Celebrating 120 years of horror cinema!

If you celebrate Rosh Hashanah, may you have a marvellous holiday!

Welcome to a month of celebration of vintage horror films with special anniversaries this year! Throughout October, I’ll be fêting Faust (1926), L’Inferno (1911), Homunculus (1916), The Phantom Carriage (1921) (my thousandth silent!), Der Müde Tod (1921), The Bat (1926), Midnight Faces (1926), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). We’re starting off with the great-granddaddies of horror, three Georges Méliès films from 1896.

Georges Méliès, as some of you might know, was one of the pioneers of both French cinema in particular and film in general. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he was a magician and illusionist, and put all those skills to wonderful use in creating special effects. His films span the years 1896–1912, and his best-known film is Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902).

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Une Nuit Terrible (A Terrible Night) is one of only six currently known surviving 1896 Méliès films (out of eighty he made that year). It was advertised as a scène comique, and Méliès typically plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute long, the plot isn’t very complex. A man is trying to fall asleep when a large bug (a pasteboard prop controlled by wires) crawls over his bed. Méliès does battle with the anthropod, and when it’s finally offed, he puts it in his chamber pot. While making sure it’s really gone, another bug appears!

It was filmed in Méliès’s garden by his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis (a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris), with a cloth backdrop and natural sunlight.

In 2013, Méliès’s great-great-granddaughter Pauline published evidence that a film commonly entitled A Terrible Night and available on several DVDs is actually Un Bon Lit (A Midnight Episode) (1899). The original Terrible Night has the same plot and bed, but much simpler scenery and different camera angles.

 

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lemanoirdiable

Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), released 24 December 1896, is considered the very first proper horror film. It’s a comic fantasy that opens with a bat transmogrifying into Mephistopheles (i.e., the Devil), who then conjures up a cauldron and an assistant. Together, they conjure up a woman in the cauldron.

They all disappear before two cavaliers arrive, but not for long. A series of spooky tricks are played, including the conjuring up of a skeleton and furniture magically moving around. When one of the cavaliers attacks the skeleton, it transmogrifies into a bat. The bat in turn transmogrifies into Mephistopheles, who conjures up four ghosts.

More tricks are played, until the last confrontation between Mephistopheles and one of the cavaliers.

This was also filmed in Méliès’s garden, with painted scenery. Though film actors were never credited in this era, we know Méliès’s future second wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, played the assistant. It’s also speculated that Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris.

At the time, its length of over three minutes was considered very ambitious.

The film was considered lost for many decades, until its miraculous 1988 rediscovery in the New Zealand Film Archive.

 

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Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) was advertised as a scène fantastique, and also filmed in Méliès’s garden. Painted scenery was used. As in many of his films, he himself plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute, the story is pretty simple. A sleeping man has several strange visions who transmogrify into one another. He awakes all twisted around, searches the bed, and is relieved it was just a nightmare.

 

I absolutely love 1890s cinema. It’s like looking back in time at a long-gone world, this precious time capsule of cinema in its infancy. Whether the films are actualities (i.e., snippets of everyday life) or fictional stories, it’s so amazing to see these preserved moving images that didn’t need CGI, graphic violence or sex, several hours, or even intertitles to tell fascinating, complete stories.

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13 thoughts on “Celebrating 120 years of horror cinema!

  1. The kids and i went through a phase of watching 30s and 40s horror films, but nothing this old. I love how simple the plots were, and how well executed. You’re right; it is like peeking back into history. So glad you shared!

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    • In some ways, antique films from the 1890s and 1900s might be a good hook for getting someone into silent cinema. They aren’t any intertitles, but there’s no explanation necessary for understanding everything that’s going on. The films are also very short (with some notable exceptions), so the viewer doesn’t have to sit through at least 50 minutes of an unfamiliar artform. Next year I’ll have a post to mark the 130th anniversary of the first known film.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Sure, go ahead and reblog me! I’ve since added two other short horror films to my October roster (from 1901 and 1906), one of which was directed by Méliès too. With so many more films left to go, I’m pretty sure I’ll spill over into the first week of November this year.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, that’s certainly not a bad thing! =D I’m not fast at reblogs, but I made a separate blog for them on the new website, and will be adding to it throughout the month.

            Thank you for letting me include you! =)

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  2. Incredibly cool post, sweet dear. It’s so incredible that horror films date back pretty much as far as cinema itself. That really says something, IMO, about how we as a society view and interact with things that scare or enthrall us.

    Many hugs & happy holiday wishes,
    ♥ Jessica

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  3. Pingback: Gang Roundup - November 2016 - The Old Shelter

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