The Golden Beetle (1907)
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.
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