Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Horror

The Enchanted Well (1903)

For this week’s instalment in my “History of Horror,” I’m looking at another of the early films of Georges Méliès that plays with infernal concepts and imagery for the entertainment of an audience. Whimsy, special effects, and rapid action define the scene.

Enchanted Well

A proscenium-style set displays a rural town, with a well placed at the center of the stage. A group of people in peasant clothing assemble at the well, then all go off in different directions. Now a country bumpkin approaches the well, followed by an old crone, who entreats him. He responds by chasing her off, and she makes mystical motions over the well, cursing it. The bumpkin draws water from the well, and pours it into a bucket, but the bucket suddenly bursts into flames as a demon leers forth from the well. The peasant fights with the demon, and it disappears, but now the well itself shoots forth cardboard flames, and it rises into the air, becoming first a tower, and then a furnace with two snakes coming out of it. The peasant fights the snakes, and then faces devils with pitchforks, and finally a giant snake that almost drags him into the furnace before it turns back into a well and spews forth human-sized frogs, which catch him and throw him down the well. The bumpkin manages to climb back out of the well, dripping with water, but the well moves and then turns into the Devil himself. This causes the people of the town to assemble and at first they confront the Devil, but he makes a motion and they all bow down. Then he turns into a bat and flies away.

Enchanted Well1

Méliès here shows a very traditional Medieval view of witches and their compacts with the Devil (despite current Wiccan propaganda, the word “witch” in pretty much all European languages is associated with malice and evil). The witch curses the well water out of spite when the bumpkin does not give what she asks – in the Star Catalog description it claims all she was asking for was alms – and soon her familiar spirits and demons are plaguing the man and the town itself. Although Satan does fly off at the end, there is no sign he has been vanquished, having established himself as “Lord of This World” by making the peasants bow and depriving the village of its only water supply by taking the well away, perhaps destroying the entire community over this minor slight. No wonder it was necessary to fight witches with fire and torture! In the world of Méliès films of course, this is less frightening, and more fun, than it sounds, and the fast-paced action and torments of the bumpkin are played for slapstick humor, and even small children will be more amused by the large eyes of the snakes than frightened. There are a number of very rapid substitution splices, showing the Méliès has now mastered his special effects in these longer sequences, where before one or two appearances/disappearances were all we could expect. Judging by how he moves, I believe the bumpkin was played by Méliès himself, though he may have been the Devil as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Upside Down, or the Human Flies (1899)

For my first post of this October, I’m reaching back somewhat into the “history of horror” to find a rare pre-twentieth century supernatural movie that isn’t by Georges Méliès. It may not be that frightening, but it was meant the thrill audiences of the day through the use of special effects.

The movie begins by showing a group of people huddled around a table clasping hands, perhaps in a séance or over a Ouija board. A man in a tuxedo and top hat rises and places an umbrella upright on the floor, balancing his top hat on it and drawing the others’ attention to himself. He levitates his hat to the ceiling and then, when one seated man laughs as if the trick is inadequate, he gestures, causing him and the others to rise out of their chairs, seemingly at his will. Suddenly he disappears and the spectators all jump into the air simultaneously. An edit occurs and suddenly all of them are on the ceiling. Apparently gravity has been reversed, because try as they will, none can get back down to the floor. One woman tries to reach it with the umbrella, and some try standing on their heads, but they are trapped on the ceiling as the movie ends.

RW Paul

This movie is a simple trick film, achieved with two splices and turning the camera upside down, although it was presumably necessary to have a backdrop that could be flipped as well. Although it isn’t a horror movie by modern standards, it does show people being punished and apparently distressed by a magical effect, and thus joins the list of precursors to the genre. It was produced by British film pioneer Robert W Paul, whose work is often ignored today, although he was contemporary with Edison, Méliès, and Lumière. This is the earliest example I have seen of people “turned upside down” in cinema, which we have seen later examples of in “The Human Fly” by Méliès, and “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” by Segundo de Chomón.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, possibly Walter R. Booth

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 sec

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

The Haunted House (1921)

Buster Keaton rolls out another two-reel comedy short with lots of running around and gadgets. This time, he’s a bank clerk who winds up in a house full of bandits and ham actors who mistake each other for ghosts!

The movie begins by introducing Keaton, the “wizard of finance” as he arrives for work at the bank. For some reason, he’s in a chauffeured limousine, although it quickly becomes clear that he’s just a clerk. He pries a bottle cap off the lock of the door before opening it up, and when a pretty young girl (Dorothy Cassil) asks to make a withdrawal before banking hours, he tricks the time lock by moving up the hands of the clock. An extended comic sequence occurs when he gets some glue on his hands before starting to count out some cash, and soon there are clumps of glued money sticking everywhere, to people’s hands, bottoms, shoes, etc. We learn that one of Buster’s co-workers (Joe Roberts) is involved in a counterfeiting scheme, and he sets up Keaton to look guilty. He and his criminal partners are hiding in an old house which they have rigged up with booby traps and effects to make it appear to be haunted, and of course this is where Buster runs when he is chased by the police.

Meanwhile, a troupe of actors has been putting on a performance of “Faust” and they are booed off the stage and chased through the woods to the same house, leading Keaton and the gang of robbers to believe the house actually is haunted. There is a lot of running around as each side is frightened by the other, and a gag about a staircase that turns into a ramp whenever someone ascends to the top is used six times. Finally, Keaton figures out the scam and is able to get the police to arrest the real criminals. As Roberts is about to be taken away, he hits Keaton over the head and knocks him out before escaping. Keaton is now confronted by a seemingly endless stairway leading into the clouds, and he ascends to meet Saint Peter, who takes one look at him and pulls the lever that turns the stairs into a ramp and dumps Keaton in Hell, where a devil pokes his behind with a fiery pitchfork. Keaton awakes, still in the house, to discover that his pants are on fire.

Hope you guess my name.

Of all the Keaton shorts I’ve watched so far, I think this one got the most laughs from me. You see the laughs coming most of the time – it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go, especially once we’re actually in the house – but there’s a sense of surprise at how far Keaton will push it and the timing is perfect. It’s very much Keaton’s film, and he takes full advantage of his screen time. The romantic subplot, involving Virginia Fox as the president’s daughter, is pushed to the background so she winds up having little to do, and few of the other actors have any standout moments. The camerawork and editing are also very simplistic and functional, but the movie works because Keaton keeps it moving so you don’t have time to think about whether it makes sense or is “art” or whatever.

Directed by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Dorothy Cassil, Edward F. Cline, Natalie Talmadge

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

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The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

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Haunted Spooks (1920)

This horror spoof kicks off my annual “history of horror” for the month of October. It is a very funny – but also deeply problematic – comedy short featuring Harold Lloyd in his now-established “glass” character.

The movie begins with a series of funny intertitles that establish the cast and situation. Mildred Davis plays “The Girl,” who we are told is “Sweet Sixteen and never – – – well, only once or twice.” It is established that she is due to inherit a plantation and its associated fortune from her grandfather, so long as she is married and willing to live on the grounds with her husband for one year. The titles also tell us about Lloyd’s character (“The Boy: He wants to get married – – – Has no other faults,”) although we won’t meet him for a little while yet. Before that, we watch as her uncle (Wallace Howe, who plays “A man of sorts – – we are not saying what sort) reads the will and realizes that if he can drive her out of the house, he and his wife will be sole inheritors of the old Colonel’s property. Then we watch  clear parody of one of D.W. Griffith’s classic “bird-smooching heroine” introductions, in which Mildred is simply covered in cute critters, and even feeding a piglet from a milk bottle as well. Now William Gillespie, playing the family lawyer, arrives into her idyll and informs her of her new wealth, discovering to his embarrassment that she isn’t married. He promises to find her a cure for that and dashes off in his car.

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The Master Mystery (1919)

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

Released just one year after “A Trip to the Moon,” this extended adventure story from Georges Méliès was at least equally as ambitious and well-executed, although it’s not so well remembered today. Essentially a fairy tale-quest story, the use of a witch and her demons as antagonists fits it more or less into my October history of horror.

The movie begins on a proscenium-style set dressed as a medieval court. Lords and ladies arrange themselves around the throne. Méliès himself appears as “Prince Bel-Azor,” who is betrothed to Princess Azurine (Marguerite Thévenard). Various fairies give the princess wedding gifts, led by the fairy godmother, Aurora (Bluette Bernon). Suddenly a witch runs in, offended at not having been invited. When she is admonished by the prince, she turns into flame and disappears. The next sequence shows the princess in her bedchamber, assisted in undressing for bed by several ladies-in-waiting. Once they leave, the witch, assisted by several green demons, seizes the princess from her bed and puts her into a “chariot of fire.” She is unable to resist, although the prince rushes in at the last moment to be confronted by a fire-wielding demon. He and the court rush out to a high tower and watch the chariot of fire and its retinue rushing across the sky. The prince vows to pursue. Read the rest of this entry »