In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at George Méliès’ The House Of The Devil – the first ever horror film.
Horror has been embedded into our culture since we first started telling stories around a burning fire. Tales of monsters lurking in the woods, witches who would ensnare you with potions, or ghosts that send a shiver down your spine have all been a staple of storytelling. Some of us simply love to be chilled to the bone.
Excitingly, this Sunday we finally head into 2023’s spooky season – a time where the spectre of horror rises and cinematically, we turn to tales that go bump in the night. Whilst you are seeking out a trick or a delicious treat, why not head back to my favourite time – the Victorian era – to watch the first ever horror film in existence?
1896’s The House Of The Devil – or Le Manoir Du Diable – is directed by filmmaking extraordinaire Georges Méliès. The film opens on a creaky castle interior as a large bat spookily hovers into the foreground. In a puff of smoke, the creature transforms into the devil himself. Mephistopheles, that malicious magician, then creates a woman in a cauldron. However, when two knights in shining armour race through the castle, they are overcome with horrifying images such as skeletons and ghouls and even a withered crone. Can the knights escape this fiendish fellow?
The film may seem short by our standards, but at three minutes long it was a daring length for the time. I could equally speak about how the horror itself would have been creepy for the time, whilst for us it seems silly. Actually, probably by Victorian standards, the special effects were vastly different. You’ve got to think that the society of the time loved horror. Their stories were insanely sinister, their literature was bonkers, and their theatre was spooky. Much more than that, the Victorians’ favourite pastimes include taking photos of dead people and visiting psychics. I mean, these are the people who paraded through cemeteries, to the point where cemeteries were actually built to accommodate the walking. (Brompton Cemetery is a perfect example of this).
Anyway, I’ve veered off. It’s easy to say that the audiences of early cinema didn’t have such refined tastes, and whilst we may not have reviews from the time denoting how people received the film, it’s safe to assume that not many would’ve found it completely terrifying. The stringed bat, the people in sheets, and the crone make-up would’ve not likely spooked up a horrified reaction. Although one could argue that was the point of Méliès work – to evoke delight, instead of abject horror.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without merit. In fact, Méliès was a magician of a filmmaker and utilised many practical effects in order to show the magic of cinema. From jump cuts and cross fades, this is a joyful movie to watch and see all the technicalities of how it’s put together. With many different magical elements as they chase one another pantomime style, this is a wonderfully put together short.
The House Of The Devil was considered lost until the New Zealand Film Archive found it in 1988 – over one hundred years after it was first filmed. So to kick start your horror viewing this spooky season, why not head back a hundred years to see the first ever horror film?
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