A quartet of antique horror films

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For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.

One antique horror short and a trifecta of lost features

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La Folie du Docteur Tube, released 1915 in France, was directed by cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. It seems to fall within the parameters of sci-fi horror, and features a mad scientist who creates a white powder causing hallucinations. He gives the powder to a dog first, then his assistant, a boy in the lab, himself, two young ladies, and their fiancés. The two couples are so upset by these distorted images, a fight breaks out, and it’s up to Dr. Tube to restore order and peace.

These crazed sights, which appear like images from a funhouse mirror, were created with distorting lenses.

Albert Dieudonné, who started acting in 1908 and went on to play the title role of Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, appears as one of the young men.

Mortmain, which premièred 29 August 1915 and went into general release 6 September 1915, is one of the all too many lost films of the silent era. It was based on Arthur C. Train’s 1907 novel of the same name, which was originally released in serial form on The Saturday Evening Post on 2 June and 9 June 1906.

This was one of the very first entries in the alien hand subgenre of body horror, in which one’s hands act of their own volition, as if they’re possessed or transplanted from another body.

Dr. Pennison Crisp (what an unfortunate forename!) proves limb-grafting is possible by showing friends and students a cat with a grafted paw. His buddy Mortmain, a rare art collector and talented musician, is very impressed.

Meanwhile, Mortmain is deep in debt to banker Gordon Russell, the ward of his fiancée Bella Forsythe. Predictably, Gordon is also in love with Bella. (This might be a lost film, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he’s old enough to be her dad, seeing as he’s her ward. That trope creeps me out so much!)

Gordon makes Bella’s brother Tom disgrace himself and forces Mortmain into bankruptcy. Flaggs, who works for Gordon’s lawyer, overhears Mortmain saying he’d like to kill Gordon. Mortmain then learns Gordon was murdered. This news so shocks him, he faints and hurts his hand.

Dr. Crisp has to amputate, and grafts on Tom’s hand. Tom agrees to this macabre operation because he’s suspected of the murder and offered $10,000 for his hand. He dies during the surgery, but Mortmain survives, and gradually goes insane as Flaggs bankrupts him and Bella is afraid to be touched by him. The transplanted hand also goes nuts.

Then Mortmain wakes up from the fog of anesthesia, and sees Tom’s hand choking Flaggs. It was only a dream!

The Head of Janus (Der Janus-Kopf), also lost, premièred 26 August 1920 and went into general release 17 September 1920. It starred the incredible Conrad Veidt and was directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as with Murnau’s unauthorized screen adaptation of Dracula two years later, names were changed.

Dr. Warren (Veidt) buys a bust of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of doorways, for his girlfriend Jane Lanyon (Margarete Schlegel, who escaped to England with her Jewish husband and son in 1935). When Jane refuses the gift, Dr. Warren is compelled to keep it in his own home.

This bust proceeds to transforms Dr. Warren into Mr. O’Connor, and whips him up into a rage. While acting as Mr. O’Connor, he storms over to Jane’s house, kidnaps her, and drags her back to his lab.

Dr. Warren is really ashamed and horrified when he comes back to himself and realises what he did. To prevent this from happening again, he attempts to sell the bust at auction, but it’s already too late. The bust has him under such hypnotic power, he buys it back himself.

During his second transformation as Mr. O’Connor, he runs amok, committing wanton acts of violence in the streets. Just like in all other versions of this famous story, there isn’t a very happy ending.

Béla Lugosi appears as Dr. Warren’s butler.

The House of Whispers, our final lost film this year, released October 1920. It tells the story of Spaulding Nelson, who moves into an apartment his uncle vacated due to phantom screams and whispers. While investigating, Spaulding meets neighbour Barbara Bradford. Her sister Clara is going crazy from the constant sound of her dead husband Roldo’s voice.

It turns out Roldo’s still alive and in league with Henry Kent, architect of this House of Whispers. This house is full of secret passageways enabling him to access all the apartments. When Spaulding finds the secret doors, he’s arrested for murdering actress Daisy Luton.

Spaulding flees via one of the passageways, where he finds and captures Roldo (the real murderer), Roldo’s first wife Nettie Kelly, and Henry Kent. Nettie confesses what really happened, and Clara is granted a divorce so she can marry her fiancé. Spaulding also marries Barbara.

Quintuple antique horror from Monsieur Méliès

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As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. This year, I’m fêting four films from 1900 and one from 1905 (respectively 120 and 115 years old). Obviously, the horror/fright element is nowhere near comparable to that in a more modern horror film, but we need to judge films by the standards of their era. Retroactively applying modern sensibilities to things from bygone eras is an exercise in foolishness and obliviousness.

The Cook’s Revenge (La Vengeance du Gâte-Sauce) released sometime in 1900. Due to the nature of the cinematic industry in its infancy, we don’t always have exact dates or even cast lists. This film was long believed lost, but finally resurfaced in Manosque, France.

A saucier (Méliès) attempts to kiss a waitress in the kitchen, and she drops a stack of plates from shock. To avoid being blamed, he jumps into a cupboard to hide and leaves her looking like the guilty party. After she’s fired by the head waiter, things quickly go from bad to worse. The saucier is beheaded when the head waiter closes the cupboard door, and the macabre horrors keep increasing.


The Misfortunes of an Explorer (Les Infortunes d’un Explorateur ou Les Momies Récalcitrantes), also from 1900, survives only in a fragment of about 20 seconds. An English explorer (Méliès) enters a sarcophagus in an underground tomb and inadvertently unleashes a ghost. This ghost then becomes a vengeful goddess who summons three Ancient Egyptian monsters who attack the explorer and seal him inside the sarcophagus. The goddess presently sets it on fire. When she stops the fire, the explorer escapes.


The Rajah’s Dream (Le Rêve du Radjah ou La Forêt Enchantée), another 1900 entry, was available in a hand-coloured print like about 4% of Méliès’s other films. These prints fetched a higher price when sold to film exhibitors.

A Rajah’s sleep is disturbed by a butterfly, which he tries to catch in vain. After he gives up and returns to his bed, he magically finds himself in a park. The chair he tries to sit in keeps vanishing out from under him and moving all around, before turning into a dead tree, a monster with moving arms, a demon, a boxer, and finally a parade of lovely ladies.

The Rajah’s hopes of romantic fun are dashed when the ladies transmogrify into an attempted beheading party!

The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy (Le Sorcier, le Prince, et le Bon Génie), our last 1900 film, features a prince who visits a sorcerer. Presently the magic tricks commence—a vanishing table, a cauldron transmogrifying into his sweetheart, the lady vanishing. The prince wanted more time with his girlfriend, and tries to kill the sorcerer with a sword.

In revenge, the sorcerer turns the prince into a beggar and summons a crowd of women in bizarre, creepy costumes. The prince begs them for his life, and he’s finally able to leave with his sweetheart, while the sorcerer is locked in a cage.


The Black Imp (Le Diable Noir), from 1905, exists in two different versions. It’s the story of an imp who makes mischief in a hotel room, jumping about and making things appear and disappear. He makes even more mischief when a respectable lodger (Méliès) arrives, though the imp is now hidden from view. His antics reach their height when the bed is set on fire. Everyone is shocked when he reveals his presence.

A voyage into the Sun

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Released 29 October 1904, Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible (Voyage Through the Impossible) is a sequel of sorts to director Georges Méliès’s 1902 classic Le Voyage dans la Lune. This time, the intrepid explorers and their mad scientist leader travel to the Sun. Like the former, it satirizes scientific exploration.

As some might surmise from the title, it’s partly based on Jules Verne’s 1882 fantasy play Journey Through the Impossible. Méliès loosely interpreted the concept, however, seeing as the explorers in Verne’s story travel to the centre of the Earth, a distant planet, and the bottom of the sea, not the Sun.

At 374 meters, this was Méliès’s longest film to date. Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible was one of the most popular films in the early years of the twentieth century.

Like many other Méliès films, this too was hand-coloured. Unlike other Méliès films, however, this one appears to have no spoken narration which goes along with it. The summary is derived from his own description.

The Institute of Incoherent Geography wants to embark upon a world tour like no other, one which shall “surpass in conception and invention all previous expeditions undertaken by the learned world.” Prof. Daredevil speaks first, but his plan is soundly rejected as out of date.

Next to speak is mad engineer Mabouloff (Méliès) (called Crazyloff in English-language materials, seeing as maboul means “crackpot” and “crazy” in French). He proposes an impossible voyage taking advantage of “all the known means of locomotion—railroads, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarine boats…”

His proposal is met with most enthusiastic approval, and the society immediately begins preparing for this crazy voyage.

The voyagers and their required equipment take a train to the Swiss Alps, where the adventure truly begins. The first proper leg of the journey transpires in Auto-Mabouloff (which kind of resembles a golf cart), which takes them through the Alps.

Sadly, the car crashes while trying to cross the summit of the Rigi. Mountaineers come to their rescue and rush them to hospital.

Upon recovering, our intrepid travellers take a train which attempts to climb a second Alpine summit, the Jungfrau. This time, they’re successful, thanks to dirigible balloons tied to the train. Their journey takes them all the way into space and eventually the Sun, where they crash-land.

The intense heat is too much to bear, and the travellers climb into an icebox they conveniently brought. All, that is, except Mabouloff, who’s horrified to presently open the icebox door and find his friends frozen in a huge ice block. Luckily, the fire he starts with help from some straw soon revives them.

Everyone relocates to their submarine, which lifts off from a solar cliff and travels back through space, finally landing in the ocean depths. After several minutes underseas, a boiler causes an explosion, and the travellers are spewed into the air.

They land at a seaport, along with the submarine wreckage, and triumphantly return to the Institute of Incoherent Geography. They’re welcomed back with a grand reception.

Méliès also filmed an optional epilogue, sold separately, which starts in Mabouloff’s study. There he’s criticised by the Institute for losing so much precious transportation equipment during this impossible voyage.

Mabouloff lays out a plan for recovering the equipment—a magnet to collect the lost car in Switzerland, the train in the Sun, and the submarine underwater. This magnet works just as proposed, and a celebratory banquet is held to laud Mabouloff.

The epilogue was believed to be lost till the 1970s, when Méliès scholar John Frazer found it in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s archives, along with other negatives from Star Film’s New York office. Despite this, a 2008 Méliès filmography lists it as lost.

A quintuple shot of antique horror

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Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.