An Introduction to the Series
Welcome one and all to a new series of articles and features at the Wonders in the Dark. In this new segment that will go up most thursdays (when the research and watching of a certain master is complete, and that may take longer for each and every master of horror out there) I shall bring forward a film director that had an interest during some or the majority of his/her career in the genre of horror, usually the cut is that he made more than 3 films that can be described as inside the genre of horror. I’m taking a chronological view of the genre so we are going to see many directors that may not actually sound as directors that are directly related to the horror genre here, maybe because they made 4 or more horror films in their long careers. I know that the criterion exposed right here isn’t enough to qualify someone as a ‘master’ of something, we don’t even know if they’ll be masterful filmmakers… or even good filmmakers, but their appreciation and inclination towards the genre for some part of their lives makes them masters and lovers on my eyes.
Every article will have a small introduction to the world of the filmmaker, then a small list of the films of his filmography that are catalogued as horror (no matter if they are available or not), then a small description/review of the best film of the bunch, then a small description/review of the scariest of them all (if they coincide, well, the small article will turn into a long-ish one), then a brief paragraph on each of the rest of the films, and to end it all some personal thoughts on the films as a group and the director, and maybe a ranking of the films if possible. So, without further ado, let’s start our dark journey through the cracks and slippery sides of the horror genre, maybe we will find some auteurs that we didn’t think of before as masters of the horror. Special thanks to Bob Clark for creating this simple yet amazing banner for the series!
File #1 – Georges Méliès
A lot has been written about Méliès, specially since he is one of the most important and influential pioneer filmmakers out there, mainly because he was one of the first to do fiction filmmaking as well as making the first genre films in the realms of science fiction, fantasy and even the topic that we are covering, horror, he has what is considered the first horror (and vampire) film of all time, so with that credit under his belt, how can we not put him at the start of this series of articles? Well, the thing is that many know that he has always been regarded as the magician of cinema, with a style that is more akin to what was called ‘filmed theater’, he managed to go beyond that concept by not only using the fixated camera and the frontal stance of the characters in play (as well as the rising courtains and presentation that the films used to have at that time), but was the first one to use the tricks and special effects inherent to the machine: cuts for dissaparitions, smokes and lights, double exposition, he was one of the true innovators in film in those years, he was the true meaning of cinema as magic, as he dazzled and made people awe under the impression that, for example, the man could go to the moon, and that is the best that we can say about him: he invented cinema as an spectacle, a magical situation where people go to just be in awe, and even to this day he manages to surprise and bring out the question whenever we see something spectacular: ‘How did he manage to do that?’. A wizard never tells its secrets, but sometimes film can be treachorous.
Georges Méliès had many outings in the horror genre, but many of them are lost or unavailable right now, I’ll list them chronologically and note when we have some lost work, if I’m wrong on something please correct me, as I’d be glad to see more of this.
· Le manoir du diable (1896) First Horror and Vampire Film of all Time
· Le cabinet de Méphistophélès (1897) Lost
· L’hallucination de l’alchimiste (1897) Lost, often mistaken for other Méliès shorts
· La caverne maudite (1898) Lost
· Cléopâtre (1899) Lost, misidentified when “found” in 2005
· Un bon lit (1899) Lost
· Barbe-bleue (1901)
· Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906)
· Le papillon fantastique (1909) A 2 minute fragment survives
Best Film: Le manoir du diable (1896)
Here it is, the template for many of the horror films that would come out in the late 1890′s and the early 1900′s, the classic story of the haunted house, but this time with a nice twist: the first horror film of all time is also the first film to have a vampire in it. The short starts with an evil creature that turns into a bat and viceverse (thus giving the illusion that he is a vampire) as he waits for the casual visitor of the old manor, here we have the trickster devil/creature trope that would be repeated many times not only in the similar horror shorts that would come later (some just clear rip-offs like ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1897) directed by George Albert Smith — not a master of horror; while other give nice twists to the idea like the one directed by the early director Segundo de Chomón) but also the films of Méliès himself (being the most famous the fantasy short ‘Le diable noir’ featuring a trickster imp with hilarious results). Here the audience must’ve been shocked just to see certain classic medieval and victorian imagery from old haunting books take life for the first time: bats and skeletons, apparitions and ghosts all framed as if it were a old spook house invented before spook houses even existed, appearing out of nowhere, giving jump scares and genuine concerns towards the well-being of the two characters who happen to enter the haunted manor. This first film is the original and should be the way of measuring the rest of the (similar) endeavours made in those years, and this one comes ahead because it feels genuine and, as always, a spectacle to wonder, even if it’s not particularly scary. (****)
Scariest Film: Le papillon fantastique (1909)
My heart really wanted to put this film as the best and the scariest of them all made by Méliès, but I really couldn’t, because when it comes down to it, it’s just a 2 minute fragment and not the entire thing (I don’t know the real runtime of the short, but being this late into the game, I guess it must’ve been over 10 minutes, or at least near that). I really recommend everyone to first watch this short, because when I saw it I just couldn’t believe it, here it is, watch it now, it’s just 2 minutes of your life you wish you had back… it’s just scarring. Now, it starts harmless enough, with a classical presentation by Méliès himself, giving us a woman-butterfly, and then she presents the next woman, some kind of starfish of sorts that suddenly turns into the most horrific thing that I’ve seen. Literally, those tentacles and the attitude towards that all the performers have just puts chills in my spine, it’s for me one of the most revolting things, those tentacles look real and my liking of the Lovecraftian horror makes me put this short at the top just because of how unexpected the whole thing is and at the same time just plain scary. The hand-tinting of the whole segment makes it much more freaky and strange, what was the story behind this? What was the reasoning behind making such a hideous creature appear? How in the hell did he make those tentacles move? It feels animated, but I’m sure it isn’t, and I can’t really explain it myself, giving it much more mystery and fear to the whole thing. Maybe that’s the kind of horror that we all want: the unexplained in front and behind the camera. (****)
And the Rest…
While having some of the strongest imagery of death and gruesome murder, this is the lesser of the Méliès horror efforts maybe just because the story of Bluebeard isn’t strong enough per se. The film meanders around with pointless scene after scene of the life in the castle of Bluebeard, just to have at the end some strong moments here and there to make the whole watch worthwhile, like when the murdered wives appear in front of the new one, or when Bluebeard is finally killed with a spear through his chest. (***1/2)
Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906)
This horror-comedy of sorts follows a path similar to the one of the famous novel Faust, where a man is given all he wants but with a cost, the tricks of the devil. Here we see how the one who asks for the magical wishes looses his family and founds trouble to every place that he stops. This feels like an adventure and has many impressive imagery, specially at the end in the hell segment with a huge Satan with an eating mouth. (****)
Maybe everything’s Horror
The silent films of Méliès always have something about them that is unsettling, maybe because we can’t believe what we are actually watching in our screens, but most of the time is the sense of just saying: ‘everyone that I see in this is already dead’, and that is a sense that most silent films have, but that is ever-present in the ones made by Méliès just because the films are so lively and colorful (even though they are in black and white originally), they exude life that is completely absent, and even in his horror endeavours we find that energy and spectacle that made him a master and one of the most succesful filmmakers of his time. The four horror films that have survived are great examples of all that he could manage to do: longer narrative pieces, presentations of magical acts, technical achievements and literary adaptations. Just give me another genre and I could make another article just like this, he is truly one of the early great masters of the craft, and he might as well be the first master of horror… he created the genre in film after all.
Ranking the Horror
- Le papillon fantastique (1909, Georges Méliès)
- Le manoir du diable (1896, Georges Méliès)
- Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906, Georges Méliès)
- Barbe-bleue (1901, Georges Méliès)
Not gonna spoil who’s next in this series, anyone taking bets and predictions?