Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Horror

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.

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.

The Bloody Wedding (1916)

Alternate Titles: The Terrible Wedding, Les noces sanglantes

We finally reach the last chapter of the serialLes Vampires” by Louis Feuillade. Although this episode ends with a kind of resolution, it doesn’t differ all that much in structure from the previous chapters of the story.

A happy couple.

A happy couple.

One change is that, whereas previously episodes had little time lapse between them, in this case the story picks up several months after the last one. Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), the reporter-hero of the story, is now married to Jane (Louise Lagrange). We don’t even get to see a wedding! Philippe writes an obscure article about how the Vampires have been quiet lately, but refers to some never-depicted crimes in which he can “detect their handiwork.” Then Augustine (Germaine Rouer), the widow of the poisoned concierge from the previous episode, stops by for a visit. Guérande hires her as a housemaid at Jane’s suggestion, to help her through her difficult time. Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) stops over and appears very happy at this news.

A grieving widow.

A grieving widow.

We learn, however, that the Vampires are spying on Augustine by crawling on the rooftop and watching through the skylight. They see her trying to predict her fortune with cards, something which Jane disapproves of. So, they send her an anonymous invitation from a fortune teller who promises to reveal “the mysteries that surround you.” Of course, what she really wants is information that will lead to the capture of the Vampires. So, she lies to Guérande and says she is going to visit her husband’s grave, but actually goes to the fortune teller. Fortunately, Mazamette is now smitten with her, and follows her secretly, discovering the location she is really visiting. Irma Vep (Musidora) and another Vampire put on a show of spiritualism for her, pretending to be visions of themselves so that she will believe in the fortune teller’s powers, and then hypnotize her so that she will admit them to Guérande’s apartment. Mazamette confronts her on the way out, but doesn’t see any Vampires, so doesn’t really think anything is wrong.

A jealous suitor.

A jealous suitor.

That night, Irma Vep and Venomous, the new head Vampire (Frederik Moriss), show up with an apparatus for filling a room with poison gas. Augustine lets them in under a trance and they attack her and tie her up, then attach the apparatus to the keyhole of Guérande’s bedroom, but Mazamette, who cannot sleep because his infatuation is so strong, sees all of this happen and hides behind an arras. Once they have begun to pump the gas, Mazamette fires his gun, and they run off in a panic. He switches off the device, and helps Guérande untie Augustine when he wakes up. Augustine, Mazamette and Guérande (still in his bedclothes) go to report to the police, and Jane is left alone with a pistol for protection. Venomous returns, trying to break into Jane’s bedroom with a glass-cutter, but she shoots at him and then goes to the window. A Vampire on the sidewalk below lassos her and pulls her down, thus capturing her and they drive off with her as a captive.

A nocturnal attack.

A nocturnal attack.

It takes quite a few hours for Mazamette and Guérande to rouse the police to make a raid on the fortune teller’s house, but eventually they all drive out together (without even checking at home first). Astonishingly, the Vampires are there, rather than some other hideout, so the police are able to roust them. Irma Vep escapes by winding a long rope around herself and spinning to the ground like a yo-yo. They leave a bomb (that never goes off) and manage to capture Augustine, who was brought along for some reason, so the whole thing is a failure anyway, except that Mazamette shoots at their car and causes an oil leak, giving him and Guérande a trail to follow. For some reason he goed alone, without calling in the police this time or even waiting for Mazamette. He finds Jane and Augustine held in a cell below the chateau and passes them a pistol. Then he goes away until nightfall.

A daring escape.

A daring escape.

That night the Vampires are all drinking and celebrating the marriage of Irma Vep and Venomous. No one is guarding the prisoners or the chateau, so Guérande knots a rope and ties it a second story balcony in preparation for an escape. The police raid the party and a gun battle breaks out, and most of the Vampires wind up on the balcony, which Guérande now causes to collapse with the rope. Venomous and his lackeys are killed in the crash. Irma Vep, meanwhile, runs down to the hostages and threatens them with a gun. Jane shoots her with the pistol Guérande gave her and he runs in to find them over her body. A few days later, Mazamette proposes to Augustine and all ends on a happy note.

A lively dance.

A lively dance.

As I said above, this episode is a lot like the others, in that we see various captures and escapes, and the trade-off between hunter and hunted, as the story proceeds. There are the usual leaps in logic: Why did Venomous and Irma Vep go back to the fortune teller’s house, when they know the police will get that information? Why doesn’t Guérande have better security by now? Why does it take so long for the police to organize either of the raids? We’ve gotten used to the idea that Mazamette is estranged from the wife he had at the beginning of the story, but it still seems odd that he starts stalking the widow so soon after her bereavement. Also, the idea that you could follow a trail of motor oil on city streets is pretty hard to credit – anyone leaking that much oil wouldn’t get far.

An unlikely discovery.

An unlikely discovery.

In all, I would rate “Les Vampires” a little lower than “Fantômas,” not least because of the lack of a truly effective villain. The Vampires go through three leaders (or four, if we can count Moréno), none of whom really seems as diabolically brilliant as Fantômas. The one consistent thread is Irma Vep, who I must admit makes up for it somewhat with her powerful presence. Musidora is at times sultry and seductive, at others snarling and animalistic, and always seems dedicated to crime and evil. Unfortunately, she also seems to be more of a girlfriend than a leader. She’s always “with” the head Vampire, never taking charge herself. On the other side of the law, Juve wasn’t a great hero, but he’s a darn sight better than Guérande. Mazamette is the character we care about on that side of the team, but he’s ultimately a sidekick as well.

A tense situation.

A tense situation.

That’s all from the point of view of the script, but in terms of filmmaking Feuillade does show some interesting improvements in “Les Vampires” over “Fantômas.” There’s much more use of close-ups and different camera angles, rather than proscenium-style set pieces, for example. The editing has improved as well. For example, in this episode the sequence in which Venomous tries to get in the window to get Jane is cross-cut in a wonderfully suspenseful manner that actually had me tense to the point of yelling at the screen. The audience knows that Jane has a gun, and we see her see Venomous’s hand at the window, but Feuillade keeps cutting back and forth and we wonder if she has the courage to shoot right up to the last moment. It’s a sequence worthy of Alfred  Hitchcock, and there was nothing like it in “Fantômas.” The first police raid also includes some good cross-cutting between the police and the villains, although that was sort of ruined when the bomb didn’t go off.

I probably won’t return to this series as often as I do to “Fantômas,” but it’s been good to see Feuillade’s further development. Next, I’ll have to move on to “Judex!”

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Frederik Moriss, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Louise Lagrange, Germaine Rouer

Run Time: 55 Min

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

The Poison Man (1916)

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not yet finished with the crime serial called “Les Vampires!” In this episode, a new Grand Master takes charge of the Vampires’ ongoing quest to snuff out Mazamette and Philipe Guérande, but Irma Vep still gets most of the screen time.

Venemous at work.

Venemous at work.

At the beginning of the movie, we establish “Venemous,” (played by Frederik Moriss) the “brilliant but deranged chemist” who is the new Grand Master of the Vampires, hard at work in his chemical laboratory, assisted by Irma Vep (Musidora). He receives a message with invisible ink on it, revealing it by brushing it with a special chemical. It states that Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is engaged to be wed to Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), and that he visits his fiancée every day. He sends Irma Vep and two female collaborators to rent the apartment above Bremontier’s. They are able to learn about an upcoming dinner party and get the proposed menu from a maid. Venemous now calls the caterer and cancels the order, substituting Vampires for the caterers on the night of the event.

A generous tenant

A generous tenant

On the day of the party, the Vampires are admitted and allowed to prepare and serve the meal. However, Jane’s mother gives a bottle of the champagne to the concierge to thank him for helping to bring up the food from the delivery, and when he tastes it, he dies! His wife runs up to the party to warn everyone not to drink the champagne, which no one has touched yet because Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is making a very long-winded toast. The Vampires in the kitchen realize the gig is up and escape out the window, but Venemous, who is dressed as a valet, must hide in a cabinet in the dining room. Mazamette tries to catch him in the dark, but winds up fighting with Guérande instead. Venemous is also able to escape over the rooftops of Paris.

poison-man2Now Guérande becomes convinced that he must move his fiancée to the country in order to hide her, but Irma Vep sees the car arrive to pick them up and takes a perfume bottle full of sleeping gas to surprise them. Mazamette has been hiding in a trunk on the side of the car, however, and he attacks her. Irma Vep is able to spray him with the gas and her accomplices remove him. Then, she hides in the trunk. Mazamette is dumped on the street and taken to the police station, believed to be drunk. When he wakens, he calls Philipe to warn him, but Irma slips out of the box and gets away in the car before Philipe can catch her.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Irma Vep now finds herself at a fancy restaurant in the Fontainebleau forest. She summons Venemous by telephone, but Guérande turns up first and attacks her, tying her up and leaving her on the road as a car approaches (almost a rare case of a woman tied to train tracks!). The car contains Mazamette, who stops at first to assist the damsel in distress before recognizing her. Guérande has been waiting nearby with a pistol, and now he joins his friend. They put Irma Vep in Mazamette’s car and go to lie in wait for the arrival of the Grand Master of the Vampires at the restaurant. However, when he arrives, Irma Vep honks the horn with her head and he finds her there and they drive off together in Mazamette’s car, with Guérande and Mazamette in pursuit in his car.

poison-man4

You’re doing it wrong! You’re ruining it for me!

After a lively chase, Venomous leaps out of the vehicle; Philipe chases Venomous on foot, following him onto the top of a moving train, but Venomous gets away, shooting him in the leg. Mazamette has been restrained from jumping onto the train by two well-meaning policemen, and he punches one of them. He is held for assaulting an officer, but when Guérande shows up and strikes him in the police station, the police decide to forget the whole affair.

poison-man5I found this episode to be more visually satisfying than most of the others, in part because so much of it is shot on location in the streets of Paris or the forest of Fontainebleau. We get some nice blue tinting on the night shots. Also, there was a good amount of close-ups, including on Mazamette and Guérande when they first enter the darkened room, and some good camera angles when, at various times, Irma Vep is lying on the ground, and in order to see the figures escaping across the rooftops. Finally, the editing of the chase sequence was very satisfying, including some classic cross-cutting, even though I’ve seen critics who claim Feuillade never used any. The chase across the top of a train was, of course, similar to many Westerns that had already been released, beginning with “The Great Train Robbery,” but it is handled well here also.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

I usually criticize some aspects of the strained logic in each episode, but this one has only minor departures from logic. The biggest is that, since we’ve already established that Guérande is a teetotaler, it doesn’t make much sense to put poison only in his champagne, instead of the rest of the meal. Of course, it may well be that even a truly sober Frenchman has to sip a little champagne at his own engagement, so maybe that was safe. I was a little surprised that Venemous himself turned up at the party in the guise of a butler, but at this point we’ve gotten used to the Grand Vampires taking ridiculous and unnecessary personal risks, so we’ll give that a pass as well. There’s a somewhat silly bit when a figure in Vampire disguise climbs up a drainpipe – in order to deliver a perfume bottle in Irma Vep. Surely the front door would work just as well. The one part that doesn’t make much sense to me is why is Mazamette riding in the trunk in the first place? Surely the Vampires are going to assume that he is wherever Guérande and his fiancée are, so it doesn’t seem like it would really help much in terms of security. Still, it’s a minor point and doesn’t interfere much with the enjoyment of this episode.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Frederik Moriss, Louise Lagrange, Florense Simoni

Run Time: 50 Min

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

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.