Sunday, April 14, 2013

Trick Films and Fairy Tales

         What was the first “real” horror film ever made? Well the answer to that question, will depend on your definition of what a horror film is. The Execution of Mary Stuart, which depicts the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots was produced by American inventor Thomas Edison in 1895. Only 18 seconds in length, it is considered by some film historians to be the first horror film although it would be better defined as a “trick film”. A trick film is a short film that uses trick photography rather than plot as the driving force of the film. Trick films were quite common in the early years of film production. The Execution of Mary Stuart is the believed to be the first film in history to use trained actors as well as the first use of editing for the purpose of special effects. If you watch closely you can catch the cut where the actresses is replaced with the mannequin just before the executioner's ax goes down. 


            Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil also titled The Haunted Castle) a French film made by Georges Melies in France in 1896 is considered by some to be the first horror movie. Méliès an illusionist turned filmmaker is most noted for his film A Trip to the Moon (1902) which was based loosely on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. It is worth mentioning that  A Trip to the Moon is the first known science fiction film ever produced. Although crude by today's standardsit was quite impressive in its day. You can view A Trip to the Moon using the this link:

  Méliès is also credited  for being one of the first filmmakers to use, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, dissolves, and hand-painted color. 
            Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil) contains many of the elements that would later be used in other horror films which would include skeletons, ghosts, witches, and a large flying bat which flies into a medieval castle at the beginning of the movie. The bat changes into Mephistopheles (played by Georges Méliès) who then produces a colander and an assistant. Together the two then prepare a potion in a colander and from its bubbling contents a young beautiful woman emerges. They vanish from the room as to young cavaliers enter. The assistant taunts the two cavaliers by poking them in their backs with a pitchfork and then vanishing only to reappear in a different part of the room. One of the cavaliers flees and the other is bedazzled with vanishing furniture and a skeleton that suddenly appears out of thin air. As the cavalier attacks the skeleton with a sword the skeleton turns into a bat and then seconds later turns into the Mephistopheles. The Mephistopheles then conjures up four ghost who then surround and attack the lone cavalier. The cavalier manages to fight of the ghost the woman from the colander returns to the room the Mephistopheles turns the woman in to and old hag. The hag is then turned in to the four ghosts. The second cavalier returns and then suddenly retreats again. The ghost then disappears and the cavalier remove a crucifix from the wall and seeing the crucifix the Mephistopheles vanishes.  The film which was  just over 3 minutes in length is a short demonstration for Méliès genius and considered by some to be the first true horror film ever made.
Four Ghost attacking a cavlier in  Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil

The link to Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil):

It is important to note that when The Execution of Mary Stuart and Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil) were produced that motion pictures were considered more of a novelty than a vehicle for telling a narrative story. Longer films with narrative storylines would not appear into the early 1900s.
The French film, Esmeralda (1905) which was directed by Alice Guy-Blaché and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, could be considered to be the first true narrative horror film. Esmeralda, is a short film based on the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Released in 1906 it was only 10 min. in length, Esmeralda is the oldest known film adaptation of the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Very little is known about this film, sadly, no copies of the film are known to exist at this time.
 While there are many film historians do consider Esmeralda to be the first true horror narrative, it should be pointed out that there are those who do not consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be a horror story since it is void of any supernatural elements in the storyline, which is of course  a key ingredient used in most horror stories.  Of course the same can be said for Phantom of the Opera, which is also considered to be one of best horror films produced during the silent era.
Not only is Alice Guy credited with making the first horror narrative, she is also credited as being the world's first female director. While working as a secretary for Gaumont Chronophotographe she convinced the owner of the company, Leon Gaumont to let her try her hand at film production.  He agreed and as a result Guy, at the age of 21, made her directorial debut in 1896. Her film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) is believed to be the first narrative film in history. However this claim is hotly debate by film historians.  The controversy seems to stem from the date involve with the production. The Gaumont Film Company was formed in 1897 after Leon Gaumont had seen Guy’s La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)   that he decided to from the Gaumont Film Company. Since it was the La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) that motivated Gaumont to start his production company it stands to reason the film would predate the form of the company. What is unclear is just how much time there was between the production of La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) and the founding of Gaumont Film Company. There are historical documents that clearly prove that  the Gaumont Film Company was formed in 1897 however there is not any source to indicate exactly when  La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)   was finished. Also adding to the confusion is the fact the Guy reshoot La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1900. Until a dated copy is found or other dccumention clearly attesting to the dates the question of who produced the first narrative film will remain a mystery.

Link to La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) :

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