Saturday, May 17, 2014

#182: The Haunted Castle (Georges Méliès, 1896)/Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

Several firsts this week. This is the first time I've reviewed two films in the same post, and The Haunted Castle is the oldest film I've written about on this site (though at three minutes it's only the second shortest -- David Lynch's one-minute short film for the Lumiere & Company project takes that honor). Most film historians agree The Haunted Castle is the first horror film ever, and J. Searle Dawley's take on the Frankenstein story is the first committed to film. I decided to put these two together not just because they're firsts, but also because they have a combined running time of fifteen minutes, and they were the only two films I could track down in the first section of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, a section covering the years 1896-1913, before feature-length films were the norm. And they're both on YouTube. I have embedded them here, though the Méliès film is also available on the DVD box set of his work that came out a few years ago.
Horror wouldn't become a popular genre until the mid-to-late teens, and this first horror film, a year into the medium's existence, plays more like slapstick comedy with horror elements, though many staples of the genre get their first airing here. It makes sense, though, that horror and comedy would be paired from the beginning. Fear and laughter have a pretty intense marriage and probably always will. It also makes sense that this first horror film is the work of a magician-turned-director, with its sleight-of-hand disappearances and reappearances making up the bulk of the action.
Georges Méliès has reentered the cultural conversation in recent years with a fictionalized version of himself appearing as a major character in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and The Haunted Castle is a fascinating peek into his still-developing style. Often presented as the other side of the coin from fellow French trailblazers the Lumieres, who specialized in documentary and slices of life, Méliès was cinema's first important fantasist, letting his imagination dictate his style, a pioneer of special effects and genre. His most famous film is the science fiction landmark A Trip to the Moon, but he made hundreds of films in the course of his legendary career.
The Haunted Castle is a bit more awkward and stilted than most Méliès films, but it was very early days for him and for film in general. The camera barely moves, the special effects are a bit more rudimentary, but the spirit of invention and excitement is palpable. So many horror tropes get their first airing here -- vampire bats, devils, ghosts, crucifixes as weapons against evil, disappearing and reappearing beings. A plot synopsis is a bit silly for a three-minute film, so instead of setting it up, I'll just let you watch it. Here it is.
Fourteen years after the first horror film, Thomas Edison produced the first Frankenstein film. In classic Edison fashion, his name appears on every title card, but the director and actors never received a credit until the film was restored years later. Though this 12-minute sprint through Mary Shelley's novel captures little of the spirit of that classic book and is pretty silly besides, the depiction of the creation of the monster has an eerie power, and the creature itself looks more like what you'd expect a being created from the parts of dead people would look like than the more familiar Frankenstein template. He's a messy, shambling, misshapen thing, and a scene of him hovering over a bed has a genuine spookiness.
The film is unsophisticated and awkward compared to the innovations to come from Griffith, Murnau, etc., and to the innovations of the past from pioneers like Méliès, but Dawley does some interesting things with tinting, and he captures some powerful images. These early films retain an otherness and a dreamlike atmosphere, and it's always educational to see how many techniques and storytelling devices remain. Again, you know the story, so here is Frankenstein.

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