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
Starring: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 2 Min, 50 secs
You can watch it for free: here.