Georges Méliès and the making of the first horror film
It started with a bat.
And what a perfect opening picture for the world’s first horror film. After all, the bat is thanks to Bram Stokers. One of the most iconic images in films for more than a century Dracula.
Still Le Manoir du Diable – also known as The enchanted castle (US), The Devil’s Castle (UK) and House of the Devil – was made in 1896, the year In front Stokers Dracula was published.
The film was born from the fertile imagination of the author, director and star Georges Méliès, a master illusionist and film pioneer who was always ahead of his time. In this case, he not only made the first horror film, but also the first vampire film, as the bat also turned into a demon, as has been the case in countless vampire films since.
And let’s go to the horror triumvirate by naming Méliès, the writer who has been known for decades for quirky fantasy films, the first horror film director. (There would be other “premieres” for Méliès, not least the first science fiction film, A Trip to the moon 1902.)
That’s a lot of awards for a film that lasts just 3 minutes but has a leading role in film history.
This would not have been the case except for a simple blow of fate with a blocked camera. To get to this story, we must first learn more about Georges Méliès. Here is the shortest bio you have ever read about him.
Méliès was born in Paris in 1861 and was interested in the arts, including puppetry, as a child. His father owned a shoe factory and Georges would succeed in the family business. Sent to London to do a textile apprenticeship and study English, he found a city full of magic shows and returned to Paris obsessed with it. He studied and experimented while working for his father. When his father retired in 1888, he sold his stake in the business to his brothers to buy the famous illusion house Thêatre Robert-Houdin, where he created his own magic shows. And he was excellent at it.
In less than a decade, however, there was a demonstration by the Lumière brothers camera operator (a camera and a projector) in 1895 changed his life. Soon Méliès took the illusions he had created for the stage and transformed them onto the screen, creating the “cinema spectacle” and, thanks to this blocked camera, became the father of special effects.
Here is what happened.
Méliès was shooting a street scene in Paris when his camera got stuck for a short time. Later, while editing the film, Méliès was surprised to see the location of objects change, including a Madeleine Bastille bus turning into a hearse with a family to follow. The accident came to be known as the camera freeze and became the first cinematic special effect that Méliès exhaustively used in the creation of his fantasy worlds.
He has that in Le Manoir du Diable as all sorts of people and props appeared and disappeared when he stopped and restarted the camera.
This flying bat transforms into a demon with dark powers in the first few seconds before our eyes. He conjures up a little helper and a cauldron from which a woman rises in a cloud of smoke. Two men arrive, but one is driven away by fear while the other stays and is mocked by demonic activity. A skeleton turns into a bat, then into a demon. A beautiful woman becomes a witch, and ghosts and witches appear. These effects are all packed in less than 3 minutes – just imagine what Méliès would have done with another minute!
Is our first horror movie terrifying? Not for today’s audience. But in 1896, films were less than 30 seconds long and showed real-world images like a train known to be heading for them L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers. (Two of Méliès’ earliest short films were called Playing cards and Water the flowers for a very good reason.)
For this audience it would have been terrifying to see a “long” three-minute film with a demon making things appear and disappear.
But it is doubtful that Méliès wanted to scare people. Judging by his decades of work on stage and film, one can see how he enchanted audiences with illusion and fantasy. In fact, these early Méliès films were considered horror comedies for their use of pantomime and gags (a man stabbed in the butt with a pitchfork will always laugh). Nevertheless, the film carries images that are still known from horror films today, such as the shadow of a cross on a wall and apparently vampire brides in long white robes chasing a man.
Méliès made more than 500 films in his career, unfortunately filled with as many lows as heights as the fledgling film industry found its way. In 1923 he was so desperate about what was happening to his films that he burned most of the negatives he kept in his studio in Montreuil, a suburb outside of Paris. Fortunately, conservation efforts have uncovered around 200 films.
One of them was Le Manoir du Diable, which was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 1988. We owe our thanks to the person who originally bought it at a junk store in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1930s or 40s for finding the world’s first horror film.
* * * *
To find out more about Méliès, his background and how to find his films, check out the excellent new documentary The Méliès Mystery, which recently had its US premiere as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival.
* * * *
More from the horror master
Méliès produced an incredible 81 shorts in 1896, the year it was made
Le Manoir du Diable. Here are some of his other “horror” works that he shot around the same time.
Une nuit terrible (A terrible night), 1896. A man (Méliès) is fighting a giant beetle in his bed.
L’auberge ensorcelee (Enchanted inn), 1897. A hotel guest (Méliès) is haunted by a mischievous ghost.
La Caverne maudite (The den of demons), 1898. Translated into the “cursed cave”, a woman stumbles into a cave with the spirits of those who died there. This presumably lost film was the first film Méliès used with double exposure.
Le Diable Geant ou Le Miracle de la Madone (The Devil and the Statue), 1901. A young girl attacked by the devil prays to a statue of the Madonna to save her while her lover is trapped outside by barred windows.
Le Chaudron Infernal (The Infernal Cauldron), 1903. Satan sacrifices three young women in a fiery cauldron, but when their spirits rise from the dead they turn the tables.
Faust’s damnation. Méliès filmed several versions of the Faust story, including 1903 and 1904, using impressive techniques such as dissolves, pyrotechnics and superimpositions.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s monsters and matinees articles here.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, NY, is an editor and writer for The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic films on her blog Watching Forever. Toni was President of the former Buffalo Chapter of TCM Backlot and now heads the Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs branch. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the first ever winner of the TCM in Your Hometown competition. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.