Georges Méliès and the Creation of the First Horror Film
It started with a bat.
And what a perfect opening image it was for the world’s first horror film. After all, the bat has been one of the most iconic images in movies for more than century thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Yet Le Manoir du Diable – also known as The Haunted Castle (U.S.), The Devil’s Castle (Britain) and House of the Devil – was made in 1896, the year before Stoker’s Dracula was published.
The film came from the fertile imagination of the film’s writer, 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 movie, but the first vampire film as well since the bat also transformed into a demon as it would in countless vampire films since.
And let’s go for the horror triumvirate by calling Méliès, the auteur best known for decades of whimsical fantasy films, the first horror film director. (There would be other “firsts” for Méliès, not the least of which was making the first sci-fi film, A Trip to the Moon in 1902.)
That’s a lot of accolades for a film that barely clocks in at 3 minutes, but had a starring role in film history.
This would not have been the case except for a simple twist of fate involving a jammed camera. To get to that tale, we must first know more about Georges Méliès. Here is the shortest biography you will ever read about him.
Méliès was born in Paris in 1861 and showed an interest in the arts, including puppetry, as a child. His father owned a footwear factory and Georges was expected to follow in the family business. Sent to London for an apprenticeship in textiles and to learn English, he found a city filled with magic shows and returned to Paris obsessed with them. He studied and experimented while working for his father. When his father retired in 1888, he sold his share of the business to his brothers to buy the famous house of illusion Thêatre Robert-Houdin, where he created his own magic shows. And he was excellent at it.
In less than a decade, however, a demonstration of the Lumière Brothers cinematograph (a camera and projector) in 1895 changed his life. Soon Méliès was taking the illusions he crafted for the stage and transforming them on screen, creating the “cinema spectacle” and becoming the father of special effects, thanks again to that jammed camera.
Here’s what happened.
Méliès was filming a street scene in Paris when his camera momentarily stuck. Later while editing the film, Méliès was surprised to see there was a shift in the location of objects including a Madeleine-Bastille bus that turned into a hearse with a family following behind. The accident would be known as the camera freeze, becoming the first cinematic special effect and one Méliès exhaustively used in creating his worlds of fantasy.
That’s what he did in Le Manoir du Diable as all sorts of people and props appeared and disappeared as he stopped and restarted the camera.
That flying bat in the opening seconds turns into a demon with dark powers before our eyes. He conjures a small assistant and a cauldron from which a woman rises in a billow of smoke. Two men arrive but one is driven off by fear, while the other stays and is taunted by demonic activity. A skeleton turns into bat then the demon. A beautiful woman becomes a hag, and specters and witches appear. Those effects are all packed in under 3 minutes – imagine what Méliès would have done with another minute!
Is our first horror film horrifying? Not to today’s audiences. But in 1896, movies were under 30 seconds long and showed real-life images like a train famously moving toward them in L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière Brothers. (Two of the earliest shorts by Méliès were called Playing Cards and Watering the Flowers for a very good reason.)
For those audiences, watching a “long,” 3-minute film with a demon making things appear and disappear would have been terrifying.
But it’s doubtful Méliès was looking to scare people. Judging by his decades of work on stage and film, you can see how he enchanted audiences with illusion and fantasy. In fact, these early Méliès films were considered horror comedies through their use of pantomime and gags (a man getting poked with a pitchfork in the rear will always get laugh). Yet the film carries imagery still familiar in horror films today like the shadow of a cross on a wall and what appear to be vampire brides in long white coverings stalking a man.
Méliès would make more than 500 films in his career that was unfortunately filled with as many lows as highs while the infant film industry was finding its way. In 1923 he became so despondent over what was happening to his films, that he burned most of the negatives stored at his studio in Montreuil, a suburb outside Paris. Thankfully, preservation efforts have uncovered about 200 films.
One of those was Le Manoir du Diable, which was discovered in 1988 at the New Zealand Film Archives. We owe the person who originally bought it in a junk shop around the 1930s or ‘40s in Christchurch, New Zealand a debt of gratitude for finding the world’s first horror film.
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To learn more about Méliès, his career and the search for his films, watch the excellent new documentary The Méliès Mystery, which recently had its U.S. premiere as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival.
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More from the horror master
Méliès churned out an incredible 81 shorts in 1896, the year he made
Le Manoir du Diable. Here are a few of his other “horror” works he filmed around the same time.
Une nuit terrible (A Terrible Night), 1896. A man (Méliès) fights a giant bug in his bed.
L’auberge ensorcelee (Bewitched Inn), 1897. A hotel guest (Méliès) is haunted by a mischievous spirit.
La Caverne maudite (The Cave of the Demons), 1898. Translated into the “accursed cave,” a woman stumbles into a cave with spirits of those who died there. This presumably lost film marked the first film Méliès used double exposure.
Le Diable Geant ou Le Miracle de la Madone (The Devil and the Statue), 1901. A young maiden attacked by the devil prays to a statue of the Madonna to save her while her love is trapped outside by barred windows.
Le Chaudron Infernal (The Infernal Cauldron), 1903. Satan sacrifices three young women into a fiery cauldron but when their spirits rise from the dead, they turn the tables on him.
Damnation of Faust. Méliès filmed multiple versions of the story of Faust including in 1903 and 1904, and impressively used such techniques as dissolves, pyrotechnics and superimposition.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.