Posted on October 9, 2016

Georges Méliès, the Film That Makes You Go Mad, and the Birth of Horror

Dawn

One of the films I am most excited about screening at the upcoming Brooklyn Horror Festival (October 14-16) is the 2016 French documentary directed by Fabien Delage called Fury of the Demon (La Rage du Démon). This is how IMDb describes the film:

“A documentary investigation on the rarest and most controversial French movie in the history of early cinema: a fascinating, lost and dangerous short film which causes violent reactions to those who watch it.”

If you don’t find that description intriguing enough, here’s the trailer:

Delage’s documentary explores a short film by early French film-maker Georges Méliès. The film was lost for decades, but, now, it seems (perhaps?) has been found—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. For this strange film from the late nineteenth century is allegedly cursed and has left behind it “a legacy of death” whenever it has been screened—including in New York in 1939 when La Rage du Démon was shown with the Tod Browning’s feature Miracles for Sale. A vicious and bloody riot ensued followed by an all-consuming fire and, when all was said and done, six people were dead. Wherever the film is shown, in fact, people go mad, start tearing at each other, seemingly insane—violently so. It is, as one of the authorities in the trailer tells us, “the most insane piece of cinema of all time.”

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OK, so I’ll reserve judgment on that until I see the film next weekend, but one thing Delage’s documentary has done, even for those who haven’t been able to see Fury of the Demon yet (it’s on the festival circuit), is focus attention on Georges Méliès—and that is a good thing for anyone who is a horror fan because by all accounts, Méliès is responsible for the first horror film ever made, in 1896 (just a year before the ill-fated La Rage du Démon).

Georges Méliès was a magician and theatre owner until he saw his first short film in 1895 and became fascinated by the new medium, not least as a means to deliver his magic acts to a wider audience. He began making short films around 1896 and is by all accounts an important pioneer of early film, although critics point out the lack of narrative complexity in his films, highlighting their propensity for visual spectacle.[i]

One of Méliès’ first films is the film that many now credit as the first horror film: The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du Diable) which he made in the winter of 1896. It’s just over three minutes long and you can watch it here:

The Haunted Castle is about a devil-figure who assaults and confuses people in a medieval castle: the film revels in transformation, as the devil makes people and things appear and disappear and change into their opposite.[ii] That Méliès was a magician and was showcasing his conjuring skills suggests how much of what we now consider the staples of horror—mutation scenes and jump scares—might have been rooted in the fact of Méliès was intent on putting his magic tricks on the screen.

There is certainly a narrative thread in The Haunted Castle, too, that anticipates the shape of much if not most horror, as the hero of the film takes on and finally defeats the devil. In fact, I was very struck by the final shot, which uses the power of the cross—doubled by its shadow on the wall, to defeat evil. This moment is replicated in countless vampire films, but it reminded me above all of a scene in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), when the protagonists are trying to ward off the “evil” panther woman, Irena.

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What I noticed most about the imagery of The Haunted Castle, though, was how much it seemed to anticipate not the vampire film in general but Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) in particular. The film opens with a shot of a bat in a castle—a bat that turns into the devil figure that dominates the film. This moment is repeated numerous times in Dracula, although while Méliès’ bat is in the middle of a room, Browning always shot his bats brilliantly floating on thresholds.

Later, the devil in Méliès’ film conjures up ghostly shrouded and threatening shapes that really evoked for me the “wives” of Dracula, who appear both in the cellar of Dracula’s castle and who also, later, silently threaten Renfield.

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It is perhaps no accident, then, that when Méliès’ previously lost film, La Rage du Démon, was shown in 1939 in New York (with such unhappy consequences), it was shown with a film directed by Tod Browning.

For those of you who might be interested, here’s a review of Tod Browning’s Miracles for Sale (appropriately about magicians and murder), which ran with Le Rage du Demon. It’s from the New York Times in August 1939—before the fateful screening in November of that year.

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[i] A great resource on Méliès is Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur (Manchester University Press, 2000), in which she argues against the dismissals of Méliès’ complexity.

[ii] Méliès is particularly known for his role in the birth of special effects. “In the Autumn of 1896, an event occurred which has since passed into film folklore and changed the way Méliès looked at filmmaking. Whilst filming a simple street scene, Méliès camera jammed and it took him a few seconds to rectify the problem. Thinking no more about the incident, Méliès processed the film and was struck by the effect such an incident had on the scene – objects suddenly appeared, disappeared or were transformed into other objects.” http://www.earlycinema.com/pioneers/melies_bio.html

 

 

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