The Haunted Castle (1896)

*. That’s Mephistopheles, or the Devil, as the Master of the castle. The original French title was Le Manoir du diable, which made things a bit clearer, as it’s really hard to see his horns on the surviving print. He is not Dracula, though you can be forgiven for thinking so what with his transformation from an oversized, floppy bat, his cape, what appear to be his brides, and his fear of the cross.
*. Why would the Devil have a cross in his castle anyway?
*. What he really is, however, is a proxy for Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker. For Méliès the point of film was to do things that you couldn’t do on a stage, a different set of magic tricks.
*. Chief among these was a simple edit known as the “stop trick”: stopping the film and then changing what is being shot before starting it up again, making it seem as though objects are disappearing, or reappearing in different places. The story (perhaps apocryphal) has it that Méliès discovered the effect by accident when his camera jammed and then started again while filming a street scene, turning an omnibus into a hearse. It was, however, apparently first used in an Edison short a year earlier, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), substituting the actress playing Mary with a mannequin so we can see her head being chopped off. That’s still a shocking bit of film 120 years later.
*. The technique was new, and is crudely employed here. In particular the timing is off on the business of the imp poking the cavaliers from behind. By the time of A Trip to the Moon (1902) it would be better handled, resulting in a far more fluid effect.
*. What is it the Devil wants? To scare the cavaliers away? No! He wants to put on a show!
*. This is what magicians do. Obviously the trick is the most important part, but it is concealed behind a web of distractions made up of the usual glimmer and tinsel: the pretty girls and smoke bombs, the props and costumes. For Méliès, such distraction and showmanship would take two main forms: frantic movement and visual clutter. The latter would have to wait but the former is on full display here.
*. The other part of the magic show, which is less enjoyable, at least to me, consists of all the practical jokes. We may think of the spirit of the imp taking over from the magician here. The chair trick is a favourite one (man goes to sit down on a chair and it then disappears, so he falls on his ass). This is a prank as old as Puck. I doubt it was very funny then.
*. The survival of this film is an interesting story in itself. It was thought lost until it was disccovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 1988. Why New Zealand? Because back in the day — and here I mean way back in the day — films were shipped around the world according to a “distribution line.” New Zealand was, quite often, the end of the line. But because it cost a lot to ship film and the film stock was highly flammable, most of these early films were never sent back to the U.S. on the final leg of their journey and were instead either destroyed or stored in government archives. In the early twenty-first century a trove of early silent films were discovered in these vaults.
*. This is sometimes said to be the first horror movie. It’s obviously too short to build much in the way of suspense, or for that matter even tell a story. It also seems as though the effects are meant to startle more than frighten. Nevertheless, the transformations of the young lady into a crone and the brides into a gang of ghosts make for creepy viewing. The haunted castle of horror has many mansions and this is one.

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