troublesome Heads” from the year before) and Méliès handles it well. I thought it was interesting that his “spirits” fade in and out instead of simply appearing fully-formed. It reminded me of a pre-HD television image coming into focus, but obviously Méliès wouldn’t have had that in mind. I suppose that this effect might be typical of mediumistic representations of contacting the other side – at first the connection is imperfect, but the medium can improve it. At any rate, any kind of a fade at this time was a deliberate in-camera effect, and in this case he (or his cinematographer) must have been throwing the camera out of focus deliberately, then refining it while shooting. Just goes to show that things we take for granted required skill and planning in the early years of film.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time:1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.