The Magician’s Cavern

L’antre des esprits, 1901, 2m54s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 345-347

A man enters a mysterious cavern full of strange gargoyles and other arcane objects. Bumping into a skeleton, he takes it down and places it on a chair, waves his hands and transforms it into a woman sporting a helmet, sword and shield. He helps her up, and transforms her costume into a long, flowing dress. He stands behind her and hypnotises her into sleep, catching her falling body. He places her across two benches and removes them, leaving her suspended in mid-air. She then dissolves back into the skeleton, which the man picks up and “bows” to the audience. The man and the skeleton then dance, after which the man picks up the skeleton and takes it away. The man then causes a stool to float into the air and perform various tumbling tricks on top of a table. A woman appears, surrounded by four dancers, all clad in diaphanous dresses. The man tries to grab them, but his hands pass through their bodies, and they vanish. He then produces two stools and a smaller table and makes them dance. He then bows to the audience, shoots up in the air and re-emerges through a trapdoor in the floor. He then removes his outer garments, wig and false beard to reveal Georges Méliès, who dons a straw boater, lights a cigarette, bows again, and leaves.

The Magician’s Cavern (whose French title translates as “The Spirits’ Lair”) once again sees Georges Méliès in show-off mode. As in The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The One-Man Band (L’Homme orchestre, 1900) and The Triple Conjuror and the Living Head (L’Illusionniste double et la tête vivante, 1900) and the very recent Extraordinary Illusions (Dislocation mystérieuse, 1901), the emphasis is on a single character conjuring up a parade of mesmerising illusions, though in this film the emphasis is as much on quality as quantity: in many ways, it’s a stock-taking showcase of all the tricks that Méliès had developed up to then.

Accordingly, we have transformations achieved both via jump-cuts and more subtle dissolves (the latter seen to best effect early on when the skeleton dissolves into the woman, and her martial costume becomes a more feminine dress), superimpositions (when the woman’s body seems to float above the ground, and later on when the stools and tables appear to dance), old-fashioned costume-based effects (though effectively lit, the dancing skeleton is clearly a man in a black suit with a skeleton painted on it), pixilation (the various movements of the table), and combination fade-in and fade-out with a superimposition (as the dancing girls mysteriously appear and disappear).

There is little narrative content aside from presenting all these various visions, and if there was any doubt about the film’s underlying showing-off purpose, it’s dispelled in the closing seconds, when the magician rips off his clothes, wig and false beard to reveal the dapper Méliès himself - which may also have been a means of asserting the authorship of the film as well as the various onscreen effects.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is beset by exposure fluctuations and contrast shifts, but this may well be inherent in the original materials, as they come and go with cuts to successive superimposition effects (there are visible splices during the pixilation scene with the table), and fine detail is otherwise quite acceptable. Frederick Hodges’ lively, bouncy piano score is attuned to the changing situations, and is particularly effective during the many dance interludes.

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3 Responses to “The Magician’s Cavern”

  1. Mischa von Perger Says:

    The magician does not voluntarily shoot up in the air. He seems to be impelled to do so by the skeleton, which unexpectedly reappears from the left. Unfortunately, this is one of the films of the Flicker Alley edition that run too fast, so that the skeleton’s brief encore is scarcely visible.

  2. Mischa von Perger Says:

    P.S.: There’s no cavern in this film. The backdrop displays the architecture of a totally artificial room. Perhaps the titles of “L’antre des esprits” and “L’enchanteur Alcofribas” (1903) have been mixed up. The magician clearly is the main character in the film described above, so it would be appropriate to name it after him. In the other film, the magician is far less prominent, overshadowed as he is by the yawning cavern in which he evokes several spirits.
    Long ago, M. Bessy and L. Duca printed a photograph that may represent a lost scene of this film. There’s the same scenery, but the coal burner which stands on the left in the film (and whose heat Mr. Méliès uses to light his cigarette in the end) has now moved to the center. And there’s the same fairy who commanded the dancers in the film. She’s still standing on the left but now magically keeps a skeleton suspended over the burner. To the right, the magician has fallen to his knees in amazement. (Maurice Bessy and Lo Duca, “Georges Méliès, mage”, Paris, 1961, p. 197).

  3. Mischa von Perger Says:

    P.S.2: There’s a nice poster of the “Alcofrisbas” performance at the Robert-Houdin: http://silentsf.com/Project_Melies/Melies_HTML/Houdin_Alcofribas.html
    The poster makes clear that the skeleton and Alcofri(s)bas may not be separated from each other. So who was the bad guy who mixed up the titles of the two films? … Must have been Mephisto.

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