Archive for the 'Horror' Category

The Devil and the Statue

Le Diable géant ou le miracle de la madone, 1901, 2m03s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 384-385

In a lavishly appointed room, a woman is serenaded by a man playing a lute while balanced on a ladder propped up just outside her window. After they clasp hands and gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, he descends to the ground. She crosses the room, beside herself with emotion. A devil appears in the alcove, causes bars to appear on her window, taunts her, and then performs a suggestive dance, gradually growing in size until he towers above her. In desperation, the woman pleads to a statue of the Madonna, who comes to life and shrinks the devil back to his original size, causing him to disappear. She then banishes the bars, and the lovers are reunited.

The Devil and the Statue is a variation on a theme established by The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, 1901), in that once again the narrative is essentially an excuse for a living creature to appear to grow to gigantic size, by dint of superimposing a shot with the camera tracking in over a shot of a static room. (In this case, the joins are more obvious, and the floor on which the expanding and contracting devil is standing is all too visible).

Here, the effect is in the context of a love story, in which a courting couple is forcibly separated by the devil before being brought back together by a statue of the Madonna coming to life - a rather simpler effect than was the case in earlier Méliès films like The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), as it only seems to involve the actress in question standing very still for most of the running time. However, it’s unlikely the audience would have been looking at her given the attractions of the increasingly imposing devil. Whereas the title character of The Man with the Rubber Head consisted entirely of a head, and therefore posed no threat, the newly gigantic devil is much more alarming.

However, despite the impressive build-up (in every sense), the dénouement can’t help but be a little disappointing, consisting largely of a reversal of the previous effect, at the end of which the devil simply fizzles out. Compared with the Grand Guignol head explosion of the previous film, one is entitled to feel a little short-changed, and for all the elegance of the set (the Renaissance Italian ambience is very effective), this is one of Méliès’ minor efforts.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD opens with severe chemical damage, but quickly settles down to present an image that’s generally in very good condition, with plenty of fine detail visible (including, as mentioned above, the floor on which the devil is standing), only occasionally beset by tramlines. Joe Rinaudo’s electronic-organ accompaniment uses scales to create the impression of things growing and shrinking in size.

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Posted on 5th July 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Camera Movement, Superimposition, Religion, 1901 | 3 Comments »

The Bachelor’s Paradise

Chez la sorcière, 1901, 1m51s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 350-351

A bachelor visits a witch and asks her to find him a wife. She asks him for money, and he tosses her a small purse. She concocts a potion in her cauldron and sets fire to it. Once the flames die down, a beautiful woman emerges. The witch multiplies her into five women and asks the bachelor to choose. After carefully examining them, he picks the second and asks her to sit down on a stool. The witch then folds the other four women back into one, and makes her disappear in a puff of smoke. The bachelor begins to woo his chosen companion, but as he gets particularly ardent, she changes into the witch, who cackles with glee at the trick she has played on him. When the enraged bachelor tries to attack her, she transforms him into a donkey and mounts him, riding him around the cauldron to the accompaniment of regular beatings from her riding crop.

This comic cautionary tale (whose French title is the more prosaic “At the Witch’s Home”) highlights the potential drawback of choosing a mate by supernatural means. For much of the running time, the witch seems genuinely helpful towards the bachelor, spiriting up not just one but five potential brides, but she changes her tune towards the end when she reveals that they were a figment of her twisted imagination all along, and that the bachelor is helplessly in her power.

The bachelor’s comeuppance is particularly satisfying because everything about him in the early stages, from his foppish costume (topped by an absurdly Napoleonic hat) and airy waves of the hand, to what appears to be an initial assumption that he won’t have to pay - which is then followed by a casual, dismissive toss of a purse of money as if to suggest that there’s plenty where that came from. Clearly a fake himself, his desire for an equally fake bride seems all too fitting, as is his ultimate transformation into a humble beast of burden, which the witch then thoroughly mistreats for good measure.

The special effects are mostly very straightforward jump-cuts, though a combination of these and well-judged movement allows Méliès to create the impression that the various women are “unfolded” from each other, as though multiple cut-outs on a paper chain. The design of the witch’s lair includes many props familiar from earlier Méliès films, such as the outsized scissors from The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900).

Some severe damage at the start of the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD quickly settles down to a generally very acceptable picture, with only a few faint tramlines and occasional surface blemishes (and a brief moment when the image blurs) marring what follows. Plenty of fine detail aids appreciation of the grotesque décor of the witch’s lair. Eric Beheim’s electronic score, augmented by tinkling bells, is fairly generic, but does the job effectively enough.

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Posted on 30th June 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1901 | No Comments »

Going to Bed Under Difficulties

Le Déshabillage impossible, 1900, 1m53s
Star Film Catalogue No. 312-313

A businessman enters a hotel room and hangs his umbrella, coat and hat on the leftmost of a row of hooks. He then removes his jacket and waistcoat and places them on a nearby chair. As he removes his trousers, another coat and hat appear on his back and head. He removes these and places them on the hook next to his original coat and hat, but as he removes them, another hat appears on his head, and he is clad in a pair of check trousers. This process is repeated several times, with the businessman becoming increasingly agitated. When all the hooks are full, he starts flinging his clothes into the corner, the pile growing increasingly large. Finally, he jumps on the bed and pulls the covers over himself, only for the bed to vanish. He resumes undressing again, and discovers that he is now wearing multiple layers of clothing.

Going to Bed Under Difficulties, whose French title translates as ‘Impossible Undressing’, is another set of variations on a theme already established by The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1897) and the then very recent Up-To-Date Spiritualism (Spiritisme abracadabrant, 1900). Once again, we have a man - some kind of business traveller, judging from his apparel at the start - attempting the ostensibly simple task of undressing for bed, only to find himself thwarted at every turn when every item of clothing he removes is instantly replaced by another.

Where this differs from and arguably improves on Up-To-Date Spiritualism is its cumulative sense of the absurd - whereas in the previous film, the various items of clothing simply vanish, here they remain in the room, rapidly filling up even a generous array of hooks before mounting up in the corner. Despite the special effects once again exclusively consisting of the simple jump-cut, the unfortunate protagonist’s movements are even more frenzied than before, creating a remarkably convincing impression of continuous movement in a film that was almost assembled frame by frame.

The frenzy continues right to the end of the film, even beyond what appears to be the climax (the vanishing of the bed at a crucial moment, a Méliès device now so familiar as to be somewhat predictable), as if to suggest that the poor man’s plight will continue indefinitely. The two earlier films mentioned above finished with the protagonists fleeing the room, though here (possibly exacerbated by the abrupt ending of the print under review) he seems doomed, Sisyphus-like, to try to undress for ever.

Méliès wasn’t the only filmmaker wringing multiple variations on this particular theme. In 1901, his British counterpart W.R. Booth made Undressing Extraordinary, or The Troubles of a Tired Traveller, which was clearly directly inspired by Méliès’ film (both the situation and the dominant jump-cut technique are essentially identical) - though Booth also threw in a couple of variations of his own, such as supernatural saucer and the unexpected appearance of a human skeleton.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is quite grainy and contrasty - though nowhere near as bad as Addition and Subtraction (Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste toqué, 1900) - and there’s a fair bit of surface damage, especially at the start and end, with pronounced tramlines running throughout. Eric Beheim’s electronic score begins in an upbeat mode, but rapidly becomes as relentless as the endless parade of clothing, increasing in tempo to match the protagonist’s growing desperation.

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Posted on 22nd June 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1900 | No Comments »

The Misfortunes of an Explorer

Les Infortunes d’un explorateur ou les momies récalcitrantes, 1900, 0m17s
Star Film Catalogue No. 244

An explorer, clad in pith helmet, wanders into an Egyptian tomb and is struck by a sarcophagus displayed in the centre. After examining it from either side, he opens it, revealing it to be empty. He climbs in… (print ends here)

Surviving only as a very short fragment of some seventeen seconds, The Misfortunes of an Explorer ends just when it looks as though it’s going to get interesting, as the explorer in question climbs into an Egyptian sarcophagus. The fact that it’s not merely empty when opened but completely blank signals some kind of superimposed special effect(s) is/are in the offing, but what form they take must remain conjectural - though the title suggests that they’re hardly going to be pleasant. (The French title translates as ‘The Misfortunes of an Explorer, or The Recalcitrant Mummies’). The explorer appears to be played by Méliès himself, and the backdrop gives an excellent impression of depth in its use of the usual foreshortened perspective, here emphasised by the tomb’s well-defined brickwork receding into the distance.

One thing that is worth noting is that this film predates the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by some 22 years - which is when the notion of the mummy’s curse decisively passed into the popular imagination after the excavation’s patron Lord Carnarvon died in mysterious circumstances. However, the theme of the Egyptian curse itself was centuries old, so Méliès was drawing on extant tradition.

It’s a particular shame that so little of this film survives, because what’s presented on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in very acceptable condition, barring a couple of out-of-focus frames near the start. There are speckles of damage throughout, but the level of detail is impressively high, almost right up to the very end of the surviving fragment. Neal Kurz’s piano accompaniment is a Chopinesque waltz that comes to a conclusion as the explorer steps into the tomb - wisely, it refrains from building any kind of anticipation, given the inevitable letdown at the end.

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Posted on 11th June 2008
Under: Horror, 1900 | 3 Comments »

The Cook’s Revenge

La Vengeance du gâte-sauce, 1900, 0m56s
Star Film Catalogue No. 243

In the kitchen, a cook attempts to seduce a maid, making her drop a plate. It shatters on the ground, causing both to jump and remonstrate with each other. The cook hears someone approaching and hides in a cupboard. The horrified manager enters and sends the maid off with a flea in her ear before sitting down to contemplate the shards. The cook peeks out of the cupboard, and the manager spots him. He runs over to the cupboard and slams the door, severing the cook’s head at the neck. In a panic, the manager picks up the head and puts it on a nearby table, where it comes back to life. Alarmed, the manager grabs a saucepan and hits it. It disappears and reappears on the other side of the kitchen. The manager picks it up and tosses it back in the cupboard, closing the door behind it. The now intact cook emerges from the cupboard, and knocks the manager’s head off before tossing his limp body around. He then exits via the door.

Another slice of comical Grand Guignol in a vein already established by Adventures Of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898) and The Mysterious Knight (Le Chevalier mystère, 1899), The Cook’s Revenge devises perhaps the most appropriate setting yet for Méliès’ distinctive brand of ultraviolent knockabout comedy, since it’s well known that the kitchen is one of the prime locations for fiery tempers and unreasonable behaviour.

However, it’s unlikely that Gordon Ramsay ever had to put up with a scenario like this, where an accident caused by the cook’s over-amorous intentions towards the maid leads to a situation whereby his head is accidentally severed by (one presumes) the restaurant manager or maître d’. This being a Méliès film, it’s a bloodless experience, with the head blithely coming back to life in the manner of The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898) or The Mysterious Knight, though the superimpositions this time round are more accomplished in that the joins are now virtually seamless, a sign of Méliès’ technical confidence increasingly matching his conceptual imagination. Finally, the roles are reversed, with the newly intact cook knocking the manager’s block off and tossing his beheaded body around the room for good measure.

The English title is a simplification of the original French, as the term ‘gâte-sauce’ literally means “sauce spoiler”, a term that originally literally referred to a bad cook, but was then turned into a slang term meaning “kitchen help”. In other words, the “cook” in this film was probably a barely qualified underling, hence his clear preferment of the charms of the maid over anything else in the kitchen - and the rage of his boss when he hears his precious plates getting smashed as a by-product.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD wobbles at times, but is otherwise rather better preserved than average, with damage and exposure fluctuations kept to a minimum for the most part. As with his accompaniment for Adventres of William Tell, Eric Beheim’s jolly, tinkling score maintains an upbeat tone throughout, as if to emphasise that none of this should be taken seriously.

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Posted on 10th June 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Superimposition, 1900 | 1 Comment »

Suicide of Colonel Henry

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Suicide du Colonel Henry, 1899, 1m05s
Star Film Catalogue No. 209

In a prison cell, Colonel Joseph Henry paces up and down before sitting at the table to write a letter. He seals and addresses it, then walks over to the bed. Halfway there, he turns round and retrieves a cut-throat razor from a leather bag on the floor. He opens it, then puts it down on the table. After a brief hesitation, he picks it up again, walks over to the bed and slits his throat. He slumps against the bed and then falls on the floor, blood soaking through his shirt. A guard opens the door, sees the scene and summons two colleagues. They examine the body while the first guard finds the letter.

With The Suicide of Colonel Henry, the fourth film in Georges Méliès’ cycle The Dreyfus Affair (or possibly fifth, depending on the positioning of the now-lost The Disgrace/La Dégradation), we come to the first that doesn’t feature Alfred Dreyfus as the protagonist. After depicting his arrest and two aspects of his incarceration on Devil’s Island, Méliès now turns his attention to Colonel Joseph Henry (1846-1898), one of the most prominent of the so-called ‘Antidreyfusards’, not least because he is believed to have forged the documents that secured Dreyfus’s arrest in the first place. However, Henry was caught committing further forgeries in an attempt to incriminate Colonel Picquart, the man who correctly established Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy as the German spy who was actually guilty of the crime for which Dreyfus had been falsely convicted. Henry confessed, and was imprisoned in the Mont Valérien fort on 30 August 1898. The following morning, he was found dead with his throat cut, a presumed suicide.

Méliès assumes that his audience would have known all about the Henry affair (his death occurred only a year or so before the film was made), and so instead of bothering with a preamble he cuts straight to the chase, imagining the last minute of Henry’s life as it plays out in real time. Throughout, he is clearly suffering agonies of indecision, pacing up and down, hesitating and changing his mind - so much so that when he abruptly slits his own throat seemingly partway through another hesitation, it’s a genuinely shocking moment. Although Méliès had featured knockabout slapstick violence in such films as The Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898) and The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), that was deliberately exaggerated and jokey. By contrast, his treatment of Colonel Henry’s suicide is startlingly realistic, especially once the blood starts soaking through his white shirt.

Both this film and its immediate successor, Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon (Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899), raise interesting questions concerning the definition of “realism”. Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’ (Sight & Sound, Autumn 1984) quotes a piece in Photographic News dated 8 December 1899 discussed the subject of Dreyfus-related reconstructions (Pathé had also jumped on the bandwagon), asking “But where is this new kind of photo-faking to stop?” Although clearly staged (as ever, the “set” is a painted backdrop), Méliès was much more concerned with realism than he had been in the past, even though he was paradoxically compelled to make use of special effects (a gory throat-slitting, a superimposed storm) to ensure that the filmed version was as close to the real-life events as possible - or at least to the popular impression. In this, his Dreyfus films are a precursor of Eisenstein’s October (1927), another reconstruction that’s often “quoted” by documentaries as though the footage was authentic.

This is one of the better prints in Flicker Alley’s Dreyfus cycle - despite occasional chemical damage and other surface blemishes, and some exposure fluctuations towards the end, the underlying image is very sharp and detailed, the better to appreciate the nuances of the performance of the anonymous actor playing Henry. Eric Beheim’s electronic score has a greater sense of building towards a climax than his other Dreyfus soundtracks, with a military drumroll being introduced at the actual moment of Henry’s death.

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Posted on 1st June 2008
Under: Horror, Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

The Devil in a Convent

Le Diable au couvent, 1899, 3m11s
Star Film Catalogue No. 185-7

In a convent, a priest adjusts the position of some chairs before departing. As soon as he’s gone, the devil emerges from the font, and looks around. Spotting a rope dangling from the ceiling, he tugs on it, and a bell rings. He wraps his cloak around himself and turns into a priest. Seven white-clad nuns enter and kneel on the chairs as the priest/devil mounts the pulpit. He begins preaching, and the nuns cross themselves. He turns back into the devil, and they react with horror, fleeing the room as he laughs menacingly. He descends from the pulpit and makes the font and then the chairs disappear. He summons up demonic gargoyles to decorate the walls. He opens a trapdoor in the floor and two small children emerge. He conjures up a large pan, from which four other devils appear. A giant demonic cat-like head appears, from which three women emerge. The head turns into a gigantic toad, which the devil mounts while the others dance around him. A nun enters the room and holds up a crucifix. The devil reacts as though scalded, and the others vanish. He gets off the toad, which also vanishes. He confronts the nun, but cannot get past the crucifix. Three more nuns appear, each holding crucifixes, and they surround the devil. They then vanish, leaving the devil on the ground. He gets up, and is confronted by a guardsman. They fight, and the devil sends his opponent packing. Another man enters and chases the devil up to the pulpit. The devil jumps to the ground and vanishes. Bemused, the man descends from the pulpit, only to find the devil emerging from another trapdoor. The man tries to assail him, but the devil disappears down yet another trapdoor, immediately reappearing in the pulpit. A group of men and boys clad in white surplices enter. A statue of Saint Michel appears, and when the devil attempts to climb onto its plinth, the statue comes to life and throws him off. The devil disappears in a puff of smoke, while the men and boys file out.

Like The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), The Devil in a Convent is a triple-length production running just over three minutes, and given three entries in Georges Méliès’ Star Films catalogue. In terms of content, it fuses the religious elements of The Temptation of Saint Anthony (La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898) with the knockabout slapstick quasi-horror of The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897). When combined with Méliès’ greater technical confidence, the result is one of his most enjoyable films to date.

When a baby is baptised and it begins to cry, it’s said that this is the devil emerging. There’s no baby here, but the devil initially emerges through the font, thus reinforcing its image as a potential doorway to Hell. After gliding to the ground in an effectively unnatural fashion (I suspect a wire was involved here, though it’s hard to spot amidst the print tramlines), he immediately decides to mount the pulpit and tugging on the bellrope to summon the nuns to prayer, with the specific aim of revealing his presence to them partway through his sermon. Having sown the seeds of chaos, he replaces the trappings of the convent with decorations more to his own taste before summoning up various hellish creatures for what can only be described as a session of orgiastic revelry. There are four devils, three presumably dissolute women and two small boys, one of whom picks his nose and makes discreet but clearly offensive gestures with his fingers - a touch that serves to emphasise the essentially childish harmlessness of this film.

Then, in an echo of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the devil is surrounded by nuns who form a deadly crucifix-bearing circle around him. However, these are banished, and the rest of the film turns into a knockabout chase comedy as the devil is pursued by (presumably) two armed guards or militia members. The final visual coup is performed by a statue of a large, bearded, helmeted and indeed vaguely Vikingesque Saint Michael (popularly seen as representing the vanguard in God’s army) coming to life and spearing the devil, who vanishes in what has now become a characteristically Mélièsesque puff of smoke. As ever, the various transformations are generally triggered by jump-cuts, though Méliès also makes use of seemingly randomly-placed trapdoors in the floor.

As with The Astronomer’s Dream, the set design is most impressive. Although clearly consisting of two painted flats (so the nuns have a viable “corridor” to enter through), Méliès makes much use of foreshortened perspective to give a very real sense of depth, and he has a lot of fun with the devil decking out the walls with gargoyles: most vandalism isn’t nearly so aesthetically appealing. The giant feline head with its swivelling eyeballs and the equally grotesque toad from which the devil conducts his revellers are just as effective, though the fact that they’re also flat is emphasised by the final appearance of an equally fantastical but very three-dimensional Saint Michael.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in excellent condition barring a few tramlines (which, as noted above, have the unintended side-effect of hiding the wire used to help the devil glide to the ground), but as the film progresses there’s more overt physical and chemical damage, as well as some sharp fluctuations in exposure and contrast. It also ends abruptly, though it’s safe to assume that this is only by a few seconds, as the devil appears to have gone for good. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is conscientious enough to include bell sounds at the appropriate moment, and (entirely understandably) can’t resist slipping in a brief quotation from Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Danse Macabre’.

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Posted on 26th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Religion | 1 Comment »

The Astronomer’s Dream

La Lune à un mètre, 1898, 3m13s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 160-162

An astronomer is writing notes at his desk. A devil appears in a puff of smoke and taunts him, but the astronomer ignores him. A woman with a crescent-moon tiara appears and banishes the devil before disappearing herself. Oblivious to all this, the astronomer gets up and draws a geometrically precise globe on his blackboard, complete with a moon in the top left corner. The moon grows a face and hair and descends to join the globe, which sprouts arms and legs. Annoyed, the astronomer dashes the blackboard to the ground. He picks up a telescope and tries to look through it at the moon, but it turns into a rolling pin, which pokes him in the eye. He angrily tosses it aside and returns to his desk, placing his head in his hands. The desk vanishes, and he topples over onto the ground. He looks through his large telescope and sees a gigantic face in the moon, which promptly invades his study and swallows the telescope and one of the astronomer’s chairs. He tries to retrieve his property, but is rebuffed. The moon emits a puff of smoke, knocking the astronomer to the ground. He picks up a parasol to shield himself, but it is torn to shreds. Two small, identical children emerge from its mouth, and the astronomer promptly hurls them back in. He then tries to hit the moon with a broom, but it retreats to a point beyond the end of the astronomer’s balcony. The astronomer tries to throw a chair, his notebook and a table at the moon, but they all vanish at the crucial moment. Suddenly, the moon becomes a crescent, supporting a woman in a bridal veil. She descends onto the astronomer’s balcony and removes the veil. He tries to hug her, but she shoots up in the air. Another woman appears on the crescent. The astronomer gets up to greet her, and falls through a trapdoor into a room where he is confronted by a suit of armour. He hits this with a broom, and is transported inside the moon’s mouth. The moon swallows him whole and spits out various limbs. The devil reappears, followed in quick succession by the moon-goddess, who banishes him and stuffs the limbs back into the moon’s mouth. As she does so, the astronomer reappears in his chair, bit by bit. The astronomer wakes up in his observatory, heaves a sigh of relief that it was only a dream, and returns to his desk.

At over three minutes, The Astronomer’s Dream is three times longer than a typical early Méliès short, and has duly been given three entries in his Star Film catalogue (presumably this meant he could charge triple the fee). It begins as a virtual remake of A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), but it’s conceived on a far more elaborate scale.

The nightmare here is being suffered by an astronomer (dressed, rather charmingly, as a wizard complete with pointed hat and long white beard), who is first taunted by a devil and then by a moon that’s a very considerable advance on the cardboard cut-out in the earlier film. It’s also rather more threatening, as its grotesquely distended mouth chews up anything within range, be it objects, children or adults - and it also spits out severed limbs in a Grand Guignol moment reminiscent of the same year’s The Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898).

But the most significant advance made by the film is that it develops a more or less continuous narrative across three minutes, making it the clearest precursor yet to Méliès’ far more elaborate fantasies of the early 1900s. The astronomer’s dream runs the gamut from battles between devils and angels, being terrorised by a vast moon, and seduced by a female figure initially seen reclining on the crescent as though practising for the DreamWorks logo a century early.

In terms of special effects, Méliès is still heavily reliant on the jump cut, but he also concocts some live animation (the blackboard with its moving diagrams) and his mechanical props, especially the man in the moon, are conceived on a greater scale than before. The set designs, too, use perspective to create a strong sense of three-dimensional space, with the moon visible in three planes: the far distance, just beyond the balcony, and in extreme close-up.

Although there’s continuous chemical blotching throughout, the untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is impressively sharp - you can clearly make out every star on the astronomer’s hat and gown. Donald Sosin’s score blends piano with occasional percussion, becoming increasingly frenzied as the moon increases in menace.

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Posted on 22nd May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1898, Dreams | 1 Comment »

The Bewitched Inn

L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1897, 2m02s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 122-123

A man enters the guestroom of an inn, clearly tired and ready for bed. He puts his suitcase, umbrella and overcoat down on the bed, whereupon they promptly vanish. He rummages through the bedclothes, but is none the wiser. He removes his hat and places it on a small cabinet. It springs up of its own accord and scuttles across the room. He tries to light a candle, but it vanishes, reappearing on the other side of the room. A second attempt leads to it reappearing in its original location. Finally, he lights the wick, but it explodes. He removes his jacket and it drifts up the wall of its own accord. He sits down in a chair, only for it to vanish at the crucial moment, leaving him sprawled on the floor, the chair reappearing on the other side of the room. Holding it firmly this time, he successfully sits down and removes his boots, which shuffle away. The bedside cabinet vanishes, and his trousers climb the wall. Now too tired to care, he gets into bed, only for it to vanish, leaving him on the floor. He gets up, and the bed reappears, shortly followed by the rest of the furniture, stacked neatly on top of the mattress. The man can stand it no longer, and flees the room.

The Bewitched Inn harks back to one of Georges Méliès’ earliest films, A Terrible Night (Un Nuit terrible, 1896), though the nocturnal terrors that beset the weary traveller in the later film are far more numerous and inexplicable than a straightforward invasion by a giant bedbug.

At two minutes, this is double the length of his previous surviving work (it’s even given two numbers in the Star Film catalogue, 122-123, suggesting that it was supplied in two parts, though aside from the usual jump-cuts the setting and narrative are seamless), allowing Méliès to unleash what was then his full arsenal of cinematic tricks onto his hapless protagonist. Or rather, onto himself, since he is clearly recognisable under the false whiskers.

As before, the special effects consist mostly of jump-cuts that cause objects to vanish and reappear, though this time they’re augmented by some pre-prepared props. His hat and clothes, presumably attached to invisible wires, drift up the wall or scuttle into a corner, while the candle explodes as soon as he finally gets a chance to light it. The most sophisticated effect sees his boots shuffling away after he removes them - although almost certainly achieved with wires, the operator wittily creates the impression that they’re moving in step formation.

Although the film mostly consists of random inconveniences, there’s a sense of building towards a climax at the end, when the entire bed vanishes, only to reappear with the rest of the furniture stacked on top of it. The traveller is probably wise to flee: as Méliès had already demonstrated in such films as A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), one isn’t safe from night-time terrors even after one has successfully drifted off to sleep.

Aside from some exposure fluctuations, mild chemical blotching and a severe tramline towards the right of the frame, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is in very good condition, revealing plenty of fine detail (even though it’s not possible to read the advice to guests pinned to the door, other than the ‘AVIS’ heading). Frederick Hodges’ jaunty, repetitive piano accompaniment has the relentless effect of a party going on next door, deftly adding to the sense of irritation felt by the traveller.

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Posted on 15th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1897 | No Comments »

The Haunted Castle

Le Château hanté, 1897, 0m44s
Star Film Catalogue No. 96

A man defies warnings from his friend and prepares to spend the light in a haunted castle. He sits nonchalantly down in a chair - which vanishes and reappears on the other side of the room, causing him to fall to the ground. He gets up, looks around indignantly, walks over to the chair, reaches out to move it back, but is alarmed by the sudden appearance of a mysterious apparition clad in white robes and cowl and holding a box. Drawing a sword, the man runs him through, only to find the apparition turning into a skeleton. He shakes the skeleton and it turns into a burly guard clad in armour. He vanishes, and another man appears behind the central character, pointing out the reappearance of the white-cowled apparition. (The film ends abruptly here)

Moving into his second year of film production, Georges Méliès was still enraptured by the possibilities of the simple jump-cut, which is used here to cause ghosts, skeletons and other sinister beings to appear and disappear at the director’s whim, much to the bewilderment of the film’s hapless protagonist - who seems to be either a nightwatchman taking over a shift or a man taking a bet from a friend that he won’t last a full night in the haunted castle.

Sadly, the film’s abrupt and inconclusive ending, as well as its relative brevity (it’s about 25 second shorter than the other Méliès films of the period) suggest that as much as the final third may have been lost, but there’s more than enough going on in the footage that remains to retain attention.

As in A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), the protagonist is beset by sinister visions, starting with a disobedient chair. However, he’s more proactive than his predecessor in that when a cowled apparition holding a box appears, he decides that the simplest course of action is to run him through with a sword, whereupon he naturally turns into a skeleton (by no means a first for Méliès: a similar transformation can be seen in The Vanishing Lady/Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896). Sadly, the technology of the time doesn’t allow the skeleton to do very much except wobble unthreateningly when poked.

The final transformation to a burly guard is well handled, but after he disappears the film becomes incomprehensible, presumably thanks to a missing ending. Another man appears - he is not the colleague from the start, though he doesn’t seem to possess supernatural trappings - and points out the re-emergence of the cowled figure, but the film then ends just as Méliès seems about to explore similar variations to those that concluded A Nightmare.

Flicker Alley’s print has been hand-stencilled, with the protagonist given a fetching red outfit that certainly assures that he remains the centre of attention: aside from a couple of decorations elsewhere in the same red shade, the rest of the image is in sepia-tinted monochrome. The print has a fair amount of surface damage, including chemical blotches: it’s not clear whether the mysterious ectoplasmic material briefly superimposed over the black-clad character that appears towards the end is a deliberate special effect or a by-product of deterioration. Eric Beheim’s electronic accompaniment broadly consists of two iterations of the same call-and-response musical phrase.

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Posted on 12th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1897 | 1 Comment »

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