Quadruple antique horror

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Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! As always, I’m kicking off with master Georges Méliès. Sadly, his one 1898 horror film, The Cave of the Demons, is lost, so I’ll have to start with 1903.

I know the soundtrack isn’t the most appropriate, but I wanted to show an HD version

The Monster (Le Monstre) released 30 June 1903, and tells the story of an Egyptian prince who wants to resurrect his wife. A priest (Méliès) produces her skeleton from the coffin and prays over her. The skeleton then starts dancing, and the priest wraps her in cloth.

This shrouded creation shrinks, grows, and stretches, until finally turning back into the dead wife. The priest picks her up, then throws the shroud at the prince. Out falls the skeleton, and the prince runs after the priest.

The Monster is an inversion of Méliès’s 1896 trick film The Vanishing Lady, in which a magician’s assistant turns into a skeleton and back again. This was an era in which Egytomania was very much in vogue.

The Infernal Cauldron (Le Chaudron Infernal) is set in the Renaissance, and depicts Satan throwing three people into a cauldron. Each time, flames rise up. Satan’s assistant quells the flames, and the victims’ ghosts rise into the air. The ghosts then burst into dancing flames, and Satan leaps into his own cauldron.

Starting in 1903, Méliès began producing two negatives of each of his films, for domestic and foreign release, to stop the rampant piracy of his films. Towards this purpose, he built a special camera simultaneously using two reels of film and two lenses.

In the early 21st century, researchers discovered this two-lens system was an unintentional stereo film camera. Thus, 3D versions of Méliès’s films could be created by combining the two prints. In 2010, The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi were screened in 3D at Cinémathèque Française, and in 2011, those two films plus The Mysterious Retort (1906) were screened in 3D at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Oracle of Delphi (L’Oracle de Delphes) is also set in Ancient Egypt. A priest brings a fancy box into a temple and locks the doors. After he leaves, a thief breaks in and steals the box, only to be caught by a strange bearded figure who appears out of thin air.

The bearded man rescues the box and turns the two Sphinxes by the doors into women. They attack the thief, whose head turns into a donkey’s head. After this, they return to statues, the bearded man disappears, and the thief is left stunned.

The Damnation of Faust (Faust aux Enfers), released December 1903, was Méliès’s third film adaptation of this famous story, and wouldn’t be his last. He made one more direct adaptation in 1904, and two other films, in 1906 and 1912, inspired by Faust’s story. The 1903 version was supposedly directly inspired by Hector Berlioz’s 1845 musical La Damnation de Faust.

The film starts with Faust’s descent into Hell with Mephistopheles (Méliès). When they arrive at the Devil’s Hall, Mephistopheles commands goddesses forth from the ground to perform a ballet. Then the dancers vanish, shortly replaced by a cascade of water with maids floating in the air.

Next appears a seven-headed Hydra, which frightens both Faust and Mephistopheles. In turn, this beast is replaced by dancing demons. When they also disappear, Mephistopheles wraps Faust in his cloak, and both disappear into the ground. They arrive in a grotto of fire and flames, and Faust is hurled into a furnace as demons dance.

Mephistopheles rises above the crowd in the form of a bat at the end.

The dancing masked demons’ costumes were reused from an earlier 1903 Méliès film, The Infernal Cake Walk. Like many of his other films, this too makes wonderful use of special effects like substitution splices, dissolves, pyrotechnics, and superimpositions on black backgrounds.

A twofer of antique horror

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If you celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a lovely holiday!

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The Haunted Curiosity Shop, released in the U.K. in 1901, is now 115 years old. This great-granddaddy of horror was directed by Walter R. Booth, a pioneer of British cinema. Just like his French counterpart Georges Méliès, he too was a magician before turning to filmmaking. He worked with Robert W. Paul and Charles Urban, also pioneers of British cinema.

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Booth mostly did trick films (i.e., featuring special effects), and pioneered the usage of hand-drawing techniques which enabled animation. Indeed, he directed Britain’s very first animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).

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At just shy of two minutes, the film is very simple. An old man who runs a curiosity shop is beguiled by all manner of spooky tricks and apparitions, including a floating skull; a magically and gradually materializing girl who transmogrifies into an old woman and back again; a mummy; a skeleton; and a giant head growing ever larger.

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The Merry Frolics of Satan, released in France as Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The 400 Tricks of the Devil), came out in 1906, and is now 110 years old. The film was directed by none other than the legendary Georges Méliès, who also stars as Mephistopheles.

The film, described by Méliès as a grande pièce fantastique in 35 scenes, is a contemporary, comedic adaptation of the Faust legend. It draws upon a stage play, Les Quatre Cents Coups du Diable, which débuted 23 December 1905 by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

That 1905 play was in turn based upon Les Pilules du Diable, which premièred 16 February 1839 by the Théâtre National de Cirque-Olympique in Paris. Both of these plays were féeries, a uniquely French theatrical genre with fantasy plots, lavish scenery, incredible visuals, and mechanical stage effects.

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William Crackford, an English inventor and engineer, is in his workshop when he gets visited by a messenger who breaks the news that Alcofrisbas, a famous alchemist, wants to sell him a very powerful talisman. Intrigued, Crackford and his servant John travel to Alcofrisbas’s lab, where a lot of magical tricks transpire.

Crackford and John say they’re planning a high-speed trip around the world, and Alcofrisbas guarantees his help. Seven assistants march out, and help him with making a lot of magical pills. When a pill is thrown onto the ground, any wish will be granted.

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Crackford is so excited by these pills, he doesn’t read the fine print on the contract he signs, and thus has no idea he’s sold his soul to the Devil. After Crackford and John depart, Alcofrisbas transforms back into his true identity: Mephistopheles. The assistants are the Seven Deadly Sins.

When Crackford comes home, he doesn’t waste a moment in commencing his preparations for the journey, and shows off the pills to his wife and daughters. He produces a trunk out of which two servants climb. This trunk becomes a Matryoshka doll, with more and more trunks and servants, until finally the trunks turn into a miniature train.

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The train, loaded with Crackford’s family and luggage, begins its journey, and is met with ridicule instead of fanfare. A little accident on a bridge threatens to derail the entire journey, but Crackford won’t be deterred, and continues on with John.

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They stop by an inn, at which a disguised Mephistopheles is the proprietor. More magic tricks and sorcery commence, until finally Crackford and John run out and make their escape with a strange horse and buggy. Mephistopheles follows them in a car, and there’s another accident with a live volcano.

The carriage continues its journey through outer space, until a thunderstorm sends the travellers plummeting earthward, right into a dining room. Crackford is about to finally have some dinner when Mephistopheles arrives, demanding Crackford fulfill the contract’s terms.

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Sorry this soundtrack isn’t entirely appropriate (annoying background laughter and sound effects), but this was the only video I could find with any musical accompaniment. This also lacks the voice-over narration which was part of many Méliès films and took the place of intertitles.